Monday, July 2, 2012

Preserving your harvest: Drying and freezing

Picture this: In the depths of January, you’re making a big pot of vegetable soup. You go to the cabinet, take down several neatly labeled jars, and shake out some dried leaves. Crushing them between your hands, you release all the scents of summer – basil, oregano, thyme. You let the fragrant pieces fall into your steaming soup, bringing your garden into your home in the middle of winter…

Ahhhh, Herbal Drama! But by preserving your own herbs, you really can add flavor and new interest to your meals throughout the year. You can also save some serious money – just take a look at how much grocery-store seasonings cost. Your own, home-preserved herbs will also be fresher, healthier, and taste so much better.

Harvesting your herbs
If you’re planning on preserving your herbs, it’s best to harvest them when their flavor is at its peak.
  • Harvest just before the plant begins to flower. (For better yields all summer from herbs like basil and oregano, remove the flower stalks as they form.)
  • Pick your herbs in the morning on a dry day, after the dew has dried but before the sun is fully on them.
  • For most leafy herbs, clip stems rather than individual leaves, taking no more than 1/3 of the length of any stem.
  • For parsley, clip the entire stem down to the base of the plant.
  • Washing herbs is usually not recommended, since it actually washes away some of the essential oils that give them their flavor. If you feel you must, you can give them a quick rinse, then gently blot dry or run through a salad spinner.
  • After washing, be sure they’re as dry as possible.

The main goal of drying is to remove moisture while losing as little flavor as possible. How best to do this depends on the plant itself. If using the microwave or the oven, remember: Heat evaporates essential oils, and essential oils are what give herbs their flavor. So, use as little heat as you possibly can.
  • Keep only the most perfect leaves for drying. Discard any with yellowing, spots, holes, etc.
  • For most plants, leave the leaves on the stems. Gather the stems into bunches and band the ends together with a rubber band. Hang bunches in a warm, dark place with good air circulation.
  • If dust is a concern, you can punch holes (lots of holes) in brown paper sacks and place them over the bunches before you hang them.
  • When the leaves are very crispy, strip them from the stems, leaving them as whole as possible.
  • If you’d like, you can save the dried stems and throw them in the fireplace for a fragrant winter fire…or use on the grill for extra flavor.
  • If leaves are too fleshy to dry in bunches, you can pick them from the stems and lay them flat in a single layer on a screen or paper towels. Check often and gently stir them around. This also works well for flower petals, chamomile flower heads, and anything else without a stem.
  • Careful microwave drying can work for some herbs, especially basil. Place a single layer of leaves on a paper towel and cook on full power for short bursts of 30 to 60 seconds. Watch very carefully so that they don’t scorch. Cook until leaves are mostly dry, then let them air dry for a few days until crispy.
  • Oven drying can work, too. Set oven at its lowest setting, and leave the door open for air circulation.
  • Food dehydrators can be great for herbs. Follow manufacturer’s directions.
  • BE SURE TO LABEL HERBS WHILE DRYING! Dead leaves all look a whole lot alike!

Store dried herbs in clean glass jars, away from light and heat. They should last for a year or more, and the taste will be far superior to store-bought seasonings.

Many herbs freeze very well, giving you summer-fresh flavor in a convenient little package. Try freezing dill, fennel, parsley, chives, or basil (which should be blanched, or will turn black).
  • Seal small quantities, about 2 to 3 tablespoons, in freezer bags.
  • Freeze herbs alone or in your favorite combinations – soup herbs, for example, or blends for poultry, fish, or salad dressing.
  • Label bags clearly, and group them all together in a large freezer container. This keeps them from getting lost or damaged.
  • You can also freeze herbs in water: Finely chop the herbs, fill ice-cube trays half full with them, then top off with water. When frozen, pop them into freezer bags and label. (Chopped, frozen leaves all really look alike!)
So... this is how you can get started with "putting up" your herbs for the winter. Next week, we'll be talking about more methods - Herbal oils, vinegars, butters, and pesto. Hope you'll check back - until then, enjoy!

- Jules

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