Our herb garden is doing quite nicely and I have taken this as my inspiration for this week’s recipes. I’ll be focussing on herbs and their uses all week.
Harvesting and Preserving Herbs
Herbs should be harvested in the morning once the dew is gone. To ensure the best flavour, it’s best to harvest before the plants have flowered. You want to trim or pinch off just above the leaf node and should never take any more than 1/3 of the plant at a time. Harvesting should be done on a regular basis in order to promote new growth. Herbs such as tarragon, mint, and basil hit their peak in the summer while ones such as rosemary, lavender, lemon verbena, and thyme peak in the fall.
Once you have harvested the herbs, you should rinse them gently in cool water to remove any dirt present. If you’re planning to use them fresh, it’s preferable to leave them attached to their stems until time to use. Wrap them in a damp paper towel and then put down into a Ziploc bag. If you plan to dry the herbs, after rinsing, get rid of the excess moisture by using a salad spinner or draining on towels. Drying the herbs preserves them for long term use, holding onto their essential oils and concentrating their flavour.
Denis Defreyne, Flickr
There are several methods that can be used in drying herbs:
1) Air drying: Tie the herbs together in small bunches and hang upside down in a warm, dry, well ventilated room. Or, place the herbs on something like window-screening or trays covered with cheese cloth so that air will circulate under them. Place the screens/trays in a sunny spot or on top of the fridge where the heat will encourage drying.
2) Oven drying: Use a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Set your oven to around 200 to 225 degrees F (go with whichever is the lower setting on your oven) – once your oven has come up to temperature, turn it off and put the tray of herbs inside. Leave them there until dry – usually about 4 hours. If after that time, they don’t crumble easily, repeat this procedure.
3) Microwave drying: Put the herbs in between some paper towels. Microwave on high for 2-3 minutes. Check on them and continue to microwave for 30 second intervals as needed to reach the crumbly stage.
Brian Forbes, Flickr
4) Dehydrator: Follow manufacturer’s instructions.
5) Refrigerator drying: If you have a frost free fridge, you can use this for drying herbs as well as it will dehumidify. Put in a bowl or on a plate uncovered and give a little stir once a day. This method can take several weeks.
6) Freezing: Spread out the herbs on a baking sheet and freeze them until stiff. Store in Ziploc bags or airtight containers. Herbs that freeze the best include basil, chives, cilantro, dill, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, savoury, tarragon, and thyme. Another way of freezing herbs is to chop the herbs up very finely, put a few teaspoons of herbs in each section of an ice cube tray, and them pour water over them to make “herbal ice cubes”. Once frozen, the herbal ice cubes can be stored in Ziploc bags. Frozen herbs will keep for about 6 months.
For methods other than hanging the herbs in bunches to air dry, with large leafed herbs like basil or sage, you should dry them as individual leaves. For smaller leaves like rosemary or thyme, it’s best to keep them on “sprigs” as small clusters and then you can strip them off when ready to use. For herbs like chives, cut them into 1/4-1/2 inch pieces before drying. I recently read a blog post in which they said to crumble the herbs once dry and put into jars but except in testing for appropriate dryness, you don’t want to crumble the herbs until it’s time to use them as you will release and lose their essential oils.