In the Garden:
Paper bags are handy for keeping drying herbs free from dust, and for capturing the seeds from herbs like dill and fennel.
Preserving Herbs for Winter Meals
Our garden herbs hail from different regions of the world and they have different preferences for soil type and moisture. Basil, for instance, prefers soil on the moisture-retentive side, while rosemary needs sharp drainage. Similarly, there's no one method of preserving herbs, and if we want to get the best flavor -- even in the middle of winter -- we need to give each herb the treatment that will enhance its unique flavor. Sure, you can hang all your herbs upside down to dry, but some of them will lose so much flavor in the process that you'll be no better off than keeping jars of storebought herbs around for years (which we've all done, right?). So treat your fresh-picked herbs a little differently this year -- even preserve the same type of herb a couple of different ways. Then compare their flavor in January.
Harvesting Herbs for Their Leaves
An herb's flavor is most pronounced just before the plant begins to flower. You can prolong the harvest by snipping off the flower buds whenever they appear. The essential oils are concentrated in the leaves in early morning, before the sun causes them to be released into the air. Early morning is, therefore, the best time to harvest. Snip individual leaves or cut an entire shoot just above a leaf node (this will encourage dormant buds to grow at the nodes for a bushier plant).
Harvesting Herbs for their Seeds
Dill, fennel, and coriander are best harvested when the flower heads have faded and started to dry. Clip the flower heads and place them in paper bags, then shake the heads to dislodge the seeds. Store seeds in an airtight container.
Many herbs can be air dried by tying several stems together and hanging them in a cool, dark, dry location. Bay, marjoram, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, and thyme are good candidates for drying. If the area is dusty, keep the herbs in paper bags during the drying process. Parsley and thyme retain more of their color if they are dried in a 150-degree oven or in a dehydrator. When leaves are brittle, pull them off the stems and store in airtight jars in a cool, dark place. Don't crumble the leaves until you use them because they will lose flavor.
Dried herbs keep their flavor and color for about three months.
Some herbs keep their flavor best when frozen. These include basil, chives, chervil, dill, lemon balm, mints, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, French tarragon, thyme, and lemon verbena. Wash them thoroughly and shake or pat off the excess water. Place individual leaves or chopped leaves in freezer bags. Flatten the bags to remove air. Dill, sage, rosemary, and thyme also freeze well on the stalks, which you can add frozen to cooking pots and remove before serving.
You can also puree herbs with a small amount of water and freeze the paste in small, zippered freezer bags. Then break off frozen pieces as you need them. Combine herbs that are good culinary companions, such as sage and thyme, mix with a little olive oil, and seal the paste in freezer bags.
I grow lots of basil for making pesto and have found the easiest way to keep it handy over the winter is to freeze the pesto in ice cube trays and store the cubes in freezer bags. I thaw individual cubes as needed for mixing with hot pasta.
Use frozen herbs within one year.
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