If you are using the leaves of an herb plant you should harvest them before the plant flowers to prevent them from becoming bitter. The best flavored leaves are the newest ones at the tips. If you are processing the flowers you should pick them as soon as they are just starting to open and are still tender.
Gather the herbs. Rinse herbs in cool water and gently shake to remove excess moisture. Discard all bruised, soiled or imperfect leaves.
You can process by a few easy methods, such as: Drying, Freezing or Infusing
Drying is the easiest method of preserving herbs. Simply expose the leaves, flowers or seeds to warm, dry air. Leave the herbs in a well ventilated area until the moisture evaporates. Sun drying is not recommended because the herbs can lose flavor and color fast. If you are going to dry outdoors, it is best to keep them in the shade.
Dehydrating is a fast and easy way to dry high quality herbs because temperature and air circulation can be controlled. Pre-heat dehydrator with the thermostat set to 95°F to 115°F. In areas with higher humidity, temperatures as high as 125°F may be needed. After rinsing under cool, running water and shaking to remove excess moisture, place the herbs in a single layer on dehydrator trays. Drying times may vary from 1 to 4 hours. Check periodically. Herbs are dry when they crumble, and stems break when bent.
Oven Method: You can also do this method in your oven if the temperature goes low enough. I have dried at 250 degrees with success. Just remember the hotter/faster they dry the less color and flavor is preserved.
Small Hanging Bundles:
Less Tender Herbs — The more sturdy herbs such as rosemary, sage, thyme, lavender, and parsley are the easiest to dry without a dehydrator. Tie them into small bundles and hang them to air dry. Air drying outdoors is often possible; however, better color and flavor retention usually results from drying indoors or. Make sure you only tie into small bundles as if too large then only the outer layer dries causing the inner to mold. Also, make sure you have good air circulation.
Paper Bag Bundle Method:
Tender-Leaf Herbs — Basil, oregano, tarragon, lemon balm and mint have a high moisture content and will mold if not dried quickly. Try hanging the tender-leaf herbs or those with seeds inside paper bags to dry. Tear or punch holes in the sides of the bag. Suspend a small bunch (large amounts will mold) of herbs in a bag and close the top with a rubber band. Place where air currents will circulate through the bag. Any leaves and seeds that fall off will be caught in the bottom of the bag. Hanging mesh racks work really well with this method.
Cool Oven Layers:
Another method, especially nice for mint, sage or flower petals is to dry the leaves separately. In areas of high humidity, it will work better than air drying whole stems. Remove the best leaves from the stems. Lay the leaves on a paper towel, without allowing leaves to touch. Cover with another towel and layer of leaves. Five layers may be dried at one time using this method. Dry in a very cool oven. The oven light of an electric range or the pilot light of a gas range furnishes enough heat for overnight drying. Leaves dry flat and retain a good color.
Drying Racks and Screens:
This method works very well instead of bundles they just take up a little more space.
Microwave Ovens are a fast way to dry herbs when only small quantities are to be prepared.
Separate the leaves from the stem (discard or compost the stems) Rinse in water and blot the leaves dry with paper towels.
Fold a paper towel to fit on a microwave-safe plate without too much overhang. Arrange some of the herb leaves in a single layer on the towel and then top with another folded paper towel and pat down. Transfer to the cooking plate in a microwave.
Microwave for 30-second increments, checking between each to make sure the leaves don’t burn, until the herbs are slightly dry and reduced in size. This should take about 2 minutes in total, but times may vary depending on the microwave. Continue cooking in batches. If you have a super strong microwave (like over 1000 watts) try doing a test batch at full power. If the herbs are getting zapped too quickly then reduce to 50-percent power.
When the leaves are crispy dry and crumple easily between the fingers, they are ready to be packaged and stored. Dried leaves may be left whole and crumpled as used, or coarsely crumpled before storage. Husks can be removed from seeds by rubbing the seeds between the hands and blowing away the chaff. Place herbs in airtight containers and store in a cool, dry, dark area to protect color and fragrance.
Dried herbs are usually 3 to 4 times stronger than the fresh herbs. To substitute dried herbs in a recipe that calls for fresh herbs, use 1/4 to 1/3 of the amount listed in the recipe.
Freezing Herbs in Ice Cube Trays with Water
- Strip leaves from stems and chop them as you would to use them fresh.
- Fill an ice cube tray half full of water. Place herbs in each section of the tray—about 1 tablespoon in each.
- Push herbs under the water as much as possible. Place in the freezer.
- The next day when herb cubes are frozen solid, add additional water to top off the cube. Return to the freezer and freeze solid.
- After the trays are frozen solid, pop out the herb cubes and store in a freezer bag. Label and date.
- Strong smelling herbs should be double wrapped in foil or placed in freezer jars to avoid the transfer of odors.
- To use, add a frozen cube in soups, sauces, stews or other combination cooked dishes.
Freezing Herbs in Ice Cubes Trays with Oil
- Chop herbs. Mix ⅓ to ½ cup of oil with 2 cups of chopped herbs. (The oil allows the mixture to be scraped from the jar more easily because it doesn't freeze as hard.)
- This can be frozen in ice cube trays and used as above, or it can be frozen in small jelly jars. The oil will not freeze solid like ice, and you can scrape out the amount you want to use.
