In addition to being healthful, herbs are a great way to add flavor to dishes, create a relaxing and invigorating tea, or use topically as medicinal remedies. But with a typical plant yielding more herbs than you can use at one time, you need to find know how to store and preserve herbs so that you can keep them long-term and get the most from your bountiful harvest.
If you don’t grow or forage herbs, and only buy them from the supermarket, knowing how to preserve herbs is still very handy. Typically they’re sold in packs that give you more than you need for your recipe, and the rest frequently get thrown out because they spoil so quickly.
This article will give you some ideas regarding ideal herb storage methods, each with their own pros and cons. Depending on your equipment and usage, this article will help you find the best way to store herbs for your own situation.
Whether you are a forager with a bag full of medicinal ground ivy or a gardener with more basil than you could ever use in tonight’s dinner, these storage techniques will give you a reserve supply of healthy and delicious herbs that you can keep for months or years beyond their typical shelf life.
Herb Storage Basics
Let’s start with some basics of herb storage. Generally, you want to store your herbs in airtight containers in a cool, dry place away from sunlight. Any moisture will invite mold growth and spoilage, and any invading light and air will contribute to the breakdown of chemicals that give herbs their rich flavor and potency.
Also, since it increases surface area, grinding herbs reduces their shelf life. Therefore, keep them whole, and only grind them when you are ready to use them, or if the particular preservation method calls for them to be ground up.
Since it requires little to no equipment, generally the best way to preserve herbs for storage is to dry them. If you do this they are unlikely to ever spoil or mold, but will eventually lose their richness. For a simple freshness test, you can always crush some in your fingers and sniff it to see if the herb still has a strong aroma.
Even under ideal conditions, different herbs have different shelf lives, but with a drying guide and an outline of some other herb preservation methods below, you can ensure your precious harvest keeps for as long as possible.
Dried herbs will last years longer than fresh ones. Dehydrators are an excellent resource for preserving herbs, but even without one, you can dry herbs in the oven, on a drying rack in the sun, or even just by hanging them upside down. Let’s look at each method in more detail:
Dehydrators come in several shapes and sizes, but they all do the same thing. They circulate warm air around your herbs for a long period of time, slowly removing the moisture until your herbs are completely crispy and crumble easily between your fingers.
Dehydrators come with instructions regarding what temperature and time settings to use for different herb types.
Dehydrators are convenient and effective, but require electricity to run. Thankfully, without a dehydrator, you still have other options for drying herbs.
Drying herbs in the oven is basically a crude way of doing the same thing that a dehydrating appliance does. Set your oven to the lowest setting (never any higher than 180 Fahrenheit, and place herbs on a cookie sheet. Check them every couple of hours, and remove them when they crumble in your fingers.
A drying rack is essentially just a pan or hanging rack set that you can use to leave your herbs hanging indoors or outdoors until they are dry. The main pitfall of this method is that a gust of wind can blow your herbs away if they’re not secured.
However, you can buy specialized herb drying racks made specifically for this purpose. These have built-in closures so that while your herbs will be exposed to the air, a sudden breeze won’t carry your precious harvest off with the wind.
There’s also the possibility that the sun-drying method removes more of the flavors, but you can dry them on racks anywhere, even out of the sun, as long as the air is dry enough.
Hang drying can be done outdoors or indoors. Simply bundle your herbs with string or rubber bands around the stems, and hang them upside-down.
If drying your herbs outside you can protect them from the sun, and from being nipped at by animals and invaded by bugs, by covering them with brown paper bags.
Many herbs preserve well in the freezer. With some culinary wizardry, you can create “herb cubes” to add quick flavor to sauces, soups, and other dishes. This method works well for herbs that have high moisture, such as mint leaves, and can retain more of the flavor than drying does.
One method for freezing herbs is to pack ice cube trays full of your chopped or full-leaf herbs, then add water until saturated. After freezing these you can take them out, let the ice melt, pat them dry, and use them in cooking as you usually would.
For certain dishes, you can replace the water with broth or a light oil, and then toss the cubes directly into your dish as it cooks. For example, you might make basil, oregano, and rosemary cubes with beef broth to toss directly into a pasta sauce.
An alternative, if you don’t have ice cube trays, is to freeze chopped herbs with your chosen liquid in a small, sealable plastic bag that you freeze flat after squeezing out all the air. This takes up less freezer space, exposes the herbs to less oxygen, and allows you to chop off however much of the frozen herb packet off that you need to use at any given time.
You can also simply freeze whole or chopped herbs in plastic bags without adding any liquid. Just be aware that whole frozen herbs will develop freezer burn more quickly than herbs frozen with water or oil. Freezing chopped herbs with oil in ice cube trays or bags appears to be the ideal freezing method to preserve flavor and freshness.
There are a couple of general downsides to freezing for preserving herbs, compared to other herb preservation methods.
- One is that it changes their texture, as the freezing process breaks down the cellular walls of the plants.
- Another is that frozen herbs won’t last as long as dried ones will.
You can expect frozen herbs to last for months, but remember that the longer you keep them, the weaker their flavor will ultimately become. Dried herbs, on the other hand, can last for 3-5 years.
Blanching Frozen Herbs
To help your frozen herbs to retain more of their color, you can blanch them before freezing. This prevents them from turning black as quickly in the freezer. They can also help them retain more of the flavors that would have been lost in the freezing process.
Here are the steps:
- Bring a pot of water to a boil.
- Add herbs.
- Boil briefly – only about 20-30 seconds for “soft” herbs like basil or cilantro, and 30-40 seconds for “hard” herbs like thyme or rosemary
- Remove herbs from hot water and quickly expose them to freezing cold water. This can be in a pot of ice water or under a faucet if your faucet gets extremely cold. The low water temperature is key to this stage of blanching.
Canning & Pickling
Canning and pickling isn’t a method to preserve herbs directly but is a great way to put them to good use by creating something delicious that will last an extremely long time in your pantry.
Your extra herbs can be incorporated easily into pickled vegetables, canned meat, canned crushed tomatoes for sauce, or even fruit chunks, which can be great canned with a minty syrup. When it comes to canning and pickling, the only real limit is your culinary imagination.
With garden-grown herb plants and foraging harvests often producing far more herbs than can be used at once, we could all use a few new ideas for how to preserve herbs and put them to good use before they go bad.
Whether you’re a homesteader looking to get the most out of your crop, or just someone who wants to stop wasting leftover herbs from the bundles you buy at the store, the above methods are the best ways to store herbs long-term.
And for a prepper, homesteader, or just an average supermarket shopper, that’s something that everyone can benefit from!
Author Bio: Eric is a nature-loving writer, experience junkie, and former Boy Scout who never forgot that time-honored Scout Motto: Be prepared. Aside from camping and survival, he loves writing about travel, history, and anything he finds strange and unique!
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