Picking, Drying & Freezing: How to Preserve Summer’s Herbs

Written by Shannon of Nourishing Days.

I learned to cook as a newlywed. Fresh out of college and working part-time, I spent hours in the kitchen, checked nearly every cookbook out of the library, and watched a bit too much of the Food network.

Through reading all of those cookbooks and listening to the professional chefs I learned how an herb or spice can make or break a dish. But unlike spices, herbs are fairly common at the local market and have found a large space in my backyard garden. Plus most culinary herbs have a lot of medicinal properties.

Most of us don’t live in the south of France, however, and need to preserve these herbs for winter if we’re going to pursue sustainable eating. I’m not an expert, but I have found that certain techniques can put the fresh taste of summer into an otherwise bleak January meal.

When To Pick

If you are growing the herbs yourself you’ll be the one picking them. Most of the experts say to pick just before or at the beginning of flowering. This is when the flavorful oils are at their peak.

Choose A Preservation Method

It helps to think of herbs as any other leafy green. Just as spinach, kale, and collards have distinct attributes, some herbs are light and fresh while others are deep and earthy. These differences call for different preservation methods, each enhancing the herb’s unique characteristics.

Some herbs, like mint, have different but equally delicious properties whether dried or frozen.  Let’s look at both of these methods below.

Drying

Drying is best suited to hardier herbs that you might add at the beginning of cooking such as:

  • Rosemary
  • Oregano
  • Thyme
  • Sage
  • Mint

Drying herbs can be as simple as cutting, making small bundles tied with string, and hanging upside down in a dark, cool, dry place. Or if you own a dehydrator set it to the lowest setting (no more than 95 degrees), and let it run until the herbs are completely dried.

Tips:

  • Small leaves like thyme and oregano can be left on the stem and removed once dry.
  • To remove leaves, pinch the stem and run your fingers from stem to tip.
  • Store in jars in a cool, dark place.

Freezing

Freezing works well for lighter tasting herbs that you might use at the end of a dish to perk it up such as:

  • Basil
  • Parsley
  • Cilantro
  • Chives
  • Mint

There are lots of complicated ways to freeze herbs involving food processors, oil, and lots of clean up. Honestly, though, when I have a lot of produce to preserve I need to keep things simple: I throw leaves on a sheet pan, flash freeze, and then transfer to a marked freezable container.

Tips:

  • Make sure your herbs are dry before freezing.
  • Don’t place cilantro and basil in the same bag – the flavors mingle too much.
  • Keep it simple: take a bunch of herbs, toss them in a labeled brown bag and place them in the freezer.
  • Kids can help take the leaves off of the stems!

Making Pestos

Any herb could be used for pesto, but when using an earthier herb like oregano, it’s nice to pair it with a lighter herb like parsley or cilantro.

You can preserve pesto by freezing, but I prefer the old fashioned method of leaving a layer of olive oil over the top and placing in the refrigerator. Like duck confit, the layer of fat preserves the pesto underneath by keeping bacteria and air out. I have stored a jar of pesto in the refrigerator for months by replacing the olive oil after every use. So simple.

Recipes:

As I pulled the last remaining bit of  herbs out of the freezer the other night, I realized that of all the splendid summer produce, the one food we had preserved enough of to last the whole year was basil.

It put a smile on my face. And that, my friends, has increased my enthusiasm for preserving herbs this summer.

Are you busy preserving herbs and if so, how?