Sunday

Preserving Herbs - What You Need to Know Now


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.

Drying Herbs

I'm a big advocate of drying herbs and even some vegetables like sliced tomatoes and zucchini. Drying is a space saver, and a dehydrator, oven or warm spot on your patio does most of the hard work. The result is often less appealing than fresh, though. There are exceptions: Bay leaf is actually better after a little aging, and rosemary, oregano, thyme and sage are nearly as good dried as they are fresh. On the other hand, cilantro, ginger and others don't dry particularly well. What's the solution? Choose preservation methods that will complement specific crops. With a little planning, this is easier to do than it sounds. There is more information about drying at the bottom of this post.

Freezing Herbs

 I 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.

Herb Infusions 


You can extract the essential properties of an herb, like flavor and healthful benefits, by infusing it in a liquid like oil 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.

Recipe Storage


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 Herbs

This 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 Possibilities

There 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 Yet 

You'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.

Storage

Store 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 Control

To 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.

Crafting

Another 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


Photos:

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

Saturday

Harvesting Fresh Herbs- What You Need to Know Today

Harvesting is one of the most enjoyable aspects of keeping herbs. It's the big payoff -- that may arrive in your backyard sooner than you think.  Some herbs, like cilantro and dill, tend to bolt when the weather gets warm, so they are usually harvested early, and others, like basil, are considered sweeter when harvested before the plant blooms.  Harvesting herb bounty can be work, and often requires a little planning. For many herbs, you don't have to wait until September to start harvesting a crop. If you're after leaves, you can harvest as you go.  Here are some tips that will help turn an afternoon in the garden into a gift that keeps on giving:

How much can you harvest - For most herbs, harvest about a quarter to a third of the plant at a time after a specimen reaches about eight inches tall. Allow the plant to grow back at least that much before harvesting again. This is a good option if you use fresh herbs in cooking or don't want to have a marathon weekend this fall trying to dry bushels and bushels of plants all at once. Even if you're after, say, leaves as well as seeds from a particular herb, you can grow one specimen for leaves, pinching blossoms during early summer and harvesting for as long as you can. A second plant of the same variety can be grown for seed and allowed to mature naturally.

Avoid harvesting using plastic bags - Grocery bags are bad for the environment and bad for herb harvesting, too. Heat and lack of air flow can cause herbs to wilt prematurely -- or in extreme cases, steam inside the bag. This can happen pretty quickly if you leave a plastic bag filled with herbs in a sunny spot while you, say, decide to run indoors for a minute -- or five.

Choose the best herbs. Discard bruised or predated (bug chomped) leaves whenever possible. It's also a good idea to check the literature on each herb you'll be harvesting to determine the best time and method of collection.  Remove any dead or unsightly leaves now. It will save you time and hassles later.

Check the undersides of leaves for the presence of eggs or pests and discard any problem leaves you find. The undersides of leaves can be a common hiding place for bugs and egg caches.

Prefer harvesting in the morning - Herbs are considered more flavorful before the hot sun hits them but after most of the dew has dried. This may have something to do with the distribution of oils in the plant. I have to say I usually try to harvest right after breakfast, but even if I don't make the deadline, I forge ahead and hope for the best -- can't say I've noticed anything wrong with that approach. Just keep in mind that earlier is probably better.

Don't harvest too many herbs, or too much of one herb, at any one time. It's easy to overdo the harvesting and end up with more fresh cut herbs than you can process or use. Most batches take a while to clean -- and a few hours if you're going to go ahead and dry them. Using a dehydrator, I usually figure eight hours per batch just to be on the safe side. That's four to six hours for drying and a couple of hours for cooling, packaging and labeling.  This varies from herb to herb so use restraint until you know what types of volumes work best for you.

Wash and dry herbs carefully - There may be pests on the herbs you harvest, and getting rid of them can be a challenge.  Heat often works: Use a dehydrator or place herbs in a slightly opened paper bag in a warm area of your garden on a dry day. This will encourage most bugs to skedaddle. You can also wash herbs multiple times in a brisk stream of very cold water, submerging leaves and stems for a number of minutes after washing. This will drown lingering pests and hopefully they'll depart down the drain with the water. Dry herbs in a salad spinner or shake them and place them on paper towels to dry. Less water after washing means a faster drying time.

Sort now - With most herbs, you'll want the leaves or blossoms or seeds. It's usually easier to take the plants apart sooner rather than later. That means stripping the leaves from the stems and/or isolating the blooms for drying. I usually harvest any seeds after drying by breaking up the dried flowers.

If you're into grilling, herb stems can be useful, so don't pitch them. You can use stiff, chubby stems as kabob skewers. Rosemary is a favorite for this and works well with pork and lamb. If stems are too frail to use as skewers, make small bunches of them secured with cotton twine. They're great to throw into the coals to add herb infused smokiness to chicken, steak or pork. Some fun options include: sage, thyme, oregano, marjoram and lavender.

Short term storage - You can keep cut herbs fresher longer by placing their stems in a glass of cold water in your fridge. This can extend their useful life from three days to around five or six. If they get droopy, cut a half inch off the stem ends and replace the water.

Photo:
By Deror avi (Own work) [Attribution, CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2c/FM_IMG_2015.JPG
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFM_IMG_2015.JPG