As summer continues to fade into the background and Fall continues to step forward, our gardens are starting to fade as well. In order to get the best flavors for our recipes, I know a lot of us home cooks are also home gardeners. And this time of year we start thinking about two main things: (1) what to do with the herbs and vegetables we still have in our gardens so they don’t go to waste and (2) how can we store some of the great stuff in our gardens so we can have it over the winter.
I can’t exactly use this space to cover ALL the techniques for storing fruits, herbs, and veggies, so today I thought I’d zero in on one in particular…herbs. While you can’t perfectly preserve herbs so they are exactly like they just came from the garden, there are plenty of ways to preserve their flavors for use over the winter.
Freezing is certainly one of the best ways to preserve your herbs. As you probably know, it’s the essential oils in the herbs that give them their distinct flavors. Freezing is a really good way to preserve those oils. And it’s not very hard at all.
Start by rinsing them. Then remove the leaves from their stems and dry them on a flat tray. I like to lay paper towels on the tray or baking sheet and placing the leaves on top. Then freeze the entire tray (preferably overnight). The next day just gather the herbs, place them in a sealable container or a freezer bag and stash them in the freezer. Don’t forget to label the container! When you need them, you’ll be able to pick out whatever quantity of leaves you need. They’ll be good for months.
If you want to store your herbs for even longer, snip the leaves into small pieces, pack them into sections of an ice-cube tray, and fill each section about 3/4 with water. A good rule of thumb is about a tablespoon of herbs in each section. Freeze the tray(s) overnight and then top it off with water and refreeze it the next day. Then when it’s all frozen just pop out the sections, place the cubes into a freezer bag or a sealed container (again, label it!). Then when you need it, you can just drop a cube into your recipe and you’l have that great herb flavor. Using this method, you can also create herb blends by mixing herbs together if you want to.
My family’s all-time favorite (especially with sweet basil) is to make a pesto. There are tons of great pesto recipes out there. My favorite is to put about two cups basil leaves and 1/3 - 1/2 cup of pine nuts in the food processor and pulse it a few times. Then I add about three garlic cloves and 1/2 cup Romano cheese and pulse again. Then I scrape down the sides to get everything in the bottom of the food processor bowl. Then I run the food processor and drizzle olive oil over the mixture until it reaches the consistency I want. When it's done, I add a bit of salt and pepper. And that's it!
If you want to preserve the herbs with just oil, you certainly can do that too. Blending the herbs with olive oil works great. Just pulse the herbs in your food processor and drizzle in oil until a paste forms.
For storing, the pesto and/or the paste can be put into ice cube trays and frozen to create serving-sized portions to use later. But to be honest I often just put all the pesto in a plastic bag, lay it flat and freeze it. Then I just break off what I need.
Air drying is another simple way to preserve your favorite herbs. Most herbs can be dried successfully. Just know that some herbs are just more quick-drying than others. Lavender, marjoram, mint, oregano, rosemary, and sage are some of the best quick-drying herbs. To air-dry them, just harvest your herbs (stems and leaves), tie the stems together in bunches of 10-12 stems, and hang them in a cool, well-ventilated room. Avoid light. Check them periodically (this could take 1-2 weeks). When the leaves are dry, remove the leaves from their stems and store in an airtight jar. Use them within a few months for the best flavor.
As for slower drying herbs (like basil, dill, parsley, and thyme), they dry best if you separate the leaves from the stalks and lay them on cookie sheets or screens. They are best dried in an oven (at less than 150°F) or in a dehydrator if you have one. Stir them often as they dry. When they are dry, store them in airtight glass jars in a cool, dry place.
Use dried herbs within three months or so for the best flavor.
While freezing, pesto, and drying are the most popular methods for preserving herbs, there are a few others to mention that cooks often overlook. Here's a look at a few:
This is another easy, satisfying way to use those end-of-season (or, ok, even during the growing season) herbs. One thing to remember is that vinegar is acidic and can eat into metal lids over time. If you can find bottles with corks/cork stoppers they would be a good choice. Making a simple flavored vinegar is so easy. Just fill the bottle with your favorite, good-quality vinegar and fresh or dried herbs and let it infuse.
A good rule of thumb is to use maybe three to four sprigs of herbs per cup of vinegar. Experiment with white vinegar (which tends to work better with more gently flavored herbs), cider vinegar, and wine vinegar (which can stand up to stronger, more robustly favored herbs). But you should experiment and try different combinations and amounts to find what you like.
One of my favorite methods for preserving herbs is to infuse them in olive oil. These are great as salad dressings, for drizzling on pasta, or even for dipping breads. Gently bruise your herbs before putting them in the oil helps release their oils and flavor. Then give the oil about 1-2 weeks to fully infuse the herbs’ flavors into it.
A word of caution is important here. Make sure you thoroughly dry the herbs (and other ingredients) before infusing them into your oil. Moisture can be a breeding ground for bacteria. So make sure there’s NO moisture - especially on fresh herbs or if you are adding other ingredients like garlic, peppers, etc. which can have a higher moisture level. Be safe, not sorry.
Another often-overlooked use for those late-season herbs is to use them to make herb butters. It’s also an easy method. Once the herbs are infused into the butter it can easily be frozen and used as needed. To make an herb butter, use minced herbs and mash them into softened butter. The ratio is usually about two parts butter to one part herbs. The best way to store herbed butter is to form it into a log once the herbs and butter have been merged. Then freeze the log. You can cut off slices over the fall and winter as you need them.
So if you're like me and your summer garden is starting to fade with the cooler temps, you need to think of creative ways to use what's still out there - and to store it up for winter use. Herbs are often the garden plants I have the most left of at the end of the season, so I focus a lot on how to preserve all those great leaves I worked hard to cultivate all summer long. I thought you might have the same issues and would appreciate some tips on how to make the most of what's still lingering in your garden. Give one or more of these a try soon - and you'll have great herb flavors throughout the winter. Next thing you know, it will be planting time for next summer!
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