How to Preserve Herbs

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Home preserved herbs beat store bought herbs, hands down, zero room for argument, period. At least, if you preserve them right. Unfortunately, the preservation of herbs is often overlooked in homesteading and home making circles. But fortunately, preserving herbs is easily done and can be accomplished quite a number of ways.

First: When to Harvest Herbs

For superior results, you need to start by harvesting herbs at the right time. The general advice is to pick herb leaves (like rosemary and oregano) before the plant flowers, or the resulting dried herbs may taste "off," bitter, or less tasty. Nevertheless, I personally cannot tell the difference between the herbs I preserve before flowering and herbs I preserve while flowering. (However, if I'm preserving herbs for medicine, I always harvest before the plant flowers, to better maintain the medicinal properties of the herb.) Since flowering herbs are beautiful in the garden and a great boon to pollinators, I suggest you try preserving your herbs both ways and see if it makes a difference to your palate.

When preserving herb flowers (like chamomile and lavender), wait to harvest until the flowers are fully open. Be careful not to wait too long, though, since flowers that are beginning to brown or die off are less flavorful and medicinal.

When preserving herb seeds (like coriander or dill), wait until the seed pods just begin to brown.

When preserving herb roots (like dandelion), harvest in the early fall, when the roots are at their peak of nutrition and flavor.

The best time of day to harvest herbs is in the morning, after the dew evaporates and before the sun gets high. (Dew makes drying the herbs more difficult and may affect their flavor; warm sun releases the herb's oils into the air, making the plant less flavorful and medicinal.) 

Contrary to popular advice, I harvest herbs before and during flowering.

How to Harvest Herbs 

A common mistake is not harvesting herbs frequently. Gardeners tend to want their plants to grow big before they cut anything off them, but the truth is, trimming herbs only encourages them to grow more vigorously. So harvest often, trimming perennials back to half their height; annuals may be pruned back even further. Cut just above a double set of leaves, ensuring new leaf growth will soon appear.

Annuals may be harvested right up until they die from frost, while perennials are best left to rest after August - except perhaps in areas with very mild winters.

Do NOT wash the herbs you're harvesting. Damp herbs tend to mold - and flavor may be affected, too. Dampness can also affect preservation. For instance, if you try to dry wet herbs in a dehydrator, you may end up steam cooking them instead. If you're worried about insects lingering on the plants, leave the harvested herbs on your porch (in the shade) for a half hour or so to give insects time to wander off.

How to Air Dry Herbs

Air drying herbs. Courtesy of Marco Verch.

The most time-honored way to preserve herbs is to air dry them. Traditionally, this means tying some herb stems together and leaving the bundles in a dry, dark location with good ventilation. This location should not be anywhere people or animals will bump into the herbs, since this can cause leaves and flowers to drop off, or prematurely release oils from the plants, resulting in a less potent end product. If you don't have a dark location that's suitable for herb drying, tie paper lunch bags (with lots of holes punched in them for ventilation) over your hanging herbs. 

The ideal temperature for air drying herbs is about 68 degrees F. with low humidity. Herbs should be completely dry and crisp after 2 or 3 weeks. 

Thick or succulent herbs, like basil and aloe, do not air dry well. On the other hand, herbs harvested for their seeds (like coriander and dill) are ideal for hang drying; place paper bags over the pods of these herbs to ensure the capture of drying seeds.

How to Dehydrate Herbs the Modern Way

Drying yarrow in an electric dehydrator.

A good electric dehydrator (like this one) allow you to dry herbs at 95 degrees F., which helps retain color, flavor, and medicinal properties better than air drying. Electric dehydrating is also much faster than air drying, and more hands-off than some other methods, too.

For herbs with big leaves like basil and dandelion, place said leaves on the dehydrator's trays, sans stems. Place herbs with lots of small leaves, like oregano or thyme, on trays without removing them from their stems. To prevent long drying times, which can result in a lower quality finished product, keep herbs in a single layer.

No one - I repeat no one - can tell you how long it will take to dehydrate any particular herb. There are simply too many variables at play, including the variety of herb, the "ripeness" or age of the herb, and the atmospheric conditions in your home. For best results, check herbs every few hours to see how they are doing, and rotate the dehydrator trays once or twice a day. (Most herbs will be completely dry in a day or less.)

