Homegrown herbs are a terrific way to punch up the flavors you create in your kitchen. Whether basil, oregano, chives or cilantro, homegrown herbs are best used fresh, but when fresh isn’t possible, preserved herbs will substitute in almost every recipe. Preserving homegrown herbs isn’t difficult if you know how to do it right. Here are five techniques for preserving fresh herbs so you can enjoy their flavor all winter.
1. Air Drying
Probably the easiest way of preserving homegrown herbs, air drying requires very little effort and doesn’t take up much room. There’s also no special equipment required. Though not all herbs dry well, many do. Try oregano, tarragon, parsley, thyme, rosemary and sweet marjoram.
To air dry herbs, simply harvest the foliage at its peak, just before the plants come into flower, and tie bundles of five to 10 stems together at their base. I use rubber bands for this task, but jute twine or twist ties would work well, too. Then, hang the bundles of herbs in a dry, well-ventilated room. Try to hang them so each bundle receives good air circulation around its entire circumference, and keep the herbs out of direct sunlight. Most fresh herbs dry in three to four weeks. You’ll know they’re fully dry when the leaves crumble off the stems easily.
Once dry, place the bundles in a brown paper grocery bag and carefully strip the leaves from the stems. Crumble the leaves to your desired size and discard the stems. Like I said, air drying herbs is the easiest way of preserving homegrown herbs.
2. Using A Dehydrator
I find that herbs dried in a dehydrator have a slightly more intense flavor than those dried via air drying. I believe that because the drying process takes place in a matter of hours, rather than a matter of weeks, the flavorful oils in the leaves retain a little more of their integrity. If you have a food dehydrator, drying herbs is easy. Simply pluck all the leaves off of the harvested herbs and spread them out in a single layer on the food trays. Put the trays in the dehydrator and dry the leaves for one to three hours. If you’re drying an herb with thick leaves (or if you’re including the stems), it might take a bit longer. Again, you’ll know the herbs are dry when they crumble between your fingers. This is my preferred technique for drying mint, lemon balm, lemon verbena, cinnamon basil and many other tea herbs.
3. Oven Drying
If you don’t have a dehydrator but you’re interested in preserving homegrown herbs in a quick fashion, oven drying might be for you. Spread fresh cut herb leaves in a single layer on parchment-lined cookie sheets and put them into an oven preheated to 170 degrees. To improve air circulation while your herbs are drying, leave the oven door ajar. When oven-drying, most herbs are done one to four hours later, again depending on how thick the leaves are and whether stems are included. Begin checking the herbs one hour after putting the trays into the oven and continue to check for doneness every half hour to keep them from being overdried. Look again for leaves that easily crumble when rubbed between your thumb and forefinger. I love to dry bay leaves, sage and pineapple sage this way.
4. Microwave Drying
Drying herbs in the microwave takes even less time than the oven or dehydrator. This technique, however, doesn’t work with all herbs. I find it works well for mint and oregano, but in my experience, it doesn’t work well for chives, dill or basil.
To dry herbs in a microwave, pluck the leaves from the stems and spread them in a single layer on a paper towel. Put the paper towel on a plate and cover the leaves with a second paper towel. Microwave on high for about 20 to 30 seconds. The paper towel will grow moist while the herbs will grow more dry. If the leaves aren’t crispy when you pull them out of the microwave, put them in for another 20 seconds and check them again. Keep repeating until the herbs are dry. I usually flip the leaves over once or twice during the process to ensure they dry evenly.
When it comes to preserving homegrown herbs, some types taste better from the freezer than they do when dried. For example, I much prefer frozen parsley to dried parsley. The same goes for chives, dill and cilantro. Though the leaves develop a dark color in the freezer, the intense herb flavor is more preserved when freezing certain herbs.
To freeze fresh herbs, rinse the harvested herbs with cool water and then pat them dry with a paper towel. Once dry, pack them into labeled zipper-top plastic bags and pack them into the freezer. They’re best when used within three to six months of freezing, but I’ve used them up to a year later and they’ve been fine. And, remember, you don’t have to use the whole bag at once; simply open the bag, crack off as many leaves as you need, and then reseal the bag and stick it back into the freezer. I know many folks who also freeze fresh herbs in ice cube trays filled with water in hopes of retaining the bright green color of the leaves.
As you can see, preserving homegrown herbs is a simple and fun process that enables you to enjoy their delicious flavor for months after harvest. Experiment with different preservation techniques on each of the herbs you grow to find which ones work the best for you.