Drying herbs, freezing or even using the ones we grow has been a topic of conversation with a few community garden groups recently and one I was reminded of again during a recent chat with Orla Rapple when we were discussing the benefits of blogging and horticulture.
Many of us grow herbs in pots outside the door or in herb beds or gardens, but how often do we harvest and store them for use over the winter months?
With food waste very much on the agenda after the revelation that Tesco sent 28,500 tonnes into landfill from their UK stores (not composted) in the first six months of this year, now might be a great time to think about preserving our own herbs.
There’s been many a year that I’ve regretted not collecting the leaves from my coriander (cilantro) before it went to seed or not drying the basil plants before they withered and died, yet preserving, drying or freezing herbs is a very simple exercise that will only take a short time to do.
How to dry herbs
The best time to pick herbs for drying is early to mid summer when shoots are young and fresh. If they’re left until later in the year they may become tough and flower, which can alter their flavour. However, if you’ve left it late (as we had in Callan this year with the basil), taste a leaf or two and see if you’re happy with the flavour. If you are, better to dry it than waste it!
Here’s a few tips to help get the best flavours from preserved herbs:
- Harvest on a warm, sunny day, preferably in the morning after the dew has evaporated but before the sun has scorched them.
- To prevent flavours and aromas mingling, only pick one variety at a time.
- Check the herbs carefully, removing any damaged or diseased leaves or stems and shake them to remove any small insects.
- Tie small bunches of herbs together, ensuring that stems are preferably no more than pencil thickness. This will prevent mildew forming and allow an airflow.
- To help to keep their colour, small-leaved herbs such as thyme can be tied and dipped into boiling water briefly then shaken and allowed to dry on kitchen towel. This will also make sure any tiny insects that you might have missed on inspection are dealt with.
- Tie bunches of herbs together ensuring that stems are preferably no more than a pencil thickness which will prevent mildew forming and allow an airflow.
- Hang the bunches upside down with paper bags or muslin tied around the leaves to protect them from flies and dust.
- The best place to dry herbs is in a cool, dry shed or hot press (airing/warming cupboard). This method should take around seven to ten days.
Storing the dried herbs
Once your herbs are dry, simply crumble the dried leaves with your fingertips, discarding any stalks or spiky bits and preferably store them in small, dark, glass jars to keep their flavour.
How to dry herbs in the oven
Air drying herbs is preferable for concentration of flavour however, speed is sometimes desired! If so herbs can be dried in the oven in about an hour.
Pick and clean the herbs as in the air drying method above but instead of tying sprigs into bunches, remove the leaves from the stems and lay out on a baking tray on top of a piece of muslin. Place the tray in an oven set at the coolest setting and leave the door slightly ajar. Turn the leaves over after about half an hour.
Freezing is a handy method of preserving herbs but they tend to go limp when they’re defrosted so are not suitable for garnishing. They can however, be added to stews etc., straight from frozen.
Simply chop up the leaves, add them to ice-cube trays, top up with cold water and pop the trays into the freezer. When the cubes are frozen, empty them into a bag or container and add them to your soups or stews as your recipe requires. This is an ideal method for saving supermarket fresh herb bags or containers that may have been added to the shopping trolley for one or two recipes and are now left withering in the bottom of the fridge or on the windowsill.
Alternatively, divide sprigs of herbs into bags and freeze them whole. The method for picking and washing herbs is the same as those in the drying instructions above.
Given that food waste is such an issue, I’m going to make an effort to dry and preserve more of my own herbs. Do you preserve yours?
Lovely post, shocking stats on Tesco and their waste; I can’t believe it!
I love my herbs and have always grown them from the time I had my first tiny patch of garden. This year I tried freezing some mixed fresh herbs in ice trays but added olive oil instead of water. Then just popped a frozen cube into the pan as a starter to stews, fried food etc. I thought it worked well although I felt the flavour was not as strong as freshly picked. My store is all used up now, I’m only sorry I didn’t freeze more!
Good idea with the oil Naomi, it’s so handy to throw the ice cubes into the cooking pot 🙂 We dried the community garden basil this year and it’s surprising how much fresh basil was used to half fill a jar. I think I’ll be drying a lot more next year as like the idea of not having to buy dried herbs again.
I use a lot of herbs so I tend to freeze as much as possible. Great for popping into soups and all sorts of dishes. Hoping to get the last batch done now before the frost gets them. I’ll definitely give drying a go next year now that you have made it sound so simple.
The amount of food waste is a scandal and it’s not just Tesco that are at fault. We approached several supermarkets to see if they would give us their waste vegetables and fruit so that we could cut them up and add to the horses feed. The answer was a resounding ‘no’. When it was accounted for it was then thrown into the skip for landfill!! One supermarket did oblige though….related to the owners:)
It is simple Mary but just takes a lot of herbs to fill a small jar! Well worth a go I think though 🙂 100% with you regarding the food scraps and surprising that there hasn’t been a concerted campaign to change things.
Can’t understand why this area of food waste has not been targeted. About 70% of the vegetables/fruit we were getting were in perfect condition and suitable for human consumption.
You’re right Mary. I remember a good TV challenge in the UK where chefs had to produce a banquet for a huge amount of people purely from waste/scrap food and they did. It was fascinating and shocking. Would love to see it happen again here in Ireland to highlight the problem.
Great article Dee. I like freezing my herbs (parsley, chive and sage are so easy to freeze!). With Regards to food waste and The agrifood sector / supermarkets I would recommend “The gleaners and I” documentary by A.Verda.
Thanks very much and I’ll go check out that link. My biggest problem is remembering to do it before they all flower! Spend too much time admiring them growing in the garden 🙂
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