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Harvesting And Preserving Herbs

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Harvesting And Preserving Herbs

When planning to preserve herbs, which method should you choose? Many herbs when dried have concentrated flavor that is delightful to use. Some home-dried herbs are so aromatic that they perfume the entire kitchen when you open the jar and crush them in a dish. Others are wonderful for fragrant potpourri that will fill the house with the smell of springtime.

 

Certain herbs, on the other hand, such as chervil, cilantro, and lemon balm, lose much of their aroma when dried. Dried sage loses much of its sweetness and becomes harsher flavored. Fleshy-leaved herbs dried in humid weather without a dehydrator may mildew and become worthless. This is why some herb enthusiasts say that freezing is the best way to preserve herbs – it conserves the delicate essential oils that are lost when herbs are heated. Freezing captures harvest-fresh flavor but usually sacrifices texture. Basil, for instance, turns black and mushy; it’s not particularly pleasant to handle but still flavorful. So use it and other frozen herbs in cooked dishes or purees where the limp texture won’t be offensive. Handle the herbs while they’re frozen, and they’ll still feel firm. Or blend fresh herbs with oil into a concentrated herb paste.

Here’s a quick checklist of good ways to preserve the herbs you are growing:

  • Drying works well for basil, dill, fennel, lovage, mint, oregano, parsley, hot peppers, rosemary, sage, savory, scented geraniums, tarragon, and thyme.
  • Freezing works well with basil, chervil, chives, cilantro, dill, lemon balm, parsley, hot peppers, sorrel, sweet cicely, and tarragon.

Harvesting And Preserving Herbs

From Sleeping With A Sunflower: A Treasury Of Old-Time Gardening Lore by Louise Riotte (©1987 by Storey Communications, Inc.; published by Garden Way Publishing).

September is an excellent month to cut and preserve herbs intended for winter use in seasoning various dishes. They are best when dried fresh and lose their quality as they age. Herbs can also provide creative, tasteful alternatives to salt for those on a salt-free diet. Others may be trying to reduce and salt often causes water retention. So do yourself a flavor – through the skillful use of herbs and spices, imaginative flavors can be created and simple foods made into gourmet delights.

Herbs and spices differ only in that herbs tend to be plants grown in temperate areas while spices grow in tropical regions. Many people prefer to grow their own herbs, just as their grandmothers did, so they will have a fresh supply throughout the growing season, thereby assuring top quality. Professional cooks prefer fresh herbs, if available. But fresh herbs are less concentrated, and two to three times as much should be used if a recipe calls for dried herbs.

If growing herbs for drying, the harvesting should be done in the morning after the dew has evaporated but before the sun is very bright. The essential oils in herbs will evaporate into the atmosphere during the day, so it is important to collect them when their flavor is at its peak. Cut only the amount to be used in one day.

The herbs should be dried in bunches or laid on screens in a warm, dark, well-ventilated spot. An attic is ideal, although closets or dry basements will suffice. The temperature should not be over 90 degrees. If it’s too hot, the herbs will cook. The length of time required for drying will vary according to the thickness of the plant parts.

Herbs should be stored away from direct sunlight to prevent bleaching. Be sure they’re well labeled. Most dried herbs will keep for at least one year in glass or plastic containers, but eventually they lose most of their potency and should be discarded. Certain herbs, such as chives, parsley, French tarragon, mint, basil, lovage and sorrel, keep well in the freezer. Put them into individual plastic bags or small plastic jars and freeze them.

Herbs are wonderful for so many purposes – you can cook with them or landscape with them. Use them to control bugs in the garden or for medicinal purposes – even for home crafts.

 

Salting Herbs

From The Herb Gardener: A Guide for All Seasons by Susan McClure (©1996 by Susan McClure; published by Garden Way Publishing).

You can dry herbs in salt and use the flavored salt to season your foods. Salt draws moisture from herbs and at the same time absorbs some of their essential oils. It works best with thin-leaved herbs such as savory, rosemary, marjoram, dill, tarragon, and thyme, but it can be satisfactory with most large-leaved herbs such as basil if you use fewer leaves and more salt. Here is how you dry herbs in salt.

 

Harvest the herbs you want to use, either a single type or a blend of complementary herbs. Wash them and dry them well with a thick towel. Then remove any thick stems or inedible parts. Chop the herbs up finely if you intend to use the salt and herb blend directly for seasoning. Now take a container of noniodized or kosher salt and an airtight container such as a canning jar or freezer container. Put a 1/4-inch layer of salt in the bottom. Then sprinkle on a thin layer of herbs. Cover the herbs with another layer of salt, and continue in this manner until you have used up all your herbs or reached the top of the container. Cover the top layer of herbs completely with salt and seal the jar.

