Saving herbal flavor of summer
Saving herbal flavor is as much a part of your herb gardening as growing fresh herbs each spring and summer.
The bite of fresh oregano on a pizza or crisp tang of fresh mint in iced tea adds to the pleasure of herbs during the growing season. But what to do as autumn arrives and the garden is put to bed? If you have fresh herbs in your garden, plan to save some until they return fresh next year.
Drying can be done by several methods and freezing works for herbs to be used in cooking. For all herbs to be preserved you should:
- pick herbs in the morning before the sun is hot and evaporates some of the flavorful oils.
- remove any soiled or imperfect stems and leaves.
- gently wash in cool running water.
- lightly shake to remove excess water.
- pat dry with paper towels.
There are several ways to dry herbs but here is my favorite especially for small batches of herbs. Use your frost-free refrigerator. This method results in good quality and keeps the bright color of the herbs. See the illustration.
- Remove the leaves from stems and place on a section of paper towel.
- Fold the towel to cover the herbs on all sides.
- Secure the towel with tape.
- Write the name of the herb on the tape.
- Place in the crisper section or on a high shelf in the refrigerator.
Do not put it in a plastic bag or container. The paper towel will absorb moisture as it evaporates from the herbs and the refrigerator will evaporate it from the towel. After two weeks check for dryness. If needed, leave it for a few more days.
Herbs may be air dried in small bunches by stripping leaves from the bottom 2” of the stem. Secure the stems with a rubber band as the stems will shrink during drying. Hang the bunches in a well ventilated, low dust, dark area. Each bunch should be labeled.
Storing dried herbs
When the drying process seems to be complete, place leaves in sealed glass jars and store where it is warm. At the end of a week, look for moisture condensation on the inside. If there, remove and spread out the contents for further drying. Herb leaves are dry when they become brittle and crumble into powder when rubbed between the hands.
Store herbs in airtight preferably brown glass bottles in as cool a place as possible, out of direct sunlight. By using airtight containers, the herbs will retain their essential oils and flavors up to one year. Use ½ the amount of dried herbs as fresh ones.
In the case of thick, succulent leaves, such basil, rapid drying in a warm oven, dehydrator (https://www.amazon.com/Herb-Sampler-Second-Carol-Kagan/dp/1482067463), or solar dryer may be the only method of retaining color and oils.
Frozen herbs will become limp when thawed and best used in cooking or in beverages. Use the same amount of frozen herbs as fresh ones. Here are choices for freezing herbs.
- Spread the clean, dry herbs on a tray and freeze. Pack frozen ones in airtight bags.
- Put sprigs with stems or leaves in freezer wrap or airtight container.
- For use in cooking such as stews, soups or sauces, dice the herbs and pack into ice cube trays (https://www.dollartree.com/the-home-store-stacking-ice-cube-trays-2ct-packs/163093). Fill spaces with water. When frozen, put the individual cubes in airtight containers.
Options for freezing herbs
- Place a few sprigs or leaves in freezer wrap or in an airtight freezer container.
- Spread on a tray or cookie sheet and place in the freezer. When frozen solid, pack into airtight containers.
- To use in soups or stew, dice washed herbs and pack into ice cube trays. (Dollar store) Fill the spaces with water. When frozen, pop out cubes and store in airtight containers.
Carol Kagan is a master gardener and author who has been active in herbal organizations for over 35 years. She has designed and maintained herb gardens and provided docent services at historic properties. She is the author of Herb Sampler. The book is a great resource for beginners who love herbs but aren’t quite sure how to get started; or have been unsuccessful in establishing a herb garden.