When leaves, flowers, or stems are completely dry and crispy, and no moisture comes from them when you tear them apart, allow the herbs to cool to the touch. Store dried herbs in a glass jar with an airtight lid. If you've dried the herbs with their stems on, the fastest, easiest way to remove the leaves for storage is to close two fingers around the end of the stem and run them downward, pushing off the leaves. A bowl or rimmed baking sheet works best for catching these leaves. For some herbs, this method seems to work best if you start at the bottom of the stem; for others, it's best to start at the top. Experiment and see what works best for you.

Other Ways to Dry Herbs 

Microwaving sage.

Believe it or not, it's also possible to dry herbs in the oven or microwave. The oven is my least favorite method because temperatures are too hot, which results in cooking the herbs and removing more of their potency than other methods. Still, if you don't have the right conditions for air drying and don't have an electric dehydrator, this is a decent method that's still likely to give you herbs that are better than what you buy at the grocery store. 

If your oven has a warming drawer, use it for drying herbs. Otherwise, use your oven on its lowest setting. Crack the door open, if possible. Place the herbs in a single layer on a wire cooling rack placed atop a rimmed baking sheet. For best results, keep the temperature as close to 95 degrees F. as possible. Thicker herbs, such as sage and rosemary tend to do well in the oven. 

Using a microwave to dry herbs is not as good as using a temperature controlled dehydrator, but it's nearly as good. The downside is you can only dry a few herbs at a time, and they require your constant supervision. Still, when you have just a handful of herbs you want to dry quickly, microwave drying can come in handy. 

However, I can't state strongly enough how important it is to closely watch herbs that are in the microwave; it's easy to overheat the herbs, which not only results in burnt plants, but could potentially start a fire in the microwave. Also keep in mind that every microwave is a little different, temperature-wise. Proceed at your own risk.

To microwave herbs, place leaves or flowers in a single layer on a paper towel. Place another paper towel on top of the herbs. Turn the microwave to high for about 2 minutes. (For delicate or thin herbs, heat for 1 minute.) Check the herbs. Heat in 20-second intervals until leaves or flowers are completely dry, with no sign of moisture when you tear them apart.

A Few Herbs That Are Good for Drying 

Basil, bay leaf, celery leaf, chamomile, coriander, dill seed and weed, chervil, fennel, lavender, lemon balm, lovage, marjoram, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, savory, tarragon, and thyme all dehydrate quite well.

How to Store Dried Herbs 

Do not crush herbs at the time of storage, even if you want to use them that way eventually. Crushing or cutting releases the oils in the herbs and makes them less potent. Instead, store the leaves or flowers whole and chop or crush immediately before using. Store dried herbs in a cool, dark location and they will last at least one year. After one year has passed, use the smell test to see if your herbs are still worth using. First, smell the herb in the storage jar. If there's not much scent, take one leaf or flower and crush it. If it has little or no scent, it's best to compost the herb, rather than use it, since it will have little flavor or medicinal properties if it lacks scent.

How to Freeze Herbs

Freezing sage.

There's no doubt about it, freezing is quick and easy, and frozen herbs are more like fresh than almost any other preservation method. The downside is that freezers can fill up pretty quickly - and of course, you can loose everything you've preserved if the power goes out.

I sometimes just throw my herbs into a freezer bag and pop them in the freezer, worrying later about breaking them into clumps that are suitable for cooking. (Pounding the frozen bag onto the counter usually gives me an acceptable amount clump of herbs to use in cooking.) You may also lay herbs in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet, place them in the freezer, and transfer them to freezer-safe containers when they are frozen solid. This prevents the herbs from sticking together in a large clump. 

Sturdy herbs, like rosemary and sage, may be left on the stem. When you're ready to use them, it's easy to pluck off just what you need at that moment. 

