Harvesting and Storing Herbs

by Brenda Hyde

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I am not going to pretend to know the proper technique for every herb out there. There are far too many! But, over the years, I have gathered many harvest and storage tips that have worked for me and many other gardeners. My first tip is to be brave! So many people that write me are afraid to cut back their herb plants. Herbs are very tough with the right conditions. It's often what you least expect that hurts them-such as overwatering, too much fertilizer or too rich of a soil. Many herbs, such as lemon balm, mint, chives, sage and oregano may be cut within two or three inches of the ground and will grow back within no time for another harvest! If you are in doubt, you can cut back by half to be cautious.

Gather your herbs, using sharp kitchen or gardening shears, in the morning after the dew has dried. You will also catch the peak flavor if you harvest just BEFORE flowering, but don't let this deter you from harvesting if you have missed that time frame. You can dry the flowers for wreaths and dried arrangements and use the leaves for cooking. If you live in a zone that freezes be sure to allow your herbs a month and 1/2 or so before frost to grow after you harvest and before the first frost.

Storage Techniques

Freezing-I love this method. Simply cut stems or leaves of the herbs, rinse, pat dry and freeze in resealable bags. The small ones work well or if you would like to cut whole sprigs use the large gallon size. Label and freeze-later pull out what you need and replace the unused portions. You can also freeze chopped herbs in ice cube trays with water. After they freeze remove them and store in bags. This is good for using in soups.

Drying-Cut whole branches of the herb plant and tie with string or rubber bands. Hang in a dry, clean place such as an enclosed shed or attic. You can place paper sacks over the herbs as well while they are hanging to avoid dust. When they are dry, crumble into a glass or plastic container and store in a dry, cool location. I have dried entire plants this way-if they are annuals-just pull up and dry. Peppers will dry nicely with this method too. You can also dry herbs by laying on clean screens until dry. If you harvest large leaf herbs such as lovage, comfrey or large leaf basil, remove the leaves and place on screens. If using this method, turn the herbs during the first few days. You can also dry in a very low temperature in the oven on cookie sheets. Watch carefully and turn often.

Herb Salts: I also make herb salt each year. In a 250 degree oven spread a layer of free running salt on a cookie sheet. Sprinkle the chopped fresh herbs on top of the salt, and bake for 10-20 minutes, stirring and checking often. When they are dry enough to crumble, then let cool and crumble the herbs into the salt, stir and place in a jar. You can use this as a seasoning salt; especially good with vegetables! Herbs that work well are chives, oregano, thyme, lemon balm or lemon thyme, parsley rosemary or basil.

Microwave-You can dry herbs in your microwave, but it's slow and time consuming. However, it does work! Line the turntable with paper towels. Place the herb leaves on the table so they aren't touching. I microwave for one minute-check and then try 30 seconds at a time until they are dry to the touch. Some herbs take less time, some more. When dry, crumble into containers. I like this method for trying different tea combinations. Mint and lemon balms worked well. I dried and put equal amounts of both into a tea bag and sealed for using later, or you can store in small plastic bags.

Some herbs do not dry well, such as chives or fennel, but try freezing, or using the herb salt method. Below I have several recipes that will help you to use your herb harvest this season.

Basil Puree

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 8 cups washed and dried basil leaves

Blend until pureed. Transfer to clean jar. Store in refrigerator. Each time you use it stir and then top with a thin layer of oil. It will keep one year by doing this. This is good on grilled chicken or fish, stirred into soups or mixed with sun dried tomatoes and broiled on bread.

Zesty Herb Blend

  • 3 tablespoons dried basil
  • 3 tablespoons dried marjoram
  • 3 tablespoons dried thyme
  • 3 tablespoons dried tarragon
  • 1 tablespoon dried lemon peel>
  • 1 tablespoon whole oregano

Place all items in a small jar and seal. Shake until well blended. This is great for adding to meat and vegetables.

Bouquet Garni:

Herb bouquet or bouquet garni, as the French call it, is easy to make and use. Place dried herbs into cheesecloth bags, about two and one-half inches square that can be sewn by hand or machine. Tie or sew the top shut. Place in soups and stews. 1 tsp. each of parsley, thyme, basil, celery leaves, and 1/2 tsp. each of sage, rosemary or dried lemon peel is a good blend to use.

Fines Herbs Butter

  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 tablespoons parsley
  • 2 tablespoons chives
  • 1 tablespoon tarragon

Mince herbs and mix all with room temperature butter by hand or mixer. Chill for at least 3 hours before serving. Wonderful with vegetables, eggs, fish or bread.

Brenda Hyde is a freelance writer and gardener who has been collecting recipes and tips for over 20 years. You can read more of her herb features at SeedsOfKnowledge.com or subscribe to her monthly newsletter Herbs 'N Spices by sending any email to: herbs-n-spices-subscribe@yahoogroups.com

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