Monday, May 3, 2010

Preserving Herbs, Part One Of What I'm Sure Will Be A Series

At 8:15 a.m. last Thursday, via text message . . . I must have already had a lot of coffee. Either that, or I answer herb preservation questions in my sleep. Neither possibility would surprise me.

Q. Morning. How do I dry/save some of these herbs? Is freezing them after I pick them good or what?

A. I'm trying to remember which herbs you have [the bad thing is, I'd taken him the plants myself a few weeks before]. Dill will dry pretty well on a clean screen or rack in a sunny room. Basil dries okay but the best thing is to chop it up and freeze it with a little water in ice cube trays. You can store the basil cubes in a baggie. Cilantro doesn't dry well, but freezes okay.

More Info/Follow-Up: Obviously, this was the nutshell version. I know this will be a recurring topic, so I won't get into all the many, many, many uses for homegrown herbs. Or, at any rate, not yet! There are a few important edits and add-ons to my answer, though:

Drying herbs (or any garden produce) is a delicate process, fraught with potential for both success and disaster. If you don't have good air circulation, you risk mold both now and later. Few things are more disappointing than storing a season's harvest only to pull it off the shelf a month later and see fuzzy gray growth. Ew.

If you don't dry things fairly quickly, you start to lose quality (and, in the case of some medicinal herbs, effectiveness). If you dry them TOO quickly, or at too high a temperature, you lose a lot of flavor and end up with something that resembles the original plant to the same extent that the produce section at Wal-Mart resembles your local farmers' market. Double ew. For this and for several other reasons, most dehydrators will not work well for herbs. If you're lucky enough have one that will, read your owner's manual carefully and go for it!

Another unavoidable caveat: some herbs are simply easier to preserve than others. I may have advised freezing cilantro, but that's only because it's the lesser of several evils (the worst, of course, being a cilantro-less existence). Nothing is ever going to compare to fresh herbs except . . . well, fresh herbs. Some, such as oregano, rosemary, and thyme, are nearly as good dried as they are fresh. Some, like basil, will stay tasty after freezing. Others not so much.

All the above, though, as well as many others, are fantastic when enjoyed fresh and in season. All the more reason to grow your own!

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