Summer Herbs Can Be Preserved and Enjoyed Well Into Winter

08/13/2011 | Ken Lain, mountain gardener Vegetable Gardening

If you overlooked herbs when planting your garden this spring, it’s not too late to add them to your beds. Summer in the mountains is a great time to plant herbs because they love the combination of warm weather and afternoon showers.

If you already have herbs in your garden, you know that many are peaking. I’ve been harvesting like mad, but the quantities are exceeding consumption at our house, so it’s time to start preserving for use throughout the winter. One of the easiest ways to preserve culinary herbs is to dry them. Drying is a quick process that effectively retains herbs’ essential oils and flavor.

Not only is air-drying the easiest and least expensive way to dry fresh herbs, but slow drying doesn’t deplete the herbs of their oils. This process works best for herbs with low moisture contents, like bay, dill, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, summer savory, and thyme. A microwave or conventional oven can be used to dry herbs, but they actually cook the herbs, which reduces their oil content and, consequently, diminishes their flavors.
When to Harvest Herbs – Harvest before flowering. (If you’ve been harvesting all season, your plants probably haven’t had a chance to flower, so this is a non-issue.) Herbs must not be harvested when they are damp; let them dry of any moisture from evening rains or early morning dew. Be sure to pick them before the plants are wilting in the afternoon sun.

3 Easy Steps to Drying Herbs

1) Cut only healthy branches from plants.
Remove dry or spotted leaves.
If necessary, rinse with cool water and pat dry with paper towels.
Remove lower leaves from the bottom inch of the branch.

2) Bundle 4-6 branches together and tie into a loose bunch using string or rubber bands.
Punch several holes in a paper bag and label it with the name of the herb.
Place the herb bundle upside down into the bag.
The bundle of herbs should not be crowded or cramped in the bag.
Gather the exposed stems of the herbs and the open end of the bag and tie them together.
Hang the bag in a warm, airy room like a garage or mudroom, away from direct sunlight.

3) In two weeks see how drying is progressing.
Keep checking weekly until herbs are dry and ready to use.
Herbs retain more of their flavors when leaves are stored whole in airtight containers.

Herbs high in water content can sometimes mold before they dry completely so those are best preserved by freezing. Fresh freezing is the preferred method to preserve high-water-content herbs like basil, chives, lemon balm, mint, and tarragon. Frozen herbs will keep their flavor for several months. Unlike the concentrated flavors of dried herbs, which must be used sparingly, frozen herbs can be used in the same proportion as fresh herbs.

Frozen Leaf Method – 1. Harvest the freshest, healthiest leaves. 2. Wash, if necessary, and pat dry with paper towels. 3. Spread the individual leaves on a small tray or cookie sheet. Freezing the leaves flat and individually will prevent them from freezing together into an unwieldy brick. 4. Put the tray of leaves into the freezer. 5. When the leaves have frozen solid, gently place them in airtight containers, and return them to the freezer.

Ice Cube Method – 1. Harvest the freshest, healthiest leaves. 2. Wash, if necessary, and pat dry with paper towels. 3. Stuff 2-3 individual leaves or a spoonful of chopped herbs into ice cube trays. 4. Fill the tray half way with water. Make sure the leaves are submerged in the water. (They will tend to float, but we’ll fix that with the next step.) Put the half-filled tray into the freezer. 5. Once the cubes are frozen, finish filling the tray with water. The leaves will no longer be able to float and should be completely surrounded with water. Now place the tray back into the freezer to freeze the cubes until solid. 6. Once the ice cubes are formed, remove from the tray and store them in zip-closing bags. 7. When ready to use, toss the whole ice cube into the dish you’re cooking. Yum!

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Mother’s Pesto Recipe. This classic Italian sauce is such a versatile part of any cook’s repertoire, and it only takes five minutes to make. Traditionally pesto is made with garlic, olive oil, basil, Parmesan cheese, and pine nuts, but walnuts may be substituted for the pine nuts. This basic pesto tastes great when tossed with pasta at mealtime or served on crackers as a healthy snack.

ñ 2 T coarsely chopped pine nuts
ñ 2 garlic cloves, peeled
ñ 3 T extra-virgin olive oil
ñ 4 C basil leaves (about 4 ounces)
ñ 1/2 C (2 ounces) fresh Parmesan cheese, grated
ñ 1/4 t salt

Using a food processor or blender, finely mince nuts and garlic. Add the olive oil and pulse three times. Add basil, Parmesan cheese, and salt to the bowl then process until well blended. It’s that easy, and it’s ready to serve! Covered leftovers refrigerate well for about a week.

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My Plant of the Week is the Karl Foerster Grass. This 3-4’ tall undemanding grass likes to be planted during the heat of summer and will bring year-round vertical drama to any style of garden or landscape. Feathery red flowers emerge in spring and then turn shades of gold throughout the fall; the golden plumes remain well into winter. This big bold grass is perfect for water garden accents or terraced patios where mountain breezes will keep it dancing.

Until next week, I’ll see you at the garden center.