One of the great things about herbs is that you do not have to wait for a perfect time to harvest them. You can harvest fresh leaves of many herbs any time they are gowing. Pick tender young tips first, but do not remove too many of these at one time so as not to hinder further plant growth. Basil, mint, rosemary, parsley, sage, thyme, marjoram and chives will provide fresh leaves all season.
For most leafy herbs, the best time to harvest the leaves is when the volatile oil content is at its peak. That is usually when the flower buds are first beginning to open. The exception to this rule is the mints which are at their best for harvesting when they are in full bloom. Seeds can be harvested when they turn brown, roots are harvested in the fall when they are fully developed. Herb flowers such as chamomile and lavender should be harvested once they reach full flower stage. Sun can dissipate the volatile oils in herbs so they are best harvested on a dry morning after the dew has evaporated and before the sun gets too hot.
Herbs may be preserved in several ways such as in salt or olive oil, but the most convenient methods are drying and freezing.
Drying herbs --
Herbs dried at home will generally be of a higher quality than those dried and sold commercially. Numerous herbs such as spearmint, thyme, rosemary, sage, bay, marjoram, and oregano will retain their full flavor when dried at home.
The two main methods of drying herbs are the more traditional way of hanging them in bunches and the use of a drying screen. The former works well for long-stemmed herbs and the latter works best for short-stemmed herbs and flowers.
For hanging herbs to dry in the traditional manner, first rinse them and shake off the excess water. Next remove any discolored or dead leaves. Lastly, tie the ends of the stems together with twine or string. Hang these bunches upside down in a warm, dry, ventilated location such as a basement, attic, or a porch (out of direct sunlight). Peg racks are handy for this purpose and can be located right in the kitchen or dining area so that the herbs may be observed and enjoyed as they dry. Small folding drying racks especially made for herb drying are available commercially. Folding laundry drying racks are also good to use especially if you are drying a lot of herbs at one time.
Drying screens can be bought or they can be made from 1x2 boards and window screening. For most of the leafy herbs, strip the fresh leaves from the stem onto the screen and turn the drying leaves periodically for about 7-10 days or until completely dry. Herbs with small leaves such as thyme can be dried whole on the stems and the leaves stripped after the drying process has taken place.
Seedheads and herb flowers are dried in the same manner as leaves; however, the dried seeds need to be separated from the chaff. Place the dried seedheads in a pan and gently blow over it while shaking the pan. The lighter chaff will be blown out. Shake loose any seeds that may remain in the seedheads or roll them between your hands. Dry the seeds for an additional 7-10 days before storing.
Another easy and even faster method for drying herbs is to use a microwave. Place a paper towel on the bottom of the microwave and spread with a layer of herbs. Place a second paper towel on top of the herbs and run the oven on low power for 2 minutes (times may need to be adjusted according to individual ovens). If the herbs are not fully dry, run the oven again for another minute and check them. Herbs with thick leaves should be air dried for several days before going into the microwave.
Once herbs are dry, store in an airtight glass or ceramic container. Check the herbs for the first two weeks to make certain no moisture forms in the container indicating that the herbs are not fully dry. If necessary, remove the herbs and air dry for several more days.
Freezing herbs --
Many leafy herbs can be frozen. Mints, basil, fennel, dill, chives, parsley, and salad burnet are often difficult to dry but can be frozen well.
Wash the herbs, pat dry, remove leaves from stems and place in a small plastic bag or freezer box. If using bags, press out excess air before sealing and placing in the freezer.
A word about preserving with salt --
Salting is one of the oldest methods of perserving foods, including herbs and flowers. Alternate layers of Kosher salt and herbs in a covered jar or crock, making the middle layers of salt thinner and the top and bottom layers a bit thicker. Basil and tarragon are choice herbs to preserve in this way. Not only will they be preserved, but the salt will take on the herb flavor as well. Sea salt is a choice salt for use in making herb-flavored salts. Small bits of the dried herb may remain in the salt adding additional flavor.
Uses for dried and preserved herbs, either singly or in combinations, seem to be limited only by the imagination. Try drying and preserving some herbs and putting your own creative herbal touches into your cooking, your crafting, and your home. It's easy and enjoyable.
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