In spring, the first questions readers ask are about how to plant herbs in the garden or cultivate seeds and seedlings. After those carefully pampered herbs are up and growing, the next group questions involve methods of preservation. It's a process. It doesn't take too many seasons growing herbs and vegetables to realize it's either feast or famine in the garden. Those lush cilantro or dill stems bolt quickly when the warm weather sets in. Flower production can spell the end of leaf development in some plants, and if leaves are what you're after, hustle outside to harvest while you can. You can delay that a bit by pinching back blossoms. You can also stagger plantings, but it's inevitable that heat, cold or dry weather will put a wrench into your ongoing harvesting strategies sooner or later.
Whether you're after leaves, flowers or fruits, a day will probably come when you're standing with an overflowing bag or basket from the garden wondering how the heck you'll make use of all that produce before it becomes compost fodder. The trick to making the most of your herb gardening efforts is in finding creative ways to preserve fresh herbs and vegetables so you can use them in some form or another come late fall and winter. Let's take a look at a few of these strategies to see what's worth the time and storage space.
Freezing HerbsI don't love the idea of freezing herbs, but it's better than going without. Some, like cilantro, work pretty well and can be frozen a couple of ways: Prep herbs for freezing by washing and drying them, removing the stems and then placing them in freezer bags from which you can vent as much air as possible. This allows you to store bags flat or on end and saves a lot of space. If you don’t' have a vacuum sealer, use a straw (and your lips, of course) to extract air from the bag. A zipper storage bag works well for this. It's a fast and cheap cheat.
The second method is to make a slurry (water and chopped herb mixture) and freeze it in ice cube trays. Once frozen, the cubes can be removed from the trays and stored in freezer bags or plastic containers. This is actually pretty nice if you make a lot of sauces, soups and stews over the winter. Just pop a cube's worth of parsley into your minestrone a half hour before serving time and your set. I use a 50/50 mixture of herbs to water -- which works well.
I've also frozen the herbs in broth, like canned beef broth, or vegetable juice. I make soups and pasta sauce all the time in winter, so it's worth the extra effort. For this, I blend herbs I know I'll use together. An example is oregano, thyme, parsley and rosemary, which I use in pasta sauce. The problem with herbed ice cubes is that they take up quite a bit of room, so you have to be dedicated to this method of using herbs in cooking. Frozen herbs don't stay fresh tasting forever, either. Four to six months is about it for them. If you freeze a batch in September, though, it should take you through the holidays. Another challenge is getting the proportions right for your recipes. That 50/50 proportion rule is helpful, but otherwise, it's mostly trial and error. One way you can make absolutely sure you have the right amount of a frozen herb is to defrost, drain and measure before adding a frozen herb to your recipe. Use proportions as you would for fresh. I usually wing it. It works.
You can extract the essential properties of an herb, like flavor and healthful benefits, by infusing it in a liquid like oil, alcohol or vinegar. It's a traditional way to preserve the best features of an herb for future use. Infusions can enhance your crafting, home remedies or cooking efforts. Candle making, potpourri, flavored sugars, flavored vinegars, ointments and other projects come to mind.
You can go the "whole hog" route, too. Instead of just freezing your herbs and vegetables, take a weekend to make complete dishes and freeze or can them. This is pretty efficient and labor saving, especially if your family enjoys the same dishes over and over again. You can make a big batch of salsa, spaghetti sauce, stew or chili, use your herbs and veggies, and can or freeze the mega-recipe for winter use.
This is actually one of the reasons I got into canning. If you visit the USDA's home canning site, they have hundreds of safe canning recipes. There is quite a bit of latitude for adding herbs to canning recipes without altering their chemical makeup, too. It's a win, win -- and canning is pretty addictive once you get started. It has been growing in popularity, so give it a try.
If you elect to freeze your recipes instead of canning them, freezer bags have come a long way in the last few years, so your efforts won't be wasted.
Salting HerbsThis one isn't very common these days. Still, you can create herb flavored salts from most of the herbs you grow in the garden, and even create herb blends. The proportions are typically a cup of sea salt to a half cup of fresh herbs. Place both ingredients in a blender and pulse until you achieve a powdery texture. Spread the somewhat damp mixture on a cookie sheet and place it in a 200 degree Fahrenheit oven for a couple of hours (or until completely dry). Stir once or twice during drying. The result will be clumpy, so blend it again to smooth it out.
