Herbs should be harvested when the oils responsible for their flavor and aroma are at their peak!
HARVESTING HERBS: Proper harvest times depend on the plant part being harvested and its intended use. General harvesting guidelines include:
• Herbs grown for their flowers: harvest when the flowers are almost open or are just opened for the most intense oil and flavor concentrations. Pinch or clip off the flowers and remove the entire flower head. Leave some of the blooms on the plant to mature to encourage self-sowing.
• Herbs grown for their leaves: harvest before they flower as flowering can cause the foliage to have an off flavor. To harvest from a branching herb, clip in a way that stimulates new growth by pinching or cutting back to a fresh set of leaves. To harvest from leaves or stalks that emerge from the plant’s center, snip them down to the soil. Up to 75% of the current season’s growth can be harvested at one time.
• Herbs grown for their seeds: harvest as the seed pods change color from green to brown to gray but before they open. Use herb snips or hand pruners to clip the pods into a paper bag.
• Herbs grown for their roots: harvest in the fall after the foliage fades and the plant’s energy is focused back into the roots and the medicinal qualities are most potent. Most roots should be harvested in the second year of plant growth. Use a specialized digger or a garden fork to loosen the soil around the roots, and take care not to break the roots as some have large tap roots that go very deep. Start 8-inches away from the plant base and reach deep into the soil to retrieve roots. Do not overharvest!
• Harvest in early morning after the dew dries.
• Annual herbs can be harvested until the first frost.
• Perennial herbs can be harvested until late August.
Photo was taken from a calendar purchased at www.thymeherbal.com
PRESERVING & STORING HERBS: FRESH HERBS: many herb gardeners preserve their herbs without drying them to retain the dazzling flavors that only fresh herbs provide. Reasons that fresh herbs are better than dried:
• Taste: herbs are packed full of naturally occurring phytochemical compounds that give them their unique flavors. When herbs are dried, some of these flavorful compounds lose their potency, and other herbs like cilantro don’t dry very well. For that reason, using alternative preservation methods is the best way to retain the flavor these herbs lose in the drying process.
• Aroma and Nutrition: the fragrance of herbs adds a dimension to the food and drink they are used in, and dried herbs simply do not have the same pungency as fresh herbs. There is no comparison between the powerful smell left clinging to the fingers after pinching some fresh basil and the whiff that is gotten when a jar of dried basil is opened. The same compounds that make herbs aromatic contribute to their nutritional content of herbs, and preservation methods other than drying tend to retain higher levels of nutrients.
• Uses: there are many uses for herbs where a fresh herb is a must and a dried version simply will not do the trick.
PRESERVATION METHODS: FRESH HERBS: the method used to preserve fresh herbs depends on personal preference and the intended use of the herb. Herbs with hard and woody stems and tough leaves make good dry herbs, but fresh and tender herbs are better preserved using other methods including:
Short-Term: the best way to extend the use of fresh herbs to be used in a maximum of 14 days is to treat them like cut flowers. Cut the stems at an angle using a sharp knife, and place immediately in a container of fresh water. This method is ideal for herbs purchased from the grocery store. By changing the water every couple of days and refrigerating the bouquet, it is possible to keep herbs fresh for up to two weeks.
Freezing Herbs Bare: the simplest way to freeze fresh herbs involves placing herbs on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper in a single layer and freezing them. To do this, first, wash and dry the herbs, lay them on the lined baking sheet, and pop them in the freezer. Herbs with woody stems, such as rosemary and thyme, are perfect frozen bare. Once frozen, place the sprigs in a bag and shake to remove the leaves from the stems. Then, pick out the stems and preserve the leaves in a container. Chives and lemongrass are also perfectly frozen this way. Chop, freeze, and then store. The leaves will not stick together after they’ve been flash frozen.
Herb Rolls: many tender broad-leaved herbs will not do well frozen bare. The best way to freeze these herbs is to make them into a roll by removing the leaves from the stems and packing them into a freezer bag. Press the herbs into the bottom and then roll the bag tightly, expressing all the air to the top and sealing it off. Use rubber bands to maintain the rolled-up shape and place the plastic bag in the freezer. When ready to use the herbs, remove the rubber bands, open the bag, and cut off only as much of the roll that is needed, then re-freeze. Cilantro, chervil, parsley, sage, tarragon, and other flat-leaved herbs perform well with this method, which takes up less space in the freezer than freezing loose leaves.