In about a week, the herbs will be dry. You can pull out individual sprigs and crumble them into dishes as they are. Or you can brush off the extra salt before you use them. If you want to use the herbed salt to sprinkle on a variety of foods, blend the herbs together with the salt thoroughly. Then pour into a smaller, airtight container that you can keep on your kitchen counter or dining room table.

 

How to Freeze Herbs

Some herbs such as chervil, cilantro, and lemon balm lose much of their aroma when dried. Dried sage loses much of its sweetness and becomes harsher flavored. Fleshy-leaved herbs dried in humid weather without a dehydrator may mildew and become worthless.

This is why some herb enthusiasts say that freezing is the best way to preserve herbs — it conserves the delicate essential oils that are lost when herbs are heated. Freezing captures harvest-fresh flavor but usually sacrifices texture. Basil, for instance, turns black and mushy; it’s not particularly pleasant to handle but still flavorful. So use it and other frozen herbs in cooked dishes or purees where the limp texture won’t be offensive. Handle the herbs while they’re frozen, and they’ll still feel firm. Or blend fresh herbs with oil into a concentrated herb paste.

Freeze herbs whole.

To freeze herbs whole, wash and pat them dry. Then pack them in freezer bags in a mass. To use, slice off a chunk, chop it up, and drop it in your spaghetti sauce or casserole.

Freeze individual leaves or stems.

Lay individual leaves or stems on a cookie sheet to freeze individually and then pack in a freezer container. You can pull out a leaf at a time as you need it.

Mince herbs and freeze them in water in an ice cube tray.

They are ready to drop into soups or stews with no further fuss.

Make herbs into paste to freeze.

This is an excellent way to freeze herbs and is highly recommended by Madelene Hill. Puree them or chop them with oil, somewhat like pesto but without the extra garlic, cheese, and nuts. The flavor blends into the oil, and the oil becomes a barrier that protects the herbs from freezing, thawing, or drying out in freezer conditions, thus preserving their fresh flavor and color. This is an especially good way to use an herb such as dill that is only in the garden for a short time. Freezing it in a paste gives you fresh dill flavor year-round.

Use your food processor to make a concentrated paste of herbs without a lot of oil. You can use a blender if it is powerful and you add more oil and stir more frequently. Use H cup vegetable oil to 2 cups hard-packed leaves. Some people prefer olive oil, but it is expensive and you might not want olive oil flavor in every dish you make. Canola and other vegetable oils are much less expensive.

Pack the paste into airtight, freezer-safe containers, label, date them, and freeze them immediately to avoid the risk of botulism. (Refrigeration isn’t good enough to be safe.) You can use the paste like dried herbs; it ends up with a flavor about three times as strong as fresh herbs. And, it’s super convenient. The oils don’t freeze solid, so you can just cut off what you need with a paring knife.

For other preserving ideas, consider Pestos and Herb Sugars, Herb Vinegars, Herb Salts, Herb Cheese and Butters, and Culinary Mixes (later in this chapter).

How to Dry Herbs

From The Herb Gardener: A Guide for All Seasons by Susan McClure (©1996 by Susan McClure; published by Garden Way Publishing).

To dry thin-leaved herbs such as thyme and rosemary, make bundles of 3 to 5 sprigs, tie them together with a twist tie, and hang them in a warm, airy, dry, and dark location. (Keep them out of the traffic areas.) If you live in an area with high humidity, dry herbs in an air-conditioned room. If you need extra warmth for good drying, put them in a gas oven with a pilot light. They should dry to feel crisp in a couple days.

For large-leaved herbs you can’t get to dry well by hanging (as in the humid dog-days of August), buy a dehydrator. Any dehydrator will work as long as it has a low setting (90°-95°F) for herbs. You can put sprigs or individual leaves in the dehydrator. The leaves will dry faster when stripped off the stem, but sprigs are easier to handle. When dried, the crispy leaves snap right off when you run your fingers down the stem. Most herbs will dry overnight in a dehydrator.

When the herbs are dry, put them in the oven at 120°F for a few minutes to make the herbs as crackly as corn flakes. Strip the leaves off the woody stems. If you’re sure they’re completely dry, you can store the whole leaves, which helps preserve essential oils. But I’ve had a lot of problems with mildew on herbs stored this way. So I now process them into flakes in a blender or food processor. I add a cup or two of leaves and pulse them in the blender until they become large flakes. Then I seal them in an airtight jar. I like to add a small packet of white rice, wrapped up in cloth or paper, to suck up any excess humidity. You can store the jars in a cool, dark cupboard, but I like to keep the jars in the refrigerator, which helps preserve quality longer.