Using sea salt adds a lot to the mixture. Ocean salts contain a freight of minerals that really do enhance flavor. You can add spices to the mixture, and even include citrus zest like orange, lime or lemon, or other herbs like ginger or horseradish. Place the prepared flavored salt recipe in an air tight container. It should last three to six months. I have done this with a mixture of rosemary and orange (the zest of 2 oranges) and it was a big help. I've used it to season the interiors of whole roasting chickens and to create a dry rubs for pork tenderloin. Yum.
Drying Herbs - The PossibilitiesThere are a number of ways to dry herbs effectively:
Dehydrator - I like using a dehydrator because it's an easy method that always works. Layer herbs on dehydrator trays and let the low heat do the rest. With some dehydrators, you may need to rotate or turn trays for more even drying, and it's always a good idea to check progress every few hours to avoid unintentional scorching.
Oven - You can also dry herbs on cookie sheets in your oven. This is best with a gas stove where you can just crack the door and let the low heat from the pilot light do the honors. If you have an electric stove, use the warm or lowest setting and leave the door partially open. When drying wet herbs like, say catnip, turn them once or twice during drying.
Attic - You can go old school and dry herbs in an attic or warm room. Tie them in small bunches and hang them upside down in a dark location where there's plenty of air flow. I like using rubber bands because they shrink to hold the bundle as the herbs lose moisture. That means fewer herbs littering the floor.
Paper bags - Another option is to dry herbs in large paper bags in the garden on a hot, dry day. Remove the bottoms of the bags to create a kind of shaded tunnel. Good air flow is important. Place loose bunches of herbs in the bags and check them for doneness every few hours. If you use the paper bag or attic method, that could translate to a couple of days drying time if not longer. When drying large batches, try breaking them into smaller bunches to discourage the growth of mildew.
Hot Car - A more modern take on this classic theme is to dry herbs in the backseat of a hot automobile. I've actually tried this, and it works surprisingly well. I don't know who came up with the idea originally, but it's a keeper.
Is It Done YetYou'll know your herbs or dry when they are stiff enough to shatter when some pressure is applied to the stems. You don't want to burn the leaves, but when in doubt about doneness, dryer is better. It's sad to open a tin of rose petals or sage leaves only to discover they're moldy because of too much trapped moisture.
StorageStore herbs in air tight, dark containers. (After drying, sunlight and moisture are enemies of herb preservation.) It's also a good idea to keep them in dark locations that are somewhat cool. This is precautionary.
Herbs will last from six months to 2 years depending on the variety and how effectively they've been dried. This is true of commercially prepared herbs, too.
Moisture ControlTo help hedge your bets moisture wise, you can add dried rice to the bottom of the herb container to absorb any ambient moisture. Those little desiccant packets that come with some products will work too -- just don't eat what's inside. Other homemade desiccants include powdered milk and kitty litter (non-scented and non-clumping). Reserve the kitty litter for non-edible herbs you may be preserving, like eucalyptus for flea control or bay leaf to deter grain weevils.
CraftingAnother option is to make craft projects from fresh herbs which dry naturally as the project "cures." Herb wreaths, swags, lavender wands and other herb related crafts use lots of ingredients and make nice gifts. Making them in batches always feels like a job well done, too.These posts will get you started:
How to Make an Herb Wreath - Part 1
How to Make an Herb Wreath - Putting it all Together
How to Make a Lavender Wand
1 - By Alexander Baxevanis (Flickr: Spices & Herbs) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/85/Spices_%26_Herbs_at_Mercado_dos_Lavradores%2C_Funchal_-_Nov_2010.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASpices_%26_Herbs_at_Mercado_dos_Lavradores%2C_Funchal_-_Nov_2010.jpg
2 - By Zak Greant from Vancouver, Canada (Spices, seasoning, herbs and vegetables) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/55/Spices%2C_seasonings%2C_herbs_and_vegetables.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASpices%2C_seasonings%2C_herbs_and_vegetables.jpg