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Fresh Herbs 101: Preserving Summer’s Bounty

Fresh Herb Preservation 101
It is no secret that I love my herb garden. And for good reason. Herbs add flavor to our food—no matter what diet you follow, gluten-free, Paleo, vegetarian, low-fat or whatever. They can be used decoratively in floral arrangements as well as food garnishes and they also have medicinal qualities (e.g., sage tea for sore throats or thyme tea for respiratory congestion).

Parsley is a healthy garnish and a delicious herb.

Parsley is a healthy garnish and a delicious herb.

I use fresh herbs in all of my cookbooks, such as 100 Best Quick Gluten-Free Recipes, but I also give equivalent dried amounts for those of you who don’t have access to fresh herbs. And, I love to make Chimichurri, a flavorful mixture of fresh herbs and spices.

Few things give me more pleasure than stepping outside my kitchen door to snip a few herbs as I’m preparing dinner. So, though I love Fall, I’m also sad that summer is nearly over.

It is late October now, the inevitable hard frost that is just around the corner will reduce my lovely, leafy herbs to mush if I don’t gather them now. The problem is that I have far herbs more than I can use up, so I must preserve them now or they will go to waste.

Preserving precious fresh herbs not only saves money but also makes them available to us throughout the year, whenever we want. Even if you don’t grow your own herbs, use my ideas for store-bought fresh herbs too. After all, a package of fresh herbs costs about $3 (or more if organic), yet most recipes don’t use the whole package. Leftover herbs are often thrown away after wilting in the fridge and that costs money.

I have two main methods of drying fresh herbs, which I describe here. Plus, I also freeze certain herbs, so here are my tips.

Preserving Fresh Herbs by Drying Them in a Paper Bag
Last year, I used my microwave to quickly dry my fresh herbs. This year, I used the paper grocery bag method because I had a bunch of bags to use up and this seemed like an appropriate use for them.

[1] Cut the stalks or stems of herbs from the plant, leaving the leaves on. Wash and blot the herbs with a paper towel to remove excess moisture. Discard any mushy or wilted parts.

[2]Place the herbs in a large paper grocery bag (not a plastic bag, which doesn’t breath). Be careful not to crowd them or put too much in a bag or the air can’t circulate as well. Fold the top of the bag over and seal with clothespins or paper clips to keep out bugs and dust. Place in a dark, dry place. I use a shelf in my garage, which is dry (after all, I live in Denver) and still gets warm enough to create a nice, dry hothouse effect. Check the bags periodically to see when the herbs are totally dry.

[3] Strip off the leaves with your fingers and discard stems, which can be tough and woody.

[4]Place the dried herbs in airtight glass jars with tight-fitting lids, not plastics or metals. Be sure to clearly label each herb. Glass spice jars work especially well for this purpose. Store these jars in a dark, dry place without sunlight so moisture doesn’t build up inside and cause them to spoil.

Preserving Fresh Herbs by Drying Them in a Microwave Oven
You can also dry herbs in the microwave oven, which I did last year with great success.

[1] Cut the stalks or stems of herbs from the plant, leaving the leaves on. Wash and blot the herbs with a paper towel to remove excess moisture. Discard any mushy or wilted parts.

[2] Place the herb sprigs in a single layer on a paper towel-lined, microwave-safe plate. Microwave on High power for 2 to 3 minutes, in 1-minute increments. Check after each 1-minute increment; they should be completely dry and brittle. If there is any moisture, they could mold during storage. The exact time to dry them will vary by the amount of moisture in the herbs and your microwave.

[3] Strip off the leaves with your fingers and discard stems, which can be tough and woody. Last year, I failed to remove all of the thyme stems and now I have to pick them out by hand from the dried leaves.

[4] Place the dried herbs in airtight glass jars with tight-fitting lids, not plastics or metals. Be sure to clearly label each herb. Glass spice jars work especially well for this purpose. Store these jars in a dark, dry place without sunlight so moisture doesn’t build up inside and cause them to spoil.

Freezing Fresh Herbs
Some herbs―especially soft herbs that hold a lot of moisture such as basil, lemon balm, chives, cilantro, dill, mint, oregano, and parsley―freeze well in plastic freezer bags for up to six months. Rinse them first and pat as dry as possible, then place in the bags. They will look a little bruised when thawed—and they must be used in cooked dishes (e.g., in soups, stews, casseroles, etc.) and won’t look nice in fresh foods like salads since they will be mushy—but their flavor is still intact and they retain all of their health benefits. In fact, I routinely freeze parsley and save considerable time later by not having to chop it up; it’s just waiting for me in the freezer. Plus, I save money because it doesn’t go to waste.

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