Preserving Fresh Herbs
Photo: Getty Images/merc67
Some of us are lucky to live in a place where fresh herbs are plentiful pretty much year-round. Fresh herbs garnish dishes, brighten salads and add fresh flavor to practically anything they land on, from soups to stir-fries. They're also one of those foods that require you to buy a lot even if you only need a little. That is, unless it's summer and you have a bountiful backyard garden. If you do grow an herb garden, you can pick only as much as you need when you need it. But, at the end of the growing season: what to do with all these fresh herbs?
Fresh herbs can't live forever, but you can dry, freeze or preserve them in vinegar or oil to help keep them from the compost bin and carry their flavor long past their use-by date. Here, we'll show you how to make the most out of your fresh herbs.
How to Dry Fresh Herbs
Pictured Recipe: Crazy Herb Spice Mix
Almost any fresh herb is a good candidate for drying. You can use DIY dried herbs in place of any store-bought herbs, which can save you money in the long run. The only trick to remember here is to make sure the herbs are really, truly dry. If there is even a hint of moisture, they could get moldy in storage. Store in an airtight jar out of the light. If dried properly, dried herbs can last for a year or more.
With a Dehydrator
A dehydrator, like the Excalibur 9-tray Dehydrator, is the most efficient way to uniformly dry herbs and is a foolproof way of drying herbs without running the risk of burning them. Use a dehydrator if you have one and follow the manufacturer's instructions for drying herbs.
In the Oven
No dehydrator? No problem. You don't need any fancy equipment to dry fresh herbs.
Step 1: Wash your herbs in cool water and pat them dry as best you can or use a salad spinner to remove excess water. Place them flat on a baking sheet.
Step 2: Dry them on the coolest setting of your oven (200°F or less) for 2 to 4 hours, or until very dry and crumbly.
Step 3: Once cooled, remove any woody stems (ones you would find in rosemary or thyme, for example) from the leaves and store in a tightly-sealed container.
Air-Drying Fresh Herbs
This storage method is similar to how you would dry a bouquet of flowers. It's also the simplest method for preserving fresh herbs.
Step 1: To make bunches of herbs, gather several stems together at the base and wrap firmly with kitchen string or rubber band.
Step 2: Hang herbs in bunches from their stems in a dark place for 5 to 10 days, until they are brittle to the touch. To protect the herbs from dust while drying, enclose them in a paper bag with holes punched in it.
Step 3: Store in an airtight jar out of the light, then crumble to release their fragrance before use.
How to Freeze Fresh Herbs
If you let your herbs languish a bit too long in the crisper drawer but you still want to maximize their use, freezing is the way to go.
Step 1: Before you throw those herbs in the freezer, you need to blanch them. Blanching preserves the herb's bright green color. Without this step, frozen herbs turn an ugly brown or black. To blanch herbs, you'll dip them in boiling water briefly, then move the herbs to an ice water bath to stop the cooking process. Blot dry with paper towels.
Step 2: To freeze your herbs whole: spread a single layer of the blanched herbs on a wax or parchment paper-lined baking sheet, cover loosely with plastic and freeze until solid, about one hour.
Step 3: Transfer to plastic storage bags for longer storage. Blanched herbs can be chopped in their frozen state before being added to soups, stews and sauces.
You can also chop blanched herbs in food processor and freeze them in ice cube trays. Don't feel obligated to keep the herbs separated by type. If you've got herbs to spare, play around by mixing a few to make custom herb blends.
Either way, take some time to dry off any excess moisture from your herbs before freezing, to minimize freezer burn and ice buildup. Keep frozen herbs stored for up to 6 months (or longer if they're well sealed).
