Aromatic herbs are among my favorite ingredients. Those and seafood are the main reasons why I feel attracted to Mediterranean cuisine. Not only that a few fresh or dried leaves can give life a to even a dull dish, but they also have therapeutic qualities that can hardly be achieved by even the most expensive drugs.
Inexplicably they are very expensive in the supermarket, so the best solution for those who can do it is to cultivate them in your own garden. Not to mention that this is the healthiest way to have them.
It is not that easy, at least it wasn’t for me. For many years my plants died, until this year, when I got to have two kinds of thyme, lemon balm, mint, sage, rosemary and no more than 5 pots with basil. If you ask me what I did different this year, well … I have no idea. I did exactly what I did before and, however, the results were different. I argued, in fact, one of the definitions of insanity. They say you’re crazy when you do exactly the same thing but expecting different results. But you see… it came out for me.
Okay, so I bought the herb seeds, planted them and the herbs came out. However there is one more problem to overcome: some of them are seasonal plants so they either die or not have enough leaves during the cold season. What would be the solution to this problem? Keep and preserve the aromatic leaves.
Keeping Your Herbs
It is important to know how to keep the herbs you bought from the producers market or supermarket fresh, or even those which remain unused from your garden for as many days as possible.
So, we have some strands of herbs that we don’t want to use right away or to preserve. In fact, we aim to gain a few days more in which to actually benefit from the qualities they have in their state of freshness.
Not all herbs behave identically. You can broadly distinguish two categories: the robust (which are added to the food in the beginning of cooking) and the fragile ones (which will be added by the end of cooking process so that the flavor won’t be altered). And even we made this classification, it is possible that they act differently, while in the same category. So I’ll try to show you some practical examples related to the most commonly used herbs.
We will treat dill, parsley and basil like some flowers and will keep them at room temperature. First wash them, shake off water and wipe well, choose the broken or bruised leaves and all from the base. Use a very sharp knife to cut about 0,3 inch from the strain. Place each type of herb in different tall glasses or jars with a layer of water of about 1-3 inches. Change the water everyday, before the herbs begin changing their color.
It is important that the underwater strains do not contain leaves, because they start to rot quickly.
If it is hot, herbs listed above can be stored in the refrigerator, but cover them with paper bags, to be protected from low temperatures.
This way the herbs can be kept from a few days to 1-2 weeks, depending on the period of harvesting and the storage temperature.
Cilantro should be kept in the same way, but it is a plant that feels better at lower temperatures. It is best to keep it directly in the refrigerator, possibly covered with a paper bag.
If you are dealing with most robust herbs like thyme, rosemary, sage, even you must follow other procedure. The threads of herbs should be loosely packed in plastic wrap so they can breathe. As a safety measure, it is good to place a piece of crumpled paper towel next to them to absorb the perspiration.
Store the herbs in the fridge compartments for fruits and vegetables. However, do not wash the them before you use them for cooking. They need to be stored dry.
Preserving Your Herbs
It may sound complicated, but preservation is not as difficult as it might seem at first glance. There are actually many ways to keep the little leaves and stems fragrant, some very simple, so it remains only to choose the one that fits best with the herbs and your convenience.
First, you must choose the suitable conservation methods for each type of herb after plant characteristics and by the way you want to use, and then put it into practice. I will try to be helpful and explain in detail how can the methods of conservation apply to each plant. And I will talk about the drying of herbs as this is my favorite method and it better keeps the flavor of the plant.
Before preserving the herbs, you must prepare them for this operation. There are some mandatory steps, no matter which preservation method you want to choose. Here they are:
1. Gather the herbs just before being dried, possibly even before blooming. It is the moment when they contain the highest amount of essential oils and provide the most intense flavor and aromas.
Use solid scissors or a sharp knife. If the plant can survive the winter, cut the stems at the base. Other herbs, those who die in winter, can be removed together with the root.
2. Do not pick plants with broken stems or leaves, dried or damaged in any way.
3. Also make sure that you have not “picked” by chance and some insects together with the herbs.
4. It is not recommended to wash the herbs before preserving them. If it looks as if they need washing, wet them with a hose 2-3 days before you harvest them so the water has time to evaporate. Then cut and prepare them to dry.
If they really need to be washed before storage (for example if you buy them and they are dirty), spray them with water, shake them and wipe their leaves carefully. Traces of moisture can create mildew during some of the processes of conservation.
A good way to dry herbs is to use a special centrifuge for vegetables. If you don’t have such a thing, simulate one: shake the herbs well so you can remove as much water you can and place them on a large, dry towel. Tighten the corners of the towel, and start to vigorously turn it over your head. The centrifugal force that you created will throw the water drops on the towel and your plants will be more dried than before. It is not a perfect method, but you should keep it in mind.
5. Take care to start the preservation right immediately after the herbs are cut, not to lose the essential oils.
6. You may preserve several herbs together, but don’t put them too close to each other, for the stronger aroma will take over the weaker one.
Drying the Herbs
Fresh herbs have wonderful properties and, if dried carefully, many of them remain. Drying is perhaps the most common method of preserving them. I am convinced that you have met dozens of recipes using oregano, mint or other dried plant. There are several methods of drying, faster or slower, more effective or less effective, but I think all are doing their job quite well. Whatever method you choose for drying, you should follow a few simple guidelines that will help you get the best results.
This natural process is by far the most appropriate to preserve the aroma of herbs. Even if it takes longer, it is worth waiting, because the end result is spectacular.
First, not all herbs are suitable for drying. Some of them lose their flavor once dried, other increase it, so it is recommended to choose for drying herbs from the latter category. Herbs best suited for preservation by drying are mainly the robust ones, which are added to the dishes at the beginning of the cooking process: rosemary, oregano, thyme, marjoram, sage, lovage, wormwood, tarragon. But you may also choose some of the most fragile, such as parsley, basil, lemon balm, lemon (Verbena) and mint, but even the ones with fragrant flowers, like lavender.
