Thanks to cooking shows on television, everyone is getting into the act of using herbs to season their favorite foods.
It isn't surprising that herbs have become one of the staples of most kitchens. Chefs and hobbyist cooks will pay exorbitant prices for the best herbs available, not to mention the most expensive, saffron, which sells in excess of $1,200 a pound. Fortunately, it takes a lot of this pungent herb to make a pound, but only just a few threads can season an entire dish. Vials of saffron threads can be found at specialty food stores.
But we don't have to worry about paying huge prices for herbs to satisfy our flavor cravings in our favorite dishes. After all, what would rosemary roasted potatoes be without rosemary? Or how could we make pickles without dill?
Growing herbs in our own home gardens has not only taken off over the past 20 years, but it is easier to find most of our favorite seasonings in garden centers each spring.
So you've been tempted to grow summer savory and tarragon in your garden this year. The season is nearly over and the plants have thrived, growing from those tiny plants that came in two-inch pots to fill out a section more than a foot square in your garden. You have used fresh leaves and seeds all summer as the plants matured, but the end of summer is upon us and the plants are still looking lush and productive.
You don't want to simply pull them out and toss them on the compost heap any more than you want to go back to paying large prices for a small bottle of your favorite seasoning. Well, the good news is, you don't have to. You can preserve those herbs for the winter the same way you can tomato sauce and freeze whole kernel corn. You just have to know which herbs react in what ways when preserving.
We may have a visual of bundles of herb stalks all tied together and hanging from the rafters in our garage, shed or the beams of our country kitchen ceiling. Unfortunately, these pictures are often for show as none of these places, with the exception of the shed for a short time, is a good place to dry herbs.
And not only that, many of our favorite herbs, such as parsley, sweet basil and chives, can't be preserved that way. Anyone who has tried tying several stems of sweet basil together and hanging it upside down from a hook soon learns that the leaves wilt and turn brown rather than dry in the same way as sage, tarragon or lemon verbena. For this reason, in order to preserve your herbs for the winter, you have to know which way is best for which plant. The chart provided will offer some help in that regard, but here's a bit of detail that you might want to note as well.
Freezing is probably the easiest method used to preserve herbs. Nearly all herbs can be frozen, although some retain their flavors better than others. In addition, frozen herbs have a shorter life span for retaining flavors and should be used within three months of freezing.
To freeze herbs, rinse them quickly in cold water. Roll the stems gently in paper towels being careful not to crush the leaves. lay the stems on cookie sheets, place in the freezer to dry and then place in bags. This makes it easier to remove individual stems as needed. Many herbs, such as chopped chives and basil are frozen in ice cube trays for individual serving sizes.
Drying works well for many herbs. The flavors produced by the plants are in the form of oils. When an herb is dried, the water evaporates, substantially shrinking the plant. But most of the oils remain and are much more concentrated than when the plant still held water. As a result, when using dried herbs, the common rule of thumb is to use only one-third of the same amount used when the plant was fresh.
To dry herbs, rinse them before harvesting by spraying with a fine mist early in the morning before the heat of the sun has evaporated the oils. Once harvested, spread the plants out to dry. Do not hang wet stems or they will mildew and rot. Tie the stems into bundles with rubber bands. While it might be tempting to use raffia or ribbon to make a pretty presentation, as the stems dry, they will shrink and fall to the floor.
Keep drying herbs out of bright light. Drying in the kitchen is not recommended as they will attract cooking oils and dust. To air-dry herbs with seeds, place the stems in small paper bags and tie before hanging. As the seed pods dry, the seeds will fall out into the bags.
Other than tying and hanging herbs, if you have enough space, you can lay them flat to dry on screens or paper towels. Or you can quick dry most herbs in the microwave oven or a regular oven with low heat. In the microwave, place the stems on paper towels and heat for one minute at a time. Once they get close to being brittle, don't heat for more than 10 to 20 seconds at a time to avoid causing a fire.
Once your herbs are dried, store them in airtight containers. Avoid crushing the leaves until you are ready to use them in your favorite dishes. Dried herbs can be kept for up to one year without losing their flavor.
For more information on growing and preserving herbs, contact The Ohio State University Trumbull County Extension Master Gardener hotline at 330-637-3908 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.