It’s no secret that I love herbs. My 30 year fascination with these plants probably stemmed from the fact that they were my first gardening success. At one time, when I had a very sunny yard, I had a pretty large area dedicated to an herb garden. I even found these great pewter plant markers for my precious herbs. I spent a lot of time researching how to use the herbs I planted and finding new recipes in which to use them.
Fast forward to today when I have a more limited amount of time to tend to my gardens, I’ve reduced the number of herbs I grow to a few favorites that I know I will use in cooking. I grow them in window boxes for easy care and access. In case you missed it you can learn about my 8 favorite herbs to grow in this article. If you’re new to herb gardening, I recommend that you start with these as they are very easy to grow, especially if you are growing them in containers.
If you’re like me, when fall rolls around and frost is on the horizon, you hate to just throw the plants away. So what’s a gardener to do with all of this beautiful herb foliage? Happily there are lots of ways to preserve your herbs for use during the cold of winter.
General Tips for Preserving Herbs
- Harvest herbs in mid-morning when the dew has dried and before the sun has evaporated the essential oils
- Harvest herbs for drying just before the first flowers open. Flowering herbs can tend to be bitter
- Use scissors or micro-pruners to harvest the herbs just above a set of leaves. Leave about 4-6” of stem so that the herbs can continue to grow
- Rinse herbs in water and pat dry.
If you have the space, drying herbs is a great option. This works great for herbs like oregano, sage, rosemary, parsley and thyme. Simply harvest small bundles and tie with a rubber band. Hang them in a dry area with good ventilation. Do not dry them in the sunlight as this will diminish the flavor.
For more tender herbs like basil and mint that have a higher moisture content can mold is you are not careful. Tie in small bunches and place in a paper bag with a few holes. Hang them upside down where air currents can pass through the holes in the bag and the paper bag will catch any falling leaves or seeds.
For all of the above, when the leaves are dry you can put the whole stems in air tight containers and store in a cool dark place. Crush only the amount you need when you are ready to use them. You can also remove the leaves from the stem and crush before storing to save time when cooking. Dried herbs are 3-4 times stronger than fresh so be sure to only use 1/4 to 1/3 of the amount in the recipe if the recipe is calling for fresh herbs.
Another way to dry your herbs is to use a dehydrator shortening the drying time to only a few hours. Check your dehydrator manual for instructions on how to do this including drying temperature and times.
You can freeze more herbs but there a few that choose to preserve this way rather than drying. They are basil, mint, dill and chives.
For the chives, simply chop the stems. For other herbs remove the herbs from the stems and chop. Fill ice cube trays ½ full of water. Add the herbs and push them down into the water as far as possible. When the cubes are frozen solid add more water to top off the cube. Return to the freezer until frozen solid. Then pop the cubes out of the trays and store in freezer bags. Label and date each bag.
You can then add these cubes in soups, stews, etc. You use these in the same amounts as fresh herbs.
You can also freeze herbs in oil. Use a neutral flavored oil like canola oil and mix 1/3 to 1/3 cup of oil to 2 cups of chopped herbs. This mixture can be frozen in ice cube trays and then stored in bags as above or in small glass jars. You can also freeze this mixture by placing a thin layer in a freezer bag with 1/2 “ of open space. Squeeze out the excess air before sealing completely and then lay the bag flat on a cooking sheet and place in the freezer until frozen solid. Cut or break off what you need when you are ready to cook.
Please note: Oil should only be added to herbs if it will be frozen. Do not store herbs in oil at room temperature.
Another great way to store fresh herbs is to make herbal butters. This works particularly well for herbs like chives, parsley, cilantro and tarragon. Wash, dry and chop your fresh herbs. Then mix the chopped herbs with room temperature butter. This mixture can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days. For longer storage roll the herb butter into a log in waxed paper and then place inside of a plastic freezer bag. Label and date the bag and be sure to use within 4-6 months.
Another great way to preserve the flavor of your herbs is to create vinegar extracts. The flavor of the herbs is extracted into the vinegar adds flavoring to soups and sauces as well as salad dressings. Since the vinegars themselves have their own flavors, you experiment which vinegars you use with which herbs to create your extracts. Whatever vinegar you choose be sure that the acidity is at least 5%.
As with all other preservation methods be sure the thorough was and dry your herbs. Leaving water on the herbs can dilute the vinegar and cause bacterial growth in your extract. You can use fresh or dried herbs but don’t use frozen as they will have a higher water content.
If you are using fresh herbs, use a ratio of 2:1 vinegar to herbs. If you are using dried herbs, just a few tablespoons of the herbs per pint jar should be enough. Because vinegar is acidic avoid metal tools and plastic storage containers for this process. Glass jars work best. Sterilize them by submerging them and boiling then in water for 10 minutes.
Roughly chop your herbs and place in each glass container. Add the correct amount of vinegar to about ½ “ from the top. Cover the top of the jar with parchment paper and secure with a rubber band. Put in a cool dark place and allow to extract for 2-4 weeks. When the time is up, pour the vinegar through a fine mesh strainer and push on the herbs to release as much of the vinegar as possible from the plant material. A large glass measuring cup works well to strain your vinegar into. Next pour into small bottles, cork, label and date.
I hope all of these herbal preservation methods have given you a few good ideas on how to preserve your herbal harvest. Have you tried preserving herbs? What is your favorite way to preserve their wonderful flavors to use throughout the year?
Please comment below about your herbal preservation experiences - we'd love to hear from you!