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Monday, March 16, 2009

General Tips - Harvesting and Storing Fresh Herbs By Evelyn Fielding

Once your herb garden is established, you'll constantly be faced with the happy problem of how to deal with such abundance. It's not much trouble to cut off a nice handful of basil and freeze it, just to keep the plant from bolting in summer heat, so don't wait on the job. Keep up with harvesting and your herbs will produce more and be much happier.
When to Harvest Herbs
Harvest the various plant parts all summer, preserving them as you go along. Successive harvests allow the plant to recover between cuttings, giving you more herbs to stow away for winter. Don't harvest perennials too late in the season, because they need time to recover before frost and snow.
Don't cut any herb too close to the ground. Allow several sets of leaves to remain behind when cutting, so the plant can restart its growth. At the end of the season, tender annuals like basil and borage can be pulled up and the whole plant used.
Most herb leaves are harvested just before flowers appear on the plants, but leaves can still be harvested after blooming for most herbs. Watch out for bitter or "old" flavors.
When harvesting quantities of herbs, choose the early morning just as the sun has dried the dew from the leaves. The essential oils are strongest at this time. Choose a clear day. However, don't be afraid to cut off a sprig or two at any time to add to your dinner.
Wash freshly cut herbs quickly in clear, cold water. If you've mulched properly, you probably won't have to wash very much. Shake off the excess water. When working with basil, borage, lovage, and other large-leaved plants, remove the leaves from the stem to lessen the drying time. Small-leaved plants such as thyme, oregano, marjoram, and parsley can be left whole.
Most herbs can be dried; see some of my other articles with individual plant descriptions for best advice on how to store each one. Freezing is better for some.
Keeping Cut Herbs for Immediate Use
When storing fresh cut herbs for a few hours in the refrigerator, harvest and wash as directed. Shake the excess water from the leaves. Wrap in paper towels and store in the vegetable crisper in your refrigerator.
To keep fresh herbs in the refrigerator longer than a few hours, don't wash at harvest. Wrap in paper towels and store in the crisper. Wash just before using.
Never, ever use plastic bags to store herbs for fresh use. They'll go bad in a heartbeat.
Four Methods of Drying Herbs
Bunch together and tie stems with white cotton string. Hang upside down in a warm, dark place for a couple of weeks until dry. If you think the herbs might get dusty, put in a paper bag and hang up for about a month.
Seed heads such as fennel, coriander, dill, cumin, caraway, and anise should be dried in paper sacks. Gather the seeds just as they start to turn from green to grey or brown. Place in paper sacks, tying the stem to the neck of the bag so they hang freely inside. Let dry for about 3 weeks.
Spread the leaves on fine screen to dry. Make sure they are in a draft free place, because you don't want to lose your harvest to an errant breeze. Prop the screen up so there's good air circulation underneath. Don't put in direct sun, or in damp shade. Keep an eye on the herbs for a few days until they're thoroughly dry.
Place herbs in 150 degree or slower oven on cookie sheets covered with brown paper or parchment paper. Cut slits in the paper to allow air circulation. Spread out in a single layer and allow three to six hours to dry thoroughly. Leave the oven door ajar to promote moisture escape. Basil and chervil should be dried at 90 degrees or cooler to prevent browning.
Freezing Herbs
Some herbs do much better in the freezer, like mint, dill, marjoram, lovage, tarragon, parsley, chives, oregano, and basil. Gather herbs at the right time, wash and shake dry, then place in the food processor (not blender). Process until they are chopped to your liking, adding as little water as possible. Of course, you can chop them with a knife, but who wants to do that when you have a food processor gathering dust in the back cupboard?
Place the herb puree in an ice cube tray and freeze. Then, transfer to an airtight freezer bag and LABEL! Use the herbs straight from the freezer; a standard ice cube is about 1 tablespoon, and it will taste (almost) fresh.
Storing Home-Dried Bounty
Use an airtight container to store dried herbs, preferably dark glass jars. Watch the jars for moisture, in case you didn't get the herbs quite dry. Keep in a dark place to preserve flavor and color. Label everything!!
Leave the leaves, flowers, etc. whole when storing and crumble just before using. They'll hold onto their fresh flavor longer. Most herbs will keep a decent amount of flavor for six months.
Follow these simple tips and you can enjoy your herb garden all summer and long into the winter. Good food is only an ice cube away!
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