Fresh and dried herbs are usually expensive to buy, especially in winter when both supply and quality tend to be low. Fortunately, herbs are easy to grow in quantity, and are equally easy to preserve for aromatic additions to your meals all year round.
Drying is the simplest method of preserving a wide variety of fresh herbs. Nearly any herb can be harvested, tied into bunches, and hung upside down in a dim, dry place. To preserve the flavorful essence of these herbs, it’s important to choose a place that doesn’t get much sunlight or humidity, since light and moisture will rapidly degrade their quality. Hanging herbs to dry next to a window or near the stove would not be ideal, whereas an attic or pantry would work well.
Once the herbs are thoroughly dry (usually in a week or two), you can take them down and crumble them into spice jars. I like to dry the staples I use a lot of, especially basil, rosemary, sage, oregano and marjoram. To dry herbs I make a miniature clothesline with string, then use clothespins to attach the herb bundles so they can be easily taken down.
Freezing is another wonderfully simple method. You can either make pesto , finely chop fresh herbs, or place them in a food processor. Next just scoop the chopped herbs or pesto into ice cube trays and cover with water or oil before putting in the freezer.
The frozen “herb cubes” can then be dumped into labeled freezer bags and used as needed in a variety of dishes. I especially like them for hard-to-find fresh herbs like Sorrel and Thai or Lemon basil. You can also finely chop herbs like chives and simply pop them into a freezer bag for later use.
Infused salt is a fun alternative for preserving herbs, makes a great gift and adds complex flavor to meals. You can create an amazing array of combinations – from basics like oregano or sage to gourmet options like chili lime, lemon rosemary or orange thyme—the possibilities are endless, and the steps are easy:
1) Start with a good coarse salt such as kosher, fleur de sel or Maldon. The ratio should be about 1 tsp flavoring to ¼ cup salt.
2) Pulse salt quickly in a food processor or combine in a bowl with finely chopped dried herbs, chilis, edible flowers and/or dehydrated citrus peel, then spread mixture onto a baking sheet and allow to dry for a few days at room temperature (or use the oven set at 250ºF for about 2 hours).
3) Decant salt mixture into glass jars and allow flavors to infuse for at least 24 hours before using. Use herb salt within 1 year.
Infused oil is very easy to make and delicious on everything from salad to crusty bread. You can use a wide variety of herbs (ones with woody stems work especially well) such as thyme, rosemary, sage, dried chilis, and ground or toasted spices. Just choose bottles that make a good seal, wash and very thoroughly dry all your flavorings and containers, then fill containers about 1/3 full with flavorings, cover with good quality olive oil, and seal.
The trick here is to make that sure that everything that goes into the oil is completely dry, since bacteria can’t grow in oil but grow easily in water and veryeasily if fresh garlic is involved. (Keep any garlic infusions refrigerated and use them up quickly). Let your oil infuse for 1-2 weeks in a cool, dark place, then strain and re-bottle. Use within one month and discard if you see any signs of spoilage.
Infused vinegar can really dress up a salad, makes a very pretty gift, and is a great way to use up herbs fresh from the garden. Basil, tarragon, lemon peel, garlic, chilis and many more can all find a home in an infused vinegar concoction. Just remember that whatever you infuse with will color the vinegar, and that sterilized jars must be used when decanting infused vinegars. The basic method (which I learned from Margaret Roach - click here to learn more), goes like this:
1) Warm (don’t boil) plain white vinegar in a pot.
2) While vinegar is heating, rinse your jars and lids and sterilize. (Lids can be done in a hot water bath, while jars can be done on a baking sheet in the oven set to 250ºF.)
3) Stuff 1 cup of fresh herbs (stems are fine) and/or spices into hot jars, then fill with the warm vinegar. Let sit for several days to a week, then strain and decant into sterilized jars.