- A neutral flavored vegetable oil such as canola oil allows the flavor of the herb to dominate. Olive oil is suitable if it complements the flavor of the herb.
- Herbs frozen in oil maintain their color better than those frozen individually. This method works well with basil.
- Another option is to make a paste by mixing ⅓ cup oil with 2 cups fresh herbs in a blender until smooth.
Note: Oil should only be added to herbs if it will be frozen. Do not store herbs in oil at room temperature.
Cooks find that herbs frozen in cubes cook unevenly as the cube melts. Try this alternative for use in sauces and cooked dishes.
- Place a thin layer of chopped herbs and oil inside a zipper-lock bag.
- Seal leaving about a half-inch of space open.
- Squeeze out excess air before sealing the bag completely.
- Place the bag on a large plate or baking sheet, spreading out the herb mixture to a thin, even layer and place it in the freezer until completely frozen solid.
- When ready to use, cut or break off as much as you need, reseal the bag, and store the rest for later use.
- Because of the greater surface area, herbs frozen this way freeze and melt quickly.
Freezing Stems and Leaves
- Strip leaves off the stems and spread in a single layer on a cookie sheet and place in the freezer.
- As soon as they are frozen, place them in a freezer bag.
- Because the leaves are frozen separately, you can remove the amount you need.
- Caution: Work quickly when removing leaves from the bag to avoid thawing. When thawed and refrozen the leaves will freeze together.
- Chop chives and lemon grass before freezing. They are thin and will freeze quickly.
- Another option is to blanch leaves of larger herbs such as basil for 15 seconds to stop enzyme reactions; immediately plunge in ice water to stop the cooking. Drain, pat dry and freeze on a tray before packaging.
- Dill weed can be frozen as stems
- Wrap 3 or 4 stems in plastic wrap and then over-wrap in aluminum foil. Freeze.
- Dill weed will become limp and dark in color but will still impart flavor for pickling.
- Rosemary and thyme can also be frozen on the stem.
Infusing Herbs in Vinegar
To start, select a type of vinegar to flavor. Any type of vinegar can be used, but some will compliment certain flavorings better. White vinegar is clear, but has a more acidic flavor, while cider vinegar, which is sweeter and milder, has an amber color. Wine and champagne vinegars are great, but are more expensive than other types. Balsamic vinegar is not recommended, because of its strong flavor.
Select fresh herbs, picked before blossoming, for best taste. Use two to three sprigs of herbs per pint (2 cups) of vinegar, and use only the tender stems and best leaves. Do not use leaves that are moldy, pest-damaged or discolored. Wash the herbs and dry on clean paper towels.
If using spices, fruit or vegetables, such as garlic, jalapenos, berries, citrus peel, cinnamon, peppercorns or mustard seeds, wash well and use 1 to 2 cups of fruit per pint of vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon of whole spices per pint.
Sterilize your washed canning jars by boiling for 10 minutes in boiling water. Follow the manufacturer’s directions to prepare the lids.
Place your chosen fresh herbs in sterilized pint jars. 3 tablespoons dried herbs per pint of vinegar. Heat the vinegar to just below boiling (190-195°F). Pour vinegar over herbs, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Wipe the rims of the jars with a clean, damp cloth and screw on lids and screw bands.
Store vinegar at room temperature for 3 to 4 weeks to allow flavor to develop. You may taste the vinegar to gauge the flavor of the vinegar and allow it to develop for longer if needed. If the vinegar is too strongly flavored, you can dilute it by adding some plain vinegar.
Once the vinegar is flavored to your liking, you can strain the vinegar by pouring it through a coffee filter or damp cheesecloth and discard herbs. Pour strained vinegar into clean, sterilized jars. A washed and sanitized sprig of fresh herb may be added to the jar before closing.
To store your vinegar, refrigerate it and use within 3 months. For longer, shelf-stable storage, heat process the jars by processing pints for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath canner with 1/4-inch headspace.
If your flavored vinegar starts to mold at any time, or show signs of fermentation such as bubbling, cloudiness or sliminess, discard the product and do not use any of it that is left.
Infusing Herbs in Butter or Oils
Herbs can be easily added to butter, sometimes called compound butter. It is an excellent way to preserve fresh herbs, especially those like rosemary that lose some of their texture or flavor when dried. Parsley, cilantro (coriander), chives, tarragon, and chervil are also good candidates for herb butter.
1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) butter
1 to 3 teaspoons finely chopped fresh tender herbs of choice
1 teaspoon lemon zest optional
Kosher salt, to taste, optional
- Wax or parchment paper
Leave butter out at room temperature until somewhat soft. Mince the herbs and zest the lemon, if using. Put the softened butter in a bowl. Add the herb and zest and using a fork, mash it all together until thoroughly combined. Add salt to taste if you started with unsalted butter. Scoop the herb butter onto a piece of waxed paper. Shape it into a log by rolling it. Wrap the herb butter tightly and refrigerate.
- Herb butter will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 months.
- You can freeze the herb butter to store for longer. Put the wax or parchment paper-wrapped herb butter into a freezer bag and freeze for up to six months. The herb butter will still be safe to eat after that, but the quality will decline significantly. Transfer the frozen herb butter to the refrigerator 24 hours before you intend to use it.