Herbal Ice Cubes: very tender herbs that are best used fresh can be stored in ice cube form. Mint, cilantro, and lemon balm can be stored this way for use in recipes later. Simply place leaves chopped or whole into the cells of an ice cube tray, fill 1/2 way with water, and freeze for an hour or so. Don’t worry that the herbs will have floated to the top. After they are frozen, fill the tray to the top and freeze again. Keeping the herbs completely encased in ice will protect them from oxidizing and preserve their color and flavor. Transfer the frozen herb ice-cubes from the tray into freezer bags or some other sealed container for single-serving use. No need to thaw, cubes can be tossed directly into sauces or soups. Herbed ice cubes can also be used in cocktails such as mojitos and margaritas.
Herbal Oil Cubes: basil, oregano, and marjoram turn black when frozen bare. To keep these herbs their most flavorful and beautiful, freeze them in a paste that is suspended in oil by removing the leaves from the stems and then tossing a cup of fresh herbs into a blender or food processor with 1/4 cup of olive oil and pulse until it is a nice, uniform mix. Pour the mixture into ice cube trays and then once frozen transfer into an airtight container for long-term storage. This can also be done with whole leaves by simply pressing them into ice cube trays and then covering them with oil and freezing.
Herbed Butter: an easy way to preserve fresh herbs so that they are ready to be used for sautéing, spreading, or stuffing. To preserve herbs in butter, use either salted or unsalted butter. Begin by rinsing the herbs, then let them dry completely, and once dry, separate the leaves from stems. While the herbs are drying, leave the butter at room temperature so that it softens. Mince the herbs finely and add salt or lemon zest if desired. Place the butter and herbs in a bowl and mash them together until the mixture is completely uniform. Cut a square of parchment paper, and using a spatula, place all the butter onto it. Roll the paper around the mixture to make a log shape. Fold the ends and place it in the refrigerator.
This is a fantastic way to add a bit of flair to recipes and to create blends suited to various cuisines. Parsley butter with lemon zest adds brightness to veggies, basil butter is a great accompaniment to scrambled eggs or fish, and sage butter complements chicken or biscuits. Most herbs can be compounded into herbed butter which will last 2 weeks in the refrigerator. Herbed butter can also be frozen and should be used within 2 months.
Herb-Infused Salt: preserving herbs with salt is a deeply satisfying way to preserve the season’s bounty and lend rich flavoring to savory foods. The addition of garlic creates a spice mix that is perfectly balanced and dry-preserved without requiring a dehydrator or special equipment.
Begin with half a cup of kosher salt, two cups of pungent fresh herbs such as rosemary, thyme, savory, and sage, and four to five peeled cloves of garlic. Using either a food processor or a chef’s knife, mince the garlic with two tablespoons of salt. Add the herbs to the food processor or chopping board and chop them until the mixture is the texture of coarse sand. Spread the mixture over a baking sheet and sprinkle the remaining salt over it. Leave it in a sunny spot near a window for 2 days to dry out, and then transfer it into clean and dry mason jars. This salt is delicious on popcorn, fried eggs, and potatoes and it makes a great gift that can be stored for a year.
Salt-Preserved Herbs: this method was used by our ancestors who lacked refrigerators and knew how to preserve herbs without fancy equipment. Delicate and tender herbs such as basil, cilantro, chives, dill, parsley, and tarragon that dry poorly are perfect for this method.
Begin by sprinkling a layer of salt in the bottom of a clean and dry jar, laying a single layer of herbs then salt, and continuing until the jar is full. Keep the jar in a cool and dark place like a pantry shelf or the refrigerator, and pull out herbs as needed, shaking or rinsing the salt off if desired. When the herbs are gone, the salt retains the herb flavor, so it can be used in cooking or pickling. This method of preservation should keep herbs fresh and usable for six months to a year.
Herb-Infused Sugar: using the exact same technique as salt preserving, layer fresh herbs with sugar to infuse the sugar with a delicate flavor and preserve herbs for separate use. A food processor can also be used to mince herbs into sugar. Herbs like mint, lemon balm, lavender, rosemary, thyme, and sage make a lovely herbed sugar. Leave the glass jar in a cool, dark place or the refrigerator, and use the sugar for baking, cooking, and cocktails. This method should preserve herbs for up to a year.
Herb-Infused Honey: honey is a natural preservative that has antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties. It can also keep the flavors of herbs alive for over a year. To preserve herbs in honey, it is best to use a honey that is local, raw, and not strongly flavored. Simply place the herbs whole or minced into a clean glass jar and cover with honey. Let the infusion sit for a minimum of six weeks for the flavors to deeply penetrate, and then use it to sweeten tea, as a syrup topping, in baking, or even as a base for a meat glaze.
Herb-Infused Vinegar: is an easy way to preserve the flavor of herbs for long periods of time. Start with a lighter vinegar such as a champagne, white wine, or another light-hued vinegar. Use a well-cleaned glass canning jar and a handful of herb sprigs, and then pour vinegar over the sprigs, leaving at least a quarter inch of space at the top.