Unique Ideas for Saving Summer's Herbs
1. Decorate Your Table
Harvest your garden's herbs for a graceful centerpiece now and dried seasonings later. "The dramatic centerpiece is all about using the garden's bounty when you cut back your herbs in the fall," says Stefani Bittner, landscape designer and co-author of Harvest: Unexpected Projects Using 47 Extraordinary Garden Plants. Gather herbs with twine, then wrap the bundles with 28-gauge floral paddle wire to string them together. After a few days, hang the garland to finish drying.
2. Make Your Own Drying Rack
Slide curtain rings with clips over a sturdy branch for a rustic look or a metal bar for something modern. Tie a leather cord or twine on each end to hang in a cool, dry place. Clip small bundles of herbs upside down to dry for one to two weeks. Then store dried herbs in airtight containers or keep the rack up and just break the leaves off as you cook, recommends Bittner.
3. Make Custom Salt Mixes
Start with a 2-to-1 ratio of fresh herbs to salt. Pulse the herbs with half of the salt in a food processor until the herbs are finely ground. Add the remaining salt; pulse just until well blended. Spread the mixture on parchment paper and allow to air-dry for 4 days. (It may be a bit lumpy, but after the herbs cure in the salt, it can be broken up by hand.) Store in an airtight container for up to a year. Use as a meat or veggie rub or as a marinade base. Here are some delicious combos to try:
- Rosemary + sage + savory
- Chives + parsley + chervil
- Marjoram + basil + oregano
4. Make Herb-Infused Vinegars
Flavored vinegars make a great gift or housewarming present, and homemade herb-infused vinegars are easy to make. You can use any vinegar, but lighter vinegars, such as white-wine vinegar, champagne vinegar or white vinegar, tend to showcase the flavors better. Here's how you make herb-infused vinegars:
Step 1: Wash three pint-size (2-cup) heatproof glass canning jars (or similar containers) and their lids with hot soapy water. Rinse well with hot water. Fill a large, deep pot (such as a water bath canner) about half full with water. Place the jars upright into the pot; add enough additional water to cover by 2 inches. Bring the water to a boil; boil the jars for 10 minutes. Add the lids to the pot, and then remove the pot from the heat. Let the jars and lids stay in the hot water as you prepare the flavoring and vinegar. (Keeping the jars warm minimizes breakage when filling with hot liquid.)
Step 2: Thoroughly rinse herbs with water. Remove the jars from the water bath with a jar lifter or tongs. Divide the herb sprigs among the jars. (You'll need about nine sprigs per jar.) Heat vinegar in a large saucepan to a simmer (at least 190°F). Carefully divide the vinegar among the prepared jars, leaving at least 1/4 inch of space between the top of the jar and the vinegar. Remove the lids from the water bath, dry with a clean towel, and screw tightly onto the jars.
Step 3: Store the jars in a cool, dark place, undisturbed, for three to four weeks. Strain the vinegar through cheesecloth into another container. Repeat as needed until all the sediment is removed and the vinegar is clear. Discard all solids, and pour the strained vinegar back into rinsed jars, or divide among sterilized decorative bottles. Decorate with a few well-rinsed herb sprigs, if desired. Refrigerate the vinegar, tightly covered, for up to 1 year.
How to Use Dried or Frozen Herbs in Place of Fresh Herbs in Recipes
Pictured Recipe: Chickpea Pasta with Lemony-Parsley Pesto
Dried or frozen herbs allow you to save money and use herbs year-round. While fresh herbs have a flavor that's more delicate, dried herbs are much more potent. If you're using a recipe that calls for fresh herbs, but you're using dried instead, cut the amount back by a third. You can always add more if you want more flavor, but it's not easy to cut back once the herbs are in the dish.
You can also create herb flavor "bombs" by freezing dried herbs or fresh herbs like cilantro, dill or fresh basil in ice cube trays with a tablespoon of oil, melted butter or broth. The frozen herb-oil cubes make great additions to soup, sauces and dips. Those can make any home cook feel like a master chef.
Some original reporting by Lindsey M. Roberts.
Related: How to Turn Any Herb into Pesto