To dry roots such as orris root, horseradish, and lovage, slice them thin and put them in a dehydrator or warm oven to dry until they are hard. Store in an airtight jar.

To dry seeds, hang the mature plants upside-down over newspaper or cloth in a warm, dry location. When the seeds fall, they’re easy to scoop up. You also can dry herb seeds in a dehydrator on low heat. But if the seeds are small, cover the drying trays with cheesecloth so the seeds won’t fall through. When dry, you may need to separate the seeds from the rest of the plant. Put the dried material on one side of a cookie sheet that has elevated edges. Crush the plant debris with a coffee cup or your hands. Then elevate the tray slightly so the seeds will slide down, separate from the chaff. Once they are separated, put the seeds in the freezer for 48 hours to kill any pests that may be inside. Then seal them in an airtight jar and store in a cool, dry location.

To dry flowers for potpourri or herb wreaths, place individual flowers or sprigs in the dehydrator. Grower Marty Sickinger likes to dry flowers upright in a vase with a little bit of water. Let the water evaporate slowly, while the plants maintain their open shape. This works especially well with black-eyed Susans and daffodils, which would dry closed up if you hung them upside-down. Experiment with different flowers. Some dry well upside-down, and some dry best spread out on a screen. Develop the method that works best for you.

One way to gather dill seed is to hang the plant upside-down and wrap a paper bag around it to collect the seed as it dries and falls off.

 

Drying the Harvest – Tips From An Expert

From The Pleasure of Herbs: A Month-by-Month Guide to Growing, Using, and Enjoying Herbs by Phyllis V. Shaudys (©1986 by Storey Communications, Inc.; published by Garden Way Publishing).

Microwave oven. Place one layer of plant materials between two paper towels, setting timer for 2 or 3 minutes. Give additional 30-second shots as necessary. Jot down for future reference how much drying time was needed for each variety.

Conventional Oven. Set temperature no higher than 100° and heat materials on a baking sheet until crisp. (My old oven goes no lower than 150°, so I keep oven door ajar. _ PVS)

Food Dehydrator. Set temperature between 95° and 100°.

Gas Oven with constant-burn pilot light. Dispel any moisture in the oven by leaving the door open while heating at the lowest temperature setting that will keep the flame burning. After 2 or 3 minutes, turn off oven, place baking sheet of materials in, close oven door and forget it until you have to heat the oven for cooking. Then you’d better remember that they’re in there!

Dehydrating Oast. The oast (drying oven) that my husband built into our former broom closet is my favorite place for drying my harvests. It’s 14″ high, 14″ wide, and 26″ deep. Shallow ledges along the sides of its front will suspend three flower presses (also made by him) with room for a fourth to rest on the floor of the oast. In a corner at the back, he anchored a ceramic base for a light bulb. A 60-watt bulb heats the top front of the oast to an ideal 110°, the lower front to 95°. Hardware cloth (an aluminum mesh available from hardware stores) is used for ‘shelves’ when I dry roses in their whole form. Miniature roses are placed upright on the mesh; larger types are hung head down, their stems pushed through the mesh and secured with small binder clips from the stationer’s. Atop the flower presses and/or the hardware cloth shelves, styrofoam trays (from packaged meats) filled with materials can rest.

Storage. Place each type/color of blossoms in a separate glass jar with a screw top, so you can see what you have of what when it comes time to mix a recipe. During the first week after drying the materials, check every few days to be sure they’re still crisp. If not, it’s back to Square One, the drying tray!

Tip. Spread a white towel on your working surface on which to dump the day’s haul of plants to dry or press. That makes it easy to spot the creepy crawlers and UFO’s that came along for a free ride. You can use the corner of the towel to help the destroyer types along on their journey to That Great Bug Heaven In The Sky; but be a sport and free the praying mantis, ladybug, or any other carnivore that was tending the garden for you.

Speaking of Bugs. Once in awhile a tiny beetle will escape your attention and will manage to survive the heat of the drying process. You may not even notice the little dude in the mixing and aging process. Then when you’ve capped the glass container and stand admiring your beautiful creation, up he jumps! Not to worry. Don’t empty the container. Leave the jar capped and stick it in the freezer for a couple of days. End of problem. (Altho you should check contents for any moisture from the freezer and re-heat if necessary. PVS)

 

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