As the growing season comes to a close, it’s time to preserve our garden’s bounty for use during winter months and beyond. With all the rain we’ve had this growing season, many of us will have lots of produce to preserve! We usually preserve vegetables by “canning” in a water bath or by blanching first to freeze, but there are lots of ways to preserve the herbs we’ve grown and I’ll cover some of them here. Adding herbs in cooking can add pizzazz to your culinary dishes, taking basic flavors to another level!
Overwintering the plant is one possibility we don’t always consider. Herbs can be annual, biennial or perennial. Perennial herbs such as chives, lavender, oregano and thyme can simply be left out in the garden, cut back and mulched for winter to come back again in the spring. See photo inset.
Parsley is a biennial that can be easily potted before a hard freeze and placed indoors in a sunny window to be used throughout the fall. With lots of direct sunlight, it may produce new growth in winter, but by late winter, the parsley will begin to produce a seed head and should be composted.
Rosemary is a tender perennial that can be potted to be enjoyed through winter with special conditions you create: 1. in a cool room — (50-60 degrees), 2. on a tray of pebbles with water to keep the soil barely moist and 3. with high humidity produced by regularly misting. Some rosemary plants are hardy enough to survive Zone 6 winters outside in a protected area of the garden. Look for that designation on the tag upon purchase.
If you prefer to preserve your herbs from the garden, cut them when plump and fresh, preferably in the early morning. Wash and dry them to be preserved in any one of a number of ways:
Dry — Air drying works best with herbs that do not have a high moisture content, like bay, dill, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, summer savory, and thyme . To retain the best flavor of these herbs, allow them to dry naturally or use a food dehydrator. Clean stems of these herbs are often gathered in bunches and hung upside down to dry naturally. Rosemary is an herb that dries very simply and retains its flavor for a long while.
Freeze-dry — Freezing herbs preserves the essential oils, and these oils are what provide the flavor. Simply strip the leaves from the stems and spread loosely on a tray to be frozen, then bagged and tagged by type.
Freeze in Oil — Stripping the leaves from stems as above is the first step to packing in oil. I like to use small freezer bags with a mixture of leaves and oil — just enough to make a flat package that can be marked, then stacked flat on the sides for easy, compact storage.
Steep in Oil — Decide whether to keep the herb intact or strip the leaves. Place the clean, dry herbs in olive oil in glass bottles with lids that tightly close. Store them in the refrigerator or a cool place. The oil used as a storage medium will become infused with the oil of the herb, making a fragrant addition to a variety of dishes.
Making a basic pesto is a great way to utilize the extra herbs you have in the garden. Pesto can be added to a number of dishes and is often frozen in cubes from a freezer tray that comes standard in every refrigerator/ freezer unit. But one unique way to preserve pesto comes from some on-line research I conducted, and I’m going to try it this year. Use a small flat tray lined with parchment paper; pour the pesto into the tray about ¼ inch thick and top with another piece of parchment. When almost frozen, score the pesto into smaller pieces and freeze in a bag for storage. When you are ready to use some pesto in your dish, simply break off what you need. This method, as opposed to freezing in cubes, allows you to use a lot or a little at a time.
Be advised that some chefs refuse to use frozen herbs, believing that the freezing process which changes the form of the herb also changes the flavor. Those chefs prefer to use a dried or fresh version when creating their culinary delight. Some lucky gardeners have the space on a sunny window to pot herbs and bring them indoors for the winter, as noted above. We all resort to the method that works best for each of us and there is really no wrong way to do it.
And just like when cooking with herbs, how best to use them (in what form) is a matter of personal preference. But what you CAN count on every time with an herb properly cleaned and prepared, is that it will be pungently fragrant and add a little pizzazz to your food prep!