The Herbal Harvest

I'm not much of a gardener, but herbs seem to grow themselves so they are a perfect fit for me.  Naturally, I dry some to replenish the herbs in my spice cabinet.  But with an abundance of herbs at my fingertips, I also wanted a way to retain the fresh flavor for use in the winter.  To preserve my herbal harvest, I begin by washing the herbs thoroughly, remove any blemished or dead leaves and then place them on towels to air dry.  Once they have drained and are dry to the touch I use one of the following methods for preservation.


Drying Herbs

Thyme
Gather herbs into small bundles and remove leaves from the base where the bundle will be tied.  Small bundles are preferred so that air can circulate freely and moisture is not trapped inside.  Use small elastic bands to hold the bundle together. I use the small clear bands found in the haircare aisle in grocery and drugstores. The herbs will shrink as they dry and the bands shrink to fit, keeping the bundle together.  These can be hung in the attic (don't forget about them) or used as a decorative element in your kitchen.  When displaying the herbs as a decorative feature, cover the bands with rustic twine or pretty ribbon.  I use a decorative wall rack in the kitchen but also have a wooden drying rack in the attic that I use for larger quantities.  The herbs are ready to store in the desired vessels when they are brittle and crumble easily. When dry, strip the leaves from the stems and store in tight-sealing containers. Discard the stems. To extract the most flavor from the herbs, keep the leaves as whole as possible for storage and crush them only when you are ready to use them.  I do not use the drying method for dill or chives as they tend to lose their color and become an unappealing dead-brown.

Preserving Herbs in Oil

This method allows the herbs to retain their fresh flavor with the least amount of change, but requires adequate freezer storage space.  

Purple Sage
Even though I store these mixtures in the freezer, I opt to use oil rather than water as the carrier because the herbs flavor is in the plant's oil.  Oil and water don't mix so by using oil as the carrier, it is infused with flavor from the herbs as well.  It can be thawed and strained for use in a salad dressing while you use the herbs for another dish.

After the herbs are washed and the surface moisture has evaporated, remove leaves from the stems and place in the blender.  Herbs with tender stems such as basil can go in the blender together, but you may want to roughly chop the stems.  Turn the blender on and add oil so that there is enough liquid for free movement.  Blend to the desired size.  Then fill jars or ice cube trays with the mixture.  I use jars and then just use a knife to chisel out what I need for a given use.  You can portion the mixture using ice cube trays if preferred.  Freeze and then pop out the cubes and store in freezer bags.

Do not, under any circumstance, store the fresh herbs in oil at room temperature or even in the refrigerator.  To do so will put them at risk for developing botulism.

As an alternative, you can use the same procedure to freeze herbs in water, but be sure to use ice cube trays to portion the mixture.  The herb cubes can be dropped frozen into soups or stews but would need to be thawed for some uses such as mixing into a recipe.

Pesto Possibilities

Sweet Basil
The third method I use for preserving my herbal harvest is to create a variety of pestos. Following is my basic pesto recipe.

RB Basic Pesto
  • 2 ½ c. basil leaves, packed (not tightly)
  • 3 medium garlic cloves
  • ¾ c. olive oil
  • ½ c pine nuts
  • ¼ t. nutmeg
  • 1 t. lemon juice
  • ¾ c grated parmesan
Combine all ingredients in a blender except the parmesan.  Puree until smooth and then add the parmesan.  Blend to incorporate.
Freeze in jars or ice cube trays as described above.

You might wonder "what can I possibly do with jar upon jar of pesto?"  My response is "what can't you do with pesto?"  Watch for my posts entitled "Pesto Possibilities" for recipe ideas.

Rebecca's Sage Pesto
Pesto Possibilities I Sage Pesto Chicken with Wine Sauce
Pesto Possibilities II Pesto Encrusted Fish Fillets

2 comments

  1. Great info - if you didn't want to grow multi herbs, which ones would be used most frequently? I use a lot of basil and parsley but there are so many varities I become overwhelmed.

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  2. Tops on my list would be basil, sage and thyme. I use basil more than any other herb. Sage is good for use with chicken, beef and pork. Thyme has a more delicate flavor that pairs well with seafood and veggies.

    If you want to expand your familiarity with the wide variety of herbs available why not start with parsley, since you mentioned you use that often, along with the others that I mentioned above and then add an "adventure" herb. The adventure herb is one that you are completely unfamiliar with, the more exotic, the better. I grew some Thai basil this year just because I've never had it before. Turns out, it has a very nice flavor. One year I grew nasturtiums solely because they are edible. I did the obvious and used them on salads but wanted to use them in more ways because they grew so well. I made a nasturtium blossom pesto and a nasturtium leaf pesto. Both were pretty tasty. The blossom pesto had a bright, clean flavor and beautiful color. The leaf pesto had a bold flavor that mellowed a bit when cooked with food. I used the parts of the nasturtium separately due to color. The blossoms were red, orange and yellow while the leaves, of course were green. To have blended them would have resulted in a muddy unappetizing color. I'm glad the colors kept me from tossing them in together because the resulting pestos had distinctively different flavors.

    When you preserve your herbs you will often have more than you will use in a year, so you don't have to grow the same thing every year. To keep your frozen herbs longer without the risk of them picking up off flavors, seal the cubes or jars in vacuum bags using a food vacuum sealer.

    I hope this answered your question without being too much information. It seems my passion for herbs is showing.

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