Growing herbs is a very rewarding experience. Once the crop is ready, however, most people will want to preserve some for later use. Keeping them in a loose, leaf state is fortunately fairly easy for most herbs.
The most common method of preserving loose leaf herbs is drying them. This can be done by picking the leaves from the stems and then laying them on a piece of fabric or mesh. Leaves should be arranged in a single layer, and the fabric suspended so air can freely circulate. A small framework will allow the fabric to be elevated from a counter or table. Once the leaves are dry, they can be put into jars for long-term storage.
Another way to dry herbs is to pick entire stems. The stems are then hung upside-down until they are dry. Once dried, the leaves can be picked off and put into jars.
The drying process should never be sped up by putting the herbs into an oven or microwave. This type of heat causes the loss of essential oils, flavor, and nutrients. Therefore, herbs should always be air-dried. The area should have good air circulation to allow for somewhat fast, but natural, dehydration. It should take a few days to dry herbs under these conditions. To keep the herbs clean during the process, cover them with a layer of cheesecloth.
When air-drying, check the herbs every day to ensure that they don’t get too dry and lose their flavor. Once they are dry enough for storage, they should be put into airtight containers to keep their essential oils from evaporating.
An electric dehydrator can also be used to dry herbs. It keeps the air moving around the leaves, without the damaging effects of oven heat. These are especially useful for people who don’t have a good place to air-dry their crops. Once the dehydrator has done its work, store the herbs in an airtight container as you would with air-drying.
For cases where the herbs don’t need to retain their texture, freezing is an option. Freezing preserves flavor and nutrients, but not color and texture. Therefore, cooked dishes are the final destination of frozen herbs. To freeze, remove herb leaves from the stems, and then seal them in plastic bags. Herbs can also be chopped up before freezing or even put in ice cube trays with just enough water to cover them.
Another good way to preserve herbs is to put them into oil or vinegar. Not only do the herbs stay fresh, this process results in some nice-tasting herbal salad dressing or bread dip. A healthy type of oil, such as olive oil, should be used for this type of preservation.
To keep herbs in a fresh state for a few days, pick them like you would flowers and leave the leaves on the stems. Put them in the refrigerator with water to keep them fresh, and pick off leaves as needed. If you find that you’ll have some left over even after a few days, dry the remainder or use one of the other long-term preservation methods.
With all the ways to preserve herbs, there is no reason not to grow as many as possible. The sense of satisfaction gained from growing even some of your own food can’t be beaten. Plus, you’ll know exactly what want into the growing process, so there’ll be no worries about pesticides or other such unwanted additions. Perhaps best of all, home-grown herbs have the best flavor. You’ll be amazed at how alive things taste with your own herbs adding spark to the meal.