As the growing season comes to a close, I find myself gathering as many things from the garden as possible before it is all done. The past few weeks have been spent collecting garden seeds, harvesting the last of the tomatoes and peppers and finally this past week, harvesting the herbs that I want to preserve.
If you take a look at the herbs available in the stores, whether you buy fresh or dried, you will notice that they do not come cheap. In fact, many of them are quite expensive. Harvesting your herbs from the garden will produce a great deal of product and will go a long way with just a little time. Processing what you have will also save money in the long run.
In my garden, I usually plant many of the common herbs. Of course, I only plant the items that I use frequently and are easy to grow. Those herbs are chives, basil, sage, rosemary, thyme, mint and parsley. There are also numerous other types such as cilantro, oregano, camomile, fennel and even bay leaf! Although I harvest fresh quantities during the summer months for cooking and flavoring, it is during the fall that I gather all the rest to dry and use during the winter months and into the following summer.
Drying herbs is quite easy, it just takes a little time and patience, but it is well worth the effort. Go into the garden before a frost and take a sharp scissors to cut the stems at the base. Herbs such as basil, parsley and rosemary are easily cut. Place them into a cool water bath to gently swish them around to wash off dirt and insects that may have adhered to the leaves during summer. If you use chemicals in the garden, a more vigorous wash will be necessary to make sure the product remains healthy for you and your family. Most herbs never need sprays in the garden, as their scents act as their best deterrent to insects.
Create small bunches with your herbs and tie the ends with string or twine to hang from a garage rafter, in the basement from the ceiling or on a rack. Small bunches work better as they dry quicker and have better air circulation around the sprigs. If you tie larger bunches together, the leaves tend to be too close together and encourage mold growth that will spoil the drying process and herbs.
Another wonderful option is to lay your cut herbs out on an old screen so there is air circulation both from above and below the leaves. Typically herbs will dry within a week’s time given the air surrounding them is dry enough.
Air-drying is always best to preserve the herb’s color and flavor, but some people do not have the luxury of a dry location to preserve their herbs or the time. In these cases, a dehydrating machine or an oven will help the drying process. Just be aware that these methods create an inferior herb as you lose color and flavor during the processing.
Once the herbs are dry, take the dried leaves and place them into an air-tight bag or crush them and seal them in jars in a cool, dark and dry space. When using dry herbs, keep in mind that they are much more potent than fresh. So when using them, use a third less than you would with fresh to keep the flavors alive.
There are also other ways to preserve herbs. Some people choose to place herb sprigs into bottles of olive oil to use for cooking later. When doing this, always remember to place the oil in a cool environment for best preservation and use the product within three months for best flavor.
Many people also use some of the more tender herbs such as basil, mint, and cilantro and place them into ice cube trays. Fill the spaces one-third full with fresh chopped herbs and then fill the remaining two-thirds with water and freeze. Once frozen, take the cubes and place them into a bag and use them in cooking as the time presents itself.
One of my favorite herbs is basil. I only dry a little of it as I love to harvest it fresh and make numerous batches of pesto to freeze in containers and use during the winter months. By the time that project is complete, there are no leaves left for drying.
The time has most likely passed now for our season as the temperatures have taken a nosedive but if you have kept them covered during the frost, get out and cut what you need and tie them up for drying. The drying process takes no time at all and once they are ready, just place them into their containers for use later.
You will be happy you took the time to dry your own garden herbs once you enter the store and find out what you could be paying. It is a fact that herbs grown in your own garden are of a much higher grade than the ones that have been sitting in the stores waiting to be bought for unknown periods of time. One also gets a certain satisfaction out of knowing they are using products they have grown in their own gardens and know exactly the love that went into them.