Cut the stems as long as possible, because you can hang them easier.
If the place where you dry them may be contaminated with dust or smoke, cover the plants loosely with a paper bag.
To ensure an even drying, gather herbs in small bunches, 8 to 10 stems each. This way you will ensure a good ventilation for each strain. Also, if necessary, remove the leaves from the lower end of the stem, so you can tie the stems easier.
The herbs should be left to dry, the easiest way is to hung them from ropes or hooks (remember to always hang them upside down) for several days, generally between 4-5 days and 2-4 weeks, depending on the temperature, the thickness of the leaves, etc. Check herbs occasionally, for those with thicker stems will dry more slowly.
The best drying temperature is about 89ºF . It is not good to dry the herbs in the direct action of sun rays because they lose significant amounts of essential oils.
A sign that drying is complete is the moment when the leaves are fragile and look like parchment. If the leaves break to a light touch, it means that the drying process took too long and almost all the essential oils have been lost.
To best maintain the herbs, carefully tear off the leaves from the stems, keeping them as whole as possible. Leaves integrity guarantees the preservation of taste and flavor.
It is better to do the first storage of the herbs in paper bags. They will absorb the residual moisture in a few days. Store dried herbs in air tight containers and keep them away from light, heat and moisture. The best containers are the ones made of dark glass. Do not forget to label the container, indicating the packing date.
Air dried herbs retain their properties for about a year if stored correctly.
Crush the herbs between your fingers before adding them to food. This way you make sure that essential oils are released and you get maximum flavor and taste.
If you substitute fresh herbs with dried ones in recipes, remember that the latter have a stronger aroma. As a general rule, 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs can be substituted with 1 teaspoon of dried herbs. Of course, if the dry ones are older and have lost flavor and taste, you can use up to two teaspoons.
Drying in the Oven
It is a much faster method, but the end result is less satisfactory. The herb lose some of the essential oils and they have less flavor than air dried.
Clean the plants and arrange them on a large baking tray in a single layer. Let the leaves on the stems, for they will lose large amounts of essential oils otherwise. Transfer them in the oven heated to a minimum temperature. Never exceed 176ºF, the maximum acceptable. Dry thus a minimum of 4 hours, with the oven door opened to allow evacuation of steam.
If you feel that herbs begin to smell strongly, it is a sign that they are losing essential oils, so immediately reduce oven temperature or turn it off for a few minutes.
Turn the plants upside down several times at intervals of 30 minutes for uniform drying.
The smaller the temperature in this drying process, the more flavored and tasteful the herb will remain, but it will also take longer.
Finally, the leaves should be brittle, but not brown in color. If they are brownish, then you’ve already dried them too much. After drying, carefully detach the leaves from the stems, keeping them as whole as you can. Store them safe from air, light, moisture and heat, preferably in containers that close tightly.
This method is interesting, and I tried it with other plants than herbs, for example with hot peppers, awesome dried in the plastic compartment for vegetables in the fridge. It takes 1-2 weeks, but I was very satisfied with the results.
Returning to herbs, to begin, line a tray with paper towels and arrange the stems without touching, in a single layer. Place the tray in the refrigerator and check it daily until the herbs are completely dry.
I do not know how well the herbs dry if placed in the compartment for vegetables, but I’ll try it and come back with details. Basically, you should avoid condensation, but I am optimistic if it worked with peppers.
Drying in the Microwave
It is by far the fastest way to dry and perhaps the simplest. It is particularly effective if you live in a humid climate, where natural drying would last long. Of course, as we already know, there are also drawbacks. The first of them is that you must be very careful that herbs do not burn.
The way microwaves heat up varies from one model to another, so the drying time can vary widely.
It is very important to be clean and dry the herbs. Break the leaves off the stems and put them in a single layer on paper towels. Cover them with other paper towels and let them in the microwave for 1 minute. Check them and, if necessary, remove the smallest leaves which are already dried. Repeat for the remaining leaves, but check every 30 seconds.
Since this is a forced drying at high temperature, some of the essential oils will be lost.
Drying In Salt or Sugar
It is a very interesting method that applies best for herbs and flowers with strong flavors, such as lavender, lemongrass or lemon balm. It is not a quick method, but you will obtain two flavored products: dried herbs and flavored salt or sugar.
Herbs must be completely covered in salt and sugar and left a few weeks.
The dried herbs may be stored and used when needed. And as I said above, the flavored salt and sugar may be used for cooking too. From what I noticed in the cooking process both salt and sugar seem to lose much of their flavor, so it is better to add the salt to the dishes after removing from heat, and sugar to desserts just before serving.
Drying With the Dehydrator
There are quite effective dehydrators on the market, whose temperature can be adjusted very easily. They have multiple drawers which allows you to place more herbs for drying.
The herbs should be clean and dry. Place the strains on the drawers in a single layer without touching each other. Try as far as possible, to prevent the leaves from being bent or creased. It is not advisable to shred the leaves from the stems before drying. As I said before, they lose the essential oils responsible for flavor.
Herbs placed on the lower drawers, closer to the source of hot air will dry out first with several minutes or even hours before those of the upper drawers.
The drying process lasts for 1-4 hours, depending on the thickness of the leaves, so it is prudent to regularly check them, especially to avoid the burning of the plants.
For best results set the temperature to the lowest level; drying will take longer, but the plants will have more flavor and durability.
Finally, as I already told you, the leaves should be brittle, but not brown in color. After drying detach the leaves from the stems and store in airtight containers, protected from air, light, moisture and heat.