Place a piece of parchment paper over the jar before adding the lid and band, screw on the lid, and store in a cool and dark place for a month. Once infused, strain the vinegar through a cheesecloth to remove any sediment, pour it into glass bottles, and add a decorative herb sprig or two if desired. Herb-infused vinegar makes a tasty salad dressing and marinade that will keep indefinitely.
PRESERVATION METHODS: DRYING HERBS: heat, low humidity, and air movement are needed to dry fresh herbs. Most herbs are best for drying just before the flowers first open, and new leaves at the tip of the plant will have the most concentrated flavor. Herbs have more essential oils if harvested on a sunny day in mid-morning after the dew has evaporated.
Use scissors to cut the stems just above a leaf or pair of leaves and leave 4 to 6 inches of stem for later growth. To prepare herbs for drying, remove any bruised, soiled, or imperfect leaves and stems, and don’t forget to inspect plant parts, especially seeds, for insects. Rinse the stems in cool water, gently shake to remove excess moisture, then gently pat dry with a paper towel, removing as much moisture as possible.
Make sure the herbs are completely dry to prevent mold growth during storage. Herbs are sufficiently dry when leaves are crispy and crumble easily between the fingers.
Air Drying: stems of herbs such as mint, sage, or thyme can be tied in a small cluster and hung in a dry area with good air circulation. Using a rubber band to tie them will tighten as the stems dry and the stems will not fall out of the cluster. Care should be taken to avoid humidity and dust, so hang herbs away from the sink, stove, or dishwasher where there is a lot of moisture.
Keep dust off herbs by covering them with a paper bag punched with holes which will allow air to circulate. If drying seedy herbs, place them in the bag so that the bag can catch the falling seeds, and when drying leafy herbs, place the bag over the herbs as a dust shield.
Dehydrating: can be used with nearly all herbs but is especially good for herbs such as basil, oregano, tarragon, lemon balm, and mints. These herbs have a high moisture content, and they often mold if they are not dried quickly in a dehydrator or some other method. To dehydrate herbs, harvest just before the first flowers open when the buds are full, gather them in the morning just after the dew has evaporated, rinse them in cool water, and shake them gently to remove moisture. Don't rub them dry, as this bruises the leaves. Prepare the leaves for the dehydrator by removing any long stems and damaged or bruised leaves. It's fine to leave a bit of stem near the leaves as they go into the dehydrator. This prevents bruising or damaging the leaves, which will reduce their quality when dried.
Place the leaves on drying trays so they do not touch. Larger leaves can be dried separately. Do not dehydrate herbs with fruits or vegetables because the flavors may mix, and the moisture contents are different. Cover the dehydrator tray with a fine screen to prevent herbs from falling down into the bottom. To allow space for larger leaves, remove the tray above for good air flow. It is important that all the leaves receive plenty of air circulation, so remove any trays that aren't necessary.
For the best flavor, dehydrate the leaves on the lowest setting between 95-110 degrees. Use the shortest period of time available and check on the herbs often. Typical drying time is 1-4 hours. Herbs are dry when the leaves crumble and the stems break when bent.
After dehydration is complete, separate the leaves from any bits of stem before storing.
Screen Drying: Herbs with small leaves can be laid out on a fine stainless steel or food-safe plastic screen to dry, and when using a drying rack, it usually takes several days for the pieces to dry. The more you spread them out, the quicker they’ll dry.
For herbs with larger leaves, remove the leaves from the stems and lay them on the screen without allowing the leaves to touch. Don’t pile them on top of each other!
Put the rack in a dark, cool, and dry spot where there’s good air circulation. Check on them every couple of days to test for dryness, and make sure they’re not molding.
When dried, just strip the leaves from the stems to store.
STORING DRIED HERBS: it is always best to store dried herbs as whole leaves to preserve their aroma and flavor, and to enable them to be crushed immediately before use.
The one exception is herbs that will be blended for use in teas. These should be crushed immediately after drying and before storage.
Store the dried herbs in an airtight container and keep it in a cool, dark, and dry location. Any light or warmth will lead to faster deterioration, so avoid the urge to display dried herbs in the open. For best flavor, use the herbs within six months to one year.
Substituting Dried Herbs for Fresh: use these amounts as guidelines for substituting fresh herbs for dried and powdered herbs:
• 1 tablespoon fresh = 1 teaspoon dried.
• 1 tablespoon fresh = 1/3 teaspoon powder.
• 1 teaspoon fresh = ½ teaspoon dried.
• 1 teaspoon fresh = 1/8 teaspoon powder.