Jeff Green | Jul 23, 2009
Back to HomeMaster Gardeners - July 23, 2009 Preserving herbs from your gardenby Lorrie MacKay, Lanark County Master Gardeners
The herb garden is looking lush and green. Now is the time to think about harvesting some of the bounty and preserving it for the winter. Leaf herbs are at their oil and flavour peak once the flower buds appear but before the flowers open. This is when they should be harvested. (Herbs grown for seeds are harvested later, after the seed pods ripen, but before they open.)
Leaf herbs should be harvested in the morning on a dry day, after the dew dries. Remember that for a particular volume of dried leaves, you will need at least twice as much volume of fresh, since drying makes the leaves shrivel and shrink. In other words, cut a lot! At the same time, you need to ensure that you leave enough stems and leaves to allow regrowth for harvest again later in the summer, or to use fresh herbs.
Herbs can be preserved by drying, freezing or making pastes or other products from them.
Drying: Pungent herbs such as oregano, thyme and summer savoury dry well. Shake the herbs to remove any dust, but do not wash them unless they are very dirty. Tie a half-dozen or so stems together at the thickest end and hang these bunches in a warm, dry, darkish place with good air circulation. They are dry enough once they become brittle and crumble easily. This can take a couple of weeks. Once dried, remove the leaves from the stems, compost the stems and store the leaves in a jar.
If the weather is humid, or time short, try drying these herbs in the oven or the microwave. First remove the leaves from the stems. If using the microwave, spread the leaves in a single layer on a paper towel. Microwave on low for one-two minutes, watching carefully, then turn the leaves over and repeat. Continue this cycle of microwaving and turning until the herbs are dried. If using the oven, set the leaves on a foil- or parchment-lined baking sheet and bake at the oven’s lowest setting. This should take about two hours, but more if the leaves are large.
Freezing: Some herbs such as basil, tarragon, dill and flat-leaf parsley are best preserved by freezing. Freezing provides a result quite similar to the fresh herb. Wash the herbs, strip the leaves and place them on a baking sheet in a single layer. Freeze them. Once frozen, put them in freezer bags. Another method is to chop them up and freeze them in ice-cube trays with some water. After they have frozen you can store them in bags in the freezer.
Pestos, vinegars and more: A related method to freezing is to make a pesto out of herbs such as basil, sage or garlic scapes. Puree the herbs with oil, and, depending on the herb, parmesan cheese, nuts such as pine nuts or walnuts, and garlic. Freeze the mixture in small tubs or ice-cube trays.
Herbs such as rosemeary, thyme, tarragon and basil, can also be “preserved” in vinegar – the herb itself is not kept, but rather the vinegar is infused with the herb’s flavour. Pack leaves loosely into sterilized glass bottles or jars and fill with vinegar. Cap the bottle and let it steep for a couple weeks, then reopen the bottle and strain the mixture to remove the herbs. Pour the vinegar into a new sterile bottle and store in the fridge or in a cool dark place.
Also consider herb butters, which are terrific on vegetables, pasta, breads and meats. Simply chop up the herbs very finely – a single type or a mixture – and blend it with softened butter. Proportions vary with the pungency of the herb and individual tastes, but start with about 1/4 cup finely chopped herbs to a 1/2 cup of butter. Form the butter into a log on waxed paper or plastic wrap, wrap it again in plastic and freeze.
Adventurous cooks can also make herbs into jellies, condiments and other goodies that will keep for months and provide a welcome taste of summer in the middle of winter.
For gardening questions please phone Margaret Inwood at 613-256-3141.