Saturday, September 18, 2010

Preserving the Herb Garden Goodness

I think everyone should grow an herb garden. It doesn't have to be anything fancy. A spot in the garden. A pot on the patio or even on the kitchen windowsill. Everyone should do it because herbs are so easy to grow. Plus, a single plant costs about as much as a bottle of the dried stuff costs and the fresh herbs taste way better anyway. 

But how can you make the most of the herbs in your garden as fall approaches? It's so easy to preserve homegrown herbs. Not only do you get great quality, but preserving your herbs for the fall and winter is a great money-saver.  I'm sure I'm not the only one who stands next to the spice shelves at the store aghast at the ridiculous price for dried seasonings.  Growing the herbs and preserving them yourself is definitely a much more frugal route.

There are two ways to preserve herbs: drying and freezing. Neither method takes any sort of equipment or hard work.  But it is important to know which herbs dry best and which ones you should freeze.  So, onto the methods!

Drying


Really you can dry almost any herb, but there are some that do much better than others.  The best herbs for drying are low-moisture ones like sage (pictured above), bay, dill, marjoram (that was the bottle that elicited the aghast expression at the grocery store), summer savory, oregano, rosemary, and thyme.

The way I dry my herbs is by air-drying. Not only is this a cheap and super-easy way to do it, but it actually doesn't deplete the oils of the herbs like other methods do.  All you have to do is bundle the herbs together, anywhere from 3-5 branches together. You can use string or a rubber band, but I actually use fishing line. We don't do much fishing around here, but we always have fishing line around the house. It works for so many things!

Once I've bundled them, I hang them upside down to dry. I have a dark, dry closet I don't visit much, so I hang them upside down from the shelf, by the fishing line.  They stay undisturbed there and dry beautifully.  If you don't have a spot like that, you can place the bundles upside down in a brown paper bag. With the stems poking out the top, tie the bag closed.  Poke some holes in the bag so the air can circulate.  They take about 2-4 weeks to dry. Just check them occasionally and see how they're doing. Some herbs dry faster than others. I've used the air-drying method for sage, rosemary, and thyme and it does the trick!

Once your herbs are dried, store them in an airtight container. You could use a zipper bag or a canning jar. I save the bottles from my store-bought herbs and spices through the year, wash them, and reuse them for my homegrown ones.  Be sure to label your herbs, along with the date.  It's best to use them within the year.  Also, don't crush them until you're ready to use them -- they'll retain the flavor longer (I just learned that helpful tidbit today!). 

Freezing


Holy cow. I love basil. Fresh basil on homemade margherita pizza? Amazing. And pesto? Love it.  But fresh basil is expensive and the dried kind just doesn't do it for me. For these reasons, I always grow basil. A single plant is the same price, if not cheaper, than the fresh stuff at the store. Plus, it keeps growing and growing and growing. But by the end of the summer, I have more basil than I know what to do with. This is where freezing comes into play.

Herbs like basil are moisture-dense, making them harder to dry because they mold quickly. If you do want to dry moisture-dense herbs, you need a dehydrator. But the recommended way to preserve moisture-dense herbs is by freezing them. Other moisture-dense herbs include chives, mint, and tarragon. There are a variety of ways to freeze these kinds of herbs. Here are the ways I do it:


You can freeze chopped up leaves of basil and put them in ice cube trays with water. When you're ready to use them, you put the ice cubes in a strainer and let the ice melt, or, as one site I checked suggested, just throw the cubes into whatever you're cooking (like a sauce or soup) and let them melt in there. However, this method is really only for cooking, not for using basil fresh.  I've heard of people using this method for mint; they use the mint ice cubes for drinks in the summer.

Since I like to use basil in a variety of ways, I tried the other method at the same site:  in a food processor (I'm sure you could use a blender if you don't have a food processor), pulse together a half-cup of the leaves with about a 1/4 cup of olive oil. Once you've created a paste, put it in ice cube trays and freeze. Once they're frozen, pop them out of the trays and put the cubes in zipper bags. This method creates a sort of basil-combination that's good for cooking and mixing into things like salad dressing and pesto.

For my chives, I do something different.

Today, I went to my garden to get chives for the ranch dressing I was making (recipe compliments of the Pioneer Woman. Every recipe of hers is incredible!).  Since I was out there, I cut a ton of them so I could freeze them.  Chives are such a great thing to grow because they're so versatile. I use them in all sorts of recipes, replacing the green onions with chives. They're so easy to grow and they come back every spring in my garden.  Anyway, freezing chives couldn't be simpler: just cut them up (I used scissors; I couldn't find my kitchen shears for some reason) into small pieces, spread them in a single layer on a plate or pan, and freeze. Once they're frozen, store in zipper bags or any other airtight container. Best of all, there's no need to thaw them. Simply toss them in whatever you're making.  If only preserving fruit was this easy...

*Note:  I came across a great site (one that I referenced for a few of these methods) for any questions about herbs and spices. It's called "A Pinch Of..." Definitely a great resource for any home gardener!*

3 comments:

Nisha said...

I wish I was more on the ball with my garden this year. Next year, I will do herbs! Basil and Cilantro for sure.

Katelin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katelin said...

I totally agree that we should start growing our own herb gardens! Even if you don’t cook with herbs a lot, you should still grow a small one with some of the basics, like cilantro, chives, mint, basil, and parsley, because a lot of herbs have great medicinal benefits. Herbs can cure anything from mild headaches to menstrual cramps, even high fever. Plus, they make great teas. Maintaining an herb garden is definitely going to cost a lot less than having to buy herbs at the grocery store every month or so.

Katelin Mccaig

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