The basics of harvesting and preserving herbs
Story and Photos by Rebecca Stoner Kirts
Fall is one of my favorite times in the herb garden. It is the time to gather the fruits of your labor so you can enjoy these amazing plants all winter long. Many years ago, I was visiting one of my children’s classrooms and brought in baskets of dried herbs. One child looked at me with big eyes and said, “Oh my Mrs. Kirts, you must be so sad. All your plants are dying!” I couldn’t help but smile at a child’s perspective but quickly explained how wonderful it is to harvest herbs and how they can provide you with so much favor all winter long.
There are many different ways to “reap what you have sown.” It is important to remember to look at each herb and harvest it when the flavorful oils are at their peak. That being said, let’s look at some basics of harvesting.
There are some herbs that greatly benefit from continual harvesting throughout the season. A prime example is basil. Basil loves to be “picked” as it grows. This allows the plant to develop into a nice bush, and not go to seed. Often when an herb blooms, the plant begins to put all its energy toward making seeds, and less into producing valuable oils. Midseason harvesting allows the gardener to enjoy their favorite herbs all summer. Here are few examples of herbs that you should not hesitate to sample during the growing season: parsley, thyme, dill weed, chervil, salad burnet, and oregano.
When going out to the garden to harvest, it helps to be organized. Have all your supplies in a basket. Clippers, rubber bands, and twine are all very useful. Keeping these tools at hand will allow you to harvest herbs like a pro.
It is best to harvest after the dew has dried but before the sun has beat down on the plant. The sun leaches tasty oils out of the plants, so midday is just right. It is better to refrain from harvesting after a bad storm or drenching rains.
While you are merrily working your way through the garden, it is crucial to be mindful of the plants and not crush them. Storing immediately after picking is important, as well. Don’t stack them up in a basket, especially different herbs, as their scents will overlap. On a nice fall day, I love to lay a big sheet down on the grass next to the garden and gather the herb into bunches. Then I gather them and wrap them in rubber bands and then they’re ready to hang and dry.
I strongly suggest harvesting only the amount you can immediately hang or put on screens. Nothing is worse than letting the bunches of herbs lay on top of each other and intermingle scents, or allowing the herbs to lay around a long time before getting them ready to dry.
I try very hard to not handle the herbs any more than necessary. The less they are handled, the more tasty oil will remain in the plants. On the same note, if you feel the herbs are dirty and need a quick rinse, that is ok. Please do this with tepid water, not hot water, as again it will leach out the tasty oils.
By far my favorite way to preserve herbs is air-drying. Perhaps it is the visual aspect of this method I love the most. The sight of herbs hanging from the rafters, or on an antique drying rack, sends chills up my spine. But certain rules must be followed:
• A dry shady place is very important.
• Low light only – no direct light. (Direct light leaches the oil out of the herbs.)
• Low humidity and heat – dry heat around 70 F prevents mold and promotes drying.
• Good ventilation
Be sure to loosely bunch the herbs to ensure adequate airflow. Do not add a fresh bunch to the grouping until the first grouping is dry and put into containers.
Drying can take three days to three weeks. It all depends on the conditions where they are drying and the types of herbs.
Keep the herbs intact as much as possible.
Handle only as absolutely necessary – the more they are handled, the more oil is released and lost.
Any herbs that have seeds should be hung upside down in a brown paper bag. This is a great way to dry leaves and collect the seeds for future plantings or usage. Dill is for this method.
Some herbs do better if the leaves are stripped off the stem and placed on a screen to dry. This method works well for thyme, oregano, rosemary, and lemon verbena. I will often store them with the leaves still attached and then strip them before using.
I find with some of my very favorite herbs, such as basil, that microwave drying is a good option. Some herbs bruise very easily and lose much taste during the slow drying process. Some of these herbs are more than 80 percent water, so drying is tricky. With these herbs, I put a layer of leaves on a paper towel and microwave in spurts of 30 seconds until they are chip dry. Please do not reuse the paper towels– that could possibly present a fire hazard.
It is very important to store your valuable harvest in airtight containers. I prefer glass jars and tins rather than plastic bags. No matter what the container, just make sure they are moisture free. Always remember to label all of the herbs you preserve – dried leaves tend to look very similar.
There are some really cool ways to preserve herbs. Some of my favorites: herb vinegars, herb mustards, herb oils, freezing herbs in ice cubes, herb honey, and pesto.
So don’t be sad when the season is ending, harvest and preserve your herbs for winter use!
BROCCOLI AND CAULIFLOWER SALAD
One head cauliflower, broken into bite-sized pieces
One bunch broccoli, broken into bite-sized pieces.
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons poppy seeds
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons dried mustard
1 onion, finely chopped
½ cup basil vinegar
1¼ cup vegetable oil
Combine all ingredients, toss with vegetables, and chill at least eight hours, stirring occasionally.
Making herb vinegars is one of my favorite ways to preserve the subtle flavors of herbs. Following is an edited version.
I gather all the herbs, making sure they are clean and dry. Let’s use ‘Dark Purple Opal’ basil as an example. I would boil 1 gallon of white vinegar, saving the bottle. I stuff the beautiful clean basil leaves into that container and then pour in the hot vinegar. Within minutes, the vinegar turns a captivating pink color. I cap it and let the vinegar and herbs mingle for about a month. Then I strain and pour into unique jars, including a basil bloom as an accent. Chives and salad burnet make stunning vinegars as well. Who can resist tarragon vinegar on fish?
There are several methods you can use to preserve herbs by freezing. Here are two of my favorites:
Coarsely chop the herbs, place generous amounts in ice cube trays and then cover in water. After they’re frozen, transfer to labeled plastic freezer bags.
Place individual herb leaves on a cookie sheet and place in the freezer. After they have frozen, store the herbs in plastic baggies for later use in soups and other dishes.