One interesting way to freeze herbs is to make individual bouquet garni - little bundles of herb stems tied together, which are used to flavor soup, stock, and stews. To make these classic cooking bundles, choose culinary herbs. (A traditional French blend that works well for most recipes is rosemary, thyme, bay leaf, and parsley.) Choosing one or two stems of each herb, make a small bundle - about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick max at the cut end. Tie the cut ends of the bundle together with kitchen string and place on a rimmed baking sheet to freeze. When you've tied together multiple bundles and all of them are frozen through, transfer them to a freezer bag. To use, remove one bundle from the bag and place directly into your cooking liquid. Remove the bundle before serving the dish. 

Compared to other herbs, basil is a little trickier to freeze. You must use olive oil as a base, or basil will turn black upon freezing. Chop the leaves (or run them through a food processor), then stir (or pulse) in a drizzle of olive oil until the leaves are thoroughly coated. Don't over-do it, though; you want only a light coating of oil on the leaves. Now you may transfer the mixture to a freezer-safe container. A handy trick is to spoon the basil-olive oil mixture into ice cube trays and freeze until solid. Then you may pop the basil-cubes out of the tray and transfer to freezer bags. 

You may also use this frozen olive oil method for other herbs. Usually, you'll want to just chop the herbs, rather than puree them. You may also chop herbs, spoon them into ice cube trays, and pour a wee bit of water over them. 

To use frozen herbs, there's no need to defrost. Just pop them into the pot or skillet in their frozen state.

A Few Herbs That Are Good for Freezing 

Basil, borage, chervil, cilantro, chives, dandelion leaves and flowers, dill weed, lemon balm, lemongrass, lemon verbena, lovage, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, savory, sorrel, sweet cicely, sweet marjoram, sweet woodruff, tarragon, and thyme all freeze well. In fact, freezing is the way I recommend preserving cilantro, which looses a lot of flavor when preserved other ways.

How to Preserve Herbs in Salt

Preserving herbs in salt.

Not so long ago, salting was the main way to preserve food. Perhaps we moderns have dismissed salting due to the misconception that foods preserved in salt must taste salty when you eat them. (Who wants super-salty cilantro? No thanks!) But when you use this method of preservation, your herbs will not taste like salt. 

To preserve herbs with salt, you will need a wide-mouthed glass jar with an airtight lid, and any form of non-ionized salt you prefer. (I use fine sea salt.) A quart jar will require at least 1 lb. of salt. 

Pour about 1/4 inch of salt into the bottom of the jar. Next, place a single layer of fresh herbs over the salt. Don't allow the leaves to touch. Repeat the layers until you are out of herbs, being sure the last layer is salt. Store the jar in the refrigerator or a cold cellar. The herbs should stay fresh for about 6 months in the fridge. 

To use salted herbs, simply remove what you need from the jar and brush off the salt. The herbs will look and taste fresh - not at all salty. You may also reuse the salt. Often it won't taste like the herb you stored in it, but if it does take on herbal flavor, simply use that to your advantage when cooking. 

A Few Herbs That Are Good for Salting 

Basil, celery leaf, cilantro, chives, dill leaf, lemon balm, parsley, and rosemary work especially well for this salting method.

How to Make Herb Salts 

Rosemary salt.

A more common method of preserving herbs is to create culinary herbal salts. For this method, you may either use dried herbs (which are better for longer-term storage in a cool, dark location) or fresh herbs (which must be kept refrigerated). You'll also need non-iodized salt.

Chop fresh herbs (or crumbled dried herbs), then measure. For herbal salts, a general guideline is to use a 4 to 1 ratio (that is, 4 parts herb, 1 part salt.) So if you measure out 4 tablespoons of herb, you'll need 1 tablespoon of salt. Add the appropriate amount of salt, stirring until the mixture is well combined. Of course, you may play around with the ratios as you see fit.

How to Freeze Dry Herbs

If you have a home freeze dryer (only Harvest Right makes them for consumers; you can learn more here and here), you can easily preserve herbs with little effort on your part. Simply place herbs on the trays of the freeze dryer, adjust the shelf temperature to between 75-100 degrees F., and let the machine do it's thing! (Most home freeze dryer users recommend 75 degrees F. for the best end product.) Store home freeze dried herbs in a glass jar with an air tight lid and an oxygen absorber. 

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