By now, summer is in full swing and if you are growing any herbs, those plants are probably large and happy. Mine are so happy that I actually cannot use them fast enough and need to start thinking of ways to preserve them. Most of the time, when people talk about preserving herbs (drying, freezing, etc), this means the end of summer and you are trying to get the most out of those herb plants before a frost or temps drop. I prefer to start in mid-summer because this will help the plants that are overgrown continue to grow and not flower. It also can help avoid leaving all of the garden cleanup work until the end when ( let’s be realistic) I may not have the energy or time to preserve everything I would like.
Here are the best ways I’ve found to make those herbs last through fall, winter, and spring until you can start your garden over again. These techniques also work great if you have herbs growing indoors and need to cut back those happy plants. Or if you don’t plant at all and can never quite get through what you buy from the store before going bad, these will help you too! All of the options below will last at least 6 months if properly stored in clean, sterile containers.
Before I get into each technique, there are a few important prep steps that apply for all. Remove any dead, withering, or insect chewed up leaves. You won’t want to save them and it will be much easier to discard them now. Any flowering that may have occurred at the top of the plant should be removed as well. It won’t taste that great, so no need to save. Washing—this is extremely important as leaves get dirt on them when you are watering the plant. I love to use my salad spinner to give them a good rinse and spin, but washing in the sink and using paper towels to dry will work as well. Just be sure that the herbs are completely dry before moving on.
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Drying (Air vs Microwave vs Oven)
Drying herbs is one of the most basic techniques one can do to preserve herbs for an extended period of time and it’s been happening forever. Modern technology has put a slight spin on the process, but the premise is the same, to remove the water from the leaves. You can use pretty much any herb, from drying basil to thyme, rosemary, parsley, etc.
Air Drying Herbs
If you are air drying, which I prefer:
1. Tie the herbs in small bunches and place a paper bag over them to protect from dust and dirt while allowing air flow.
2. Hang them in a dry, warm location. I like to use hangers to tie the bunches to which makes it easy to place anywhere.
3. In 2-4 weeks, depending on the type of herb and location, you will have crunchy leaves.
4. Remove from the stems and store for later use.
Microwave Drying Herbs
Using the microwave greatly speeds up the process, but with any heat there is usually some deterioration of flavor due to loss of oils. As it’s pretty minimal I reserve this for when I have very large batches of herbs or lack of time.
1. Take the herbs and place them on a paper towel in a thin layer. If they’re large leaves like sage, you will want to remove them from the stems now.
2. Place another paper towel over the top of the herbs and set in the microwave.
3. Every microwave is different, so start with 1 min and continue to add 30 secs until the herbs are crisp and dry.
4. Remove from the stems, if not already, and store for later use (6 month to 1 year shelf life).
Using an oven to dry herbs takes a long time (around 4 hours) and has the most loss of flavor in my opinion, so I would not recommend it. I’m not a fan of using the oven that long in the summer anyhow, so since the results are not that stellar (and there are so many other great ways to preserve) I would suggest passing.
Freezing in Water
Any herbs can be frozen in water, but this works especially well for the more delicate ones, such as mint, tarragon, and basil.
1. Separate the leaves from the stems and chop up the leaves (discarding the stems).
2. Put them into ice cube trays or muffin tins. This is a great opportunity to measure out some of the more common sizes you use (i.e. 1 TB or 1/4 cup), so each is pre-portioned for later.
3. Add water to cover and then freeze.
4. Once almost frozen, go back and add a bit more water to fully cover the leaves that floated to the top, so they won’t get freezer burn.
5. After everything is completely frozen, remove from the trays/tins and put in plastic freezer bags (removing as much air as possible) for later use. Remember to label the bags.
Just thaw and use or add directly to your recipe, accounting for the extra water if you do the latter.
Freezing in Oil
This one is similar to freezing with water (with the same steps), but uses a good olive oil instead. It’s debatable whether you choose an extra virgin olive oil or just an olive oil, but I would suggest picking whichever you cook with as that’s the end goal. These work great when added to your pan for onions and garlic as a base for cooking, no thawing needed.
Compound butter is the fancy way of saying butter that has herbs, spices, or other edible foods (like garlic, onions, etc)mixed in. They are typically made up ahead of time, so that the butter can absorb the flavor of whatever has been added, making this a great preserving option.
1. Soften the butter to room temperature prior to adding any herbs.
2. Remove the stems and chop up the herbs until they are pretty fine.
3. Add to the butter and stir until everything is completely incorporated.
4. Lay a piece of plastic wrap on the counter and scoop the butter onto it forming one long roll. Be sure to leave enough plastic at the ends of the roll, so you can close up the ends.
5. When all of the butter is on the plastic, slowly roll the plastic up over the butter until it completely covers the roll and twist the ends shut.
6. Place in the freezer to harden and store.
You can also create cubes of butter in ice cube trays, but I tend to like the roll better. I can cut off as much or as little as needed and put the rest back in the freezer. A few great and simple recipes I like are chives butter for corn and garlic and parsley for garlic bread.
I typically make pesto with my basil and some parsley, but there are numerous herbs that will work wonderfully as a pesto. Any recipe will do, but I found a few tips for freezing and use later.
1. Add all ingredients of your pesto to a food processor (WITHOUT the cheese or nuts) and pulse until you get the consistency you like.
2. Place in a plastic freezer bag or food saver bag, my preference, and press until the pesto fills the bottom corners of the bag and is pretty flat.
3. Remove as much air as possible and seal.
4. Press the pesto into the rest of the corners and make sure it’s as flat as possible.
When ready to use, either leave it out to thaw or throw it in some warm water for a few minutes. Put it back in the food processor, adding the cheese and/or nuts and finish the pesto.
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The last technique for preserving herbs makes a wonderful addition to teas and other drinks. Simple syrup by itself is just sugar and water. Give it a boost with some herbs and it’s extra flavorful and aromatic, not to mention really easy to make. Mint and lemon verbena are my favorites, but there are numerous herbs that would work as well. You can freeze simple syrup for later in the year or use it now. It stays good in the fridge for 2 to 4 weeks depending on how sterile the container is.
1. Put equal parts sugar and water in a pot and heat until the sugar dissolves.
2. Meanwhile remove the stems from the herbs and chop up. You will need at least half of the amount of herbs as sugar/water. Example: If you use 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar, use at least 1/2 cup chopped herbs.
3. Once sugar is dissolved, remove from heat and add the herbs.
4. Let the mixture cool to room temp.
5. Strain out the herbs.
6. If you are freezing, I like to use either ice cube trays or plastic freezer bags (with a good seal!!). For the bags, leave some air at the top to allow for expansion and then lay flat in the freezer.
When ready to use, thaw and place in the fridge for another 2 to 4 weeks of life.
TIP: One last tip that applies for all techniques and is especially useful months down the road…label your bags, bottles, containers! You will not remember what is what and all of the herbs will start to look the same. Don’t want mint mistaken for oregano!
So there you have it…6 ways to make your herbs last throughout the year, so you can enjoy them much longer than just summertime. It’s also a great way to save some time and money at the grocery store and get the most life out of your plants (for you gardeners)!
What other ways do you use to preserve your herbs? Let me know in the comments.