Let’s talk a little bit about preserving fresh herbs to use throughout the winter in soups, sauces, Thanksgiving turkeys, and anything else that can use a little flavor pick-me-up when the number of sunlit hours in a day drops below12. Some herbs dry well, some freeze well, and still others are best preserved in oil. But how is one supposed to know which method is the preferred? For me personally, I use the following formula: 1 part past experience, 1 part trial n’ error with new herbs, and 4 parts The Moosewood Restaurant Kitchen Garden book. A resource for all gardening questions, the MRKG has an especially detailed herb section that makes it a point to talk about how to preserve each specific herb. God bless ya, David Hirsch and company.
Now that the first frost has hit, I’ve decided to gather in many of the fresh herbs at the farm to dry and sell at Headhouse’s special day-before-Thanksgiving market. I’m also eager to put away some frozen basil and pesto for my own use. So let me show you how I’m doing these things. But first, here’s a list of the farm’s herbs and how I’m preserving each of them:
~ Marjoram – drying
~ Oregano – drying
~ Sage – drying
~ Dill – drying
~ Lavender – drying
~ Hyssop – drying
~ Yarrow – drying
~ Basil (green) – freezing with oil
~ Basil (purple) – freezing as pesto
The drying of oregano, sage, dill and lavender were fairly obvious to me from the start since I’ve used all of those herbs in their dried states before. Drying herbs is ridiculously simple and something you can easily do too by visiting your local farmers market and getting several bunches of the kinds you’re most likely to use over the winter. If herbs aren’t already tied into secure bunches, use a rubber band or twist tie at the base of the stems to create bunches. I personally like to use smaller bunches for drying so when the time comes to pack them up, it’s an easier process to get the leaves out of the smaller bunches.
But first things first. Once you have your herbs bunched, gently wash them in water, being careful not to bruise the leaves with any rough handling. Lightly shake off the water and then dab gently with a towel to be sure there’s no excess moisture. Find a nice dry dark place in your house – my basement works well since it’s dry, but don’t use yours if it’s prone to dampness. The kitchen is a good dry room, but often has too much light (light discolors the herbs). You can side-step this hurdle by tying a paper bag around your herbs and hanging them up. Don’t just place the herbs in the bottom of the bag and hang the bag though. You need to suspend the herbs by their stems to allow for good air circulation to avoid mold and uneven drying so wrap the bag opening around the herb stems and hang the stems.
Herbs will take a couple weeks to dry, depending on the type. If you’ve ever used dried herbs from the grocery store, you want that affect for your home-dried bunches. Once fully dried, hold bunches over a piece of wax paper or even just plain paper and run your fingers down each stem to remove the leaves. Once you have all the leaves removed, place them in a labeled ziplock bag or air-tight jar and enjoy throughout the winter. As a rule of thumb, when using dried herbs in recipes that call for fresh, reduce the amount by about a third as dried herbs have a more concentrated flavor.
I’m hoping to try my hand at tea making with the dried yarrow and hyssop. Both have traditionally been used to treat cold symptoms and a few other minor medical conditions. Have any of you made your own teas before? I’ll see what I can teach myself too and perhaps I’ll have a post later this winter on making herbal teas.
Freezing Basil and Other Herbs
As for basil, it’s a little tricky. While it’s not uncommon to find dried basil in the grocery store, it’s commonly agreed among chefs and other culinary experts that dried basil just isn’t the way to go. To preserve basil’s unique summery flavor, it’s best to puree fresh leaves in oil and then freeze it. The process is rather simple but a little more time consuming than drying. To make this worthwhile, be sure to have several cups of fresh basil leaves to start with as it yields small quantities of puree. Again to start, gently (very gently as it bruises easily) wash the basil and shake off the water. Remove the leaves from the stems and roughly chop. Place in a blender with a tablespoon or two of extra virgin olive oil and pulse. If a puree doesn’t begin to form, add a little more oil, about a teaspoon at a time until a smooth puree comes together. You don’t want to add any more oil than necessary so as to keep the basil flavor as potent as possible.
To freeze, I like to fill an empty ice cube tray with the puree so I have individual cubes that are just the right size for tossing into the soup or sauce pot. You can also freeze the puree in one air-tight container and thaw it as you need each time. If you are using the ice cube tray method, wait until basil cubes are solid and then remove from tray and immediately place in a ziplock freezer bag and return to the freezer. Ta-da! Instant summery basil flavor in the middle of winter!
Another very similar trick for basil is to make pesto and freeze that into cubes. Frozen pesto is a superb addition to most any pasta dish as well as some soups that call for both basil and garlic. If you decide to go the pesto route, just be sure to leave out the parmesan cheese as it will lose its flavor when frozen. Instead, add the cheese later when you’re cooking with the frozen pesto.