Published on 09/07/00

Season's End: Save Some Herbs for Cooking Magic

Harvest Herbs Properly for Best Flavor, Aroma

Herbs get their wonderful fragrance and flavor from the oils that are released when the leaves are crushed. So, naturally, it's best to use fresh herbs for cooking. It is possible, though, to retain some of that fresh-herb quality for later use.

There are several ways to preserve herbs. Freezing is one of the easiest. Just rinse the herbs quickly in cold water, shake off the excess and then chop them coarsely. Place generous pinches of herbs in water-filled ice cube trays and freeze them. Then transfer the herb-cubes to plastic bags or airtight plastic containers.

Another method is to spread the herbs loosely onto a cookie sheet to freeze, then transfer them into a large plastic bag and seal. When they thaw, the herbs won't be suitable for garnish, but can be used in cooking. Don't refreeze herbs after thawing them.

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Photo: Wayne McLaurin

The traditional way of preserving herbs is to hang it upside-down like this "sweet Annie" (Artemisia annua).

Traditional Way: Drying

Drying, though, is the traditional way to preserve herbs. If the herbs are clean, don't wet them. Otherwise, rinse the dust and dirt from the foliage, shake off the excess water and spread the herbs out to dry on paper towels or dishcloths. Wait until all surface moisture has evaporated.

Remove any dead or damaged foliage. Then tie the stems into small bundles with string and hang them upside down in a warm, dry, airy place out of the sun. Be sure to make small, loose bundles and allow for good air circulation around each bunch.

Ultraviolet rays from the sun and moisture from dew and frost can discolor and severely reduce the quality of many herbs. So it's best to dry herbs indoors in a large, empty closet, attic or unused corner of a room.

Drying herbs look quite attractive in a kitchen or pantry. If none of these places is practical, you can dry herbs in a barn or shed. Sage, thyme, summer savory, dill and parsley are easy to dry. Basil, tarragon and mints may mold and discolor if not dried quickly.

Herb-drying Alternatives

An alternative to hanging herbs to dry in bunches is to spread them out on window screens. Suspend the screens over sawhorses or the backs of chairs. Turn the leaves often to ensure even drying.

To air-dry herbs with seeds, tie the herbs in small bundles and suspend them inside a paper bag with holes punched in the sides. Suspend the bag in a dark area with good air circulation. Collect the seeds when they're dry, and store them in rigid, light-proof containers.

Microwave drying is a quick, easy way to dry small amounts of herbs. Lay a single layer of clean, dry leaves between dry paper towels and place them in the microwave for 1 to 2 minutes on high power. Drying will vary with the moisture content of the herb and the wattage of the microwave oven.

Let the leaves cool. If they're not brittle, reheat them for 30 seconds and retest. Repeat as often as needed. Thick-leaved herbs may need to be air-dried for several days before microwaving them.

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Photo: Wayne McLaurin

Drying herbs help take the tastes and smells of summer into the gray days of winter.

Conventional Ovens

Conventional ovens can also be used to dry herbs. Spread the herbs on cookie sheets and dry them at the lowest temperature setting possible. Home food dehydrators also do an excellent job of drying herbs. Follow the directions provided with the dehydrator.

Herbs are sufficiently dry when they're brittle and crumble easily. When the leaves are dry, separate them from their stems and package the leaves in rigid containers with tight-fitting lids. Glass or hard plastic are best, although heavy-duty zip-lock plastic bags can be used.

To preserve full flavor, avoid crushing the leaves until you're ready to use them. Store the dried herbs in a cool, dry place away from sunlight, moisture and heat. Many herbs can be kept for a year if stored properly.

Wayne McLaurin is a professor emeritus of horticulture with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.