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Preserving Herbs
How to preserve herbs to ensure enjoyment of them long after harvest.

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Properly preserving your herbs will ensure enjoyment of them long after harvest. The most popular method of preserving herbs is to dry them.

However, many people enjoy freezing or preserving the flavor of their favorite herbs in vinegar. You will enjoy trying the different methods and selecting the one which work best for you and your herbs.

Herbs are picked as needed for fresh use. For maximum oil and flavor, pick early in the morning just after the dew dries off the upper leaves. As the day becomes hot, flavor is decreased.

For preserving, pick when leaves have maximum oil content, usually just before the plant comes into flower. When harvesting to use the seed, pick head when mature but before seed pods shatter.

1. Drying: There are several ways you can use this time-honored method of preserving your herbs. Dried herbs have a much stronger flavor than fresh herbs due to oils being much more concentrated. When recipes call for fresh herbs, you can substitute with dried herbs, but at half the recommended rate.

2. Hang Drying: This old method is still the most practiced way of drying the harvest. Tie the different herbs you have harvested into bunches and hang upside down in a warm, dry place away from direct sunlight. Hang them where air can circulate all around to prevent mildew. If the room or drying area is dusty, place the bunch in a paper bag that has been perforated all around for air circulation.

Tie the bag around the stems. This is a good method for drying seed heads, for as the seeds fall they are caught in the bottom of the bag. Depending on the weather, herbs usually take about two weeks to hang dry. They should be crisp and crackly to the touch. Store in labeled jars or bags that are air tight and kept out of direct light. Herbs to be used in cooking should be dried as whole as possible to retain flavor.

3. Quick Drying: This method allows you to dry and preserve your herbs in a short period of time. Simply spread the herb leaves on a cheesecloth-covered rack in the oven at its lowest temperature. Leave the oven door open and stir the leaves until they are crisp. Once they are crisp to the touch, they are ready for storing in an airtight container.

4. Tray Drying: For small quantities of herbs or short pieces of stems and seed heads, drying trays are handy. A simple rectangular frame constructed of 1-by 2-inch lumber with screen mesh or cheesecloth stapled to the bottom works well.

Construct the frame so several trays can be stacked. If you choose this stacking method, be sure to leave at least one inch between each tray for good air circulation.

It is best to dry the herbs in single layers. Bunching or clustering the leaves can cause mildew. You can either dry the leaves on the stems or strip them off. Stir or turn the herbs every few days to ensure even drying. Most herbs dry crisp in seven to 10 days, depending upon the weather. Drying trays are also a good way to dry seed heads. These trays can be placed outdoors or inside. If outside, keep in a shaded area.

5. Drying Seed: To dry seed such as dill, caraway, anise, etc., pick the seed heads when mature but still green. If you wait for the seed to turn brown on the plant, many seeds will be lost when you pick them. Prepare bundles of seed heads as for regular hang drying, only enclose them in a paper bag so that, if jarred, the seeds will fall into the bag. Wait until the leaves are thoroughly dry before placing them in storage.

6. Decorative Drying: To retain the hue and shape of herb flowers or foliage for decorative purposes, try burying them in a drying medium. The hue alone can be retained by drying in the dark, but to retain the shape they must be covered by the drying medium. The resulting colorful and crisp herbs can be made into long-lasting bouquets.

Several different desiccants can be used for decorative drying: borax powder, dry fine-grained sand such as builders' sand, equal parts cornmeal and borax or crushed silica gel crystals.

Prepare the freshly picked herb flowers for drying by sticking florists' wire through the center of the flower head. The wire will add support to the stem and make it easier to work with.

Using a wide-mouthed container, pour in about 3 inches of any of the above-mentioned drying media. Place the flower or herb sprig upright on top of the 3 inches of desiccants. Hold it in place while slowly pouring more desiccant all around. Be sure to work

the material down in between every petal and leaf to prevent mildew. Add as many flowers or sprigs as you wish, but they must not touch each other. If you are using a deep container, several layers of flowers or foliage can be dried at a time. Be sure that the top layer of flowers and foliage has 2 inches of desiccant above it so no outside moisture can damage the herbs. Most herbs take two to three days to dry except in sand, where they can take as long as three weeks. Test for readiness by carefully removing a flower or leaf from the drying container. It should feel crisp when adequately dried. When you feel your herbs and flowers have reached this point, carefully and gently shake or brush off all the desiccant.

To make stems longer, add any desired length of florists' wire and wrap with floral tape. This will add support to your dried herbs and flowers and will make them easier to arrange. You can improve the length of time such plants retain their color by keeping them out of bright direct light.

7. Glycerin Drying: Another way to dry your herbs and flowers for decorative purposes is with glycerin. Glycerin will darken the natural color of most plants, but will keep the stems and leaves soft and retain the fragrance. Herbs treated this way cannot be consumed.

A mixture of one part glycerin to two parts very hot water is recommended for this drying procedure. Mix the two thoroughly together, then bring just to the boiling point. Pour enough of this hot glycerin mixture into a container which will cover the bottom 2 inches of the stems of the herbs you are drying. The plants you are drying should have the bottom of their stems freshly cut. This will ensure adequate absorption of the hot glycerin mixture.

It normally takes two to three weeks for this drying process to be completed. You will probably need to add more glycerin solution the first few days to keep 2 inches of stem covered. If you want to vary the naturally dark brown color that results from the glycerin process, add one fluid ounce of food coloring per three cups of glycerin solution. The color resulting depends on how long you leave the herb in the mixture. Do not use glycerin-treated herbs in cooking or any other consumption.

8. Freezing: This method of preserving herbs is recommended for a few of the tender herbs, including basil, burnet, fennel, tarragon, chives, dill and parsley. Simply tie a small bundle of the herb together and dip it into boiling water for a few seconds. Cool immediately by plunging into ice water for a couple of minutes.

Remove leaves from the stems and put into plastic bags, label and freeze. It is not necessary to blanch basil, chives and dill in boiling water. Frozen herb flavors almost match fresh herb quality.

Another method is to place small amounts of the herb in ice cube trays, cover with water and freeze. When frozen, remove from trays and store in plastic bags in the freezer. Herbs frozen in this manner will keep for at least six months but are not suitable for use as garnish. Chop frozen herbs as soon as they come out of the freezer. Label and date the container so you know what herbs you have.

9. Vinegar Preservation: By adding herbs to vinegar, you can give extra flavor to any dish that normally calls for vinegar in the recipe. You can use either fresh or dried herbs in this type of preserving method. The recommended formula calls for either half a cup of freshly crushed or bruised leaves of the herb of your choice or one tablespoon if the herb is dried to two cups of white, cider or wine vinegar. Three basic methods in preparing herbal vinegars are as follows:

Heated Vinegar - Fill plastic gallon jug approximately one-half full with fresh herbs. Then pour hot (not boiling) vinegar over herbs and fill gallon container with vinegar. Store in dark area and mix contents daily for four to six weeks. Strain and add several sprigs of herbs. This is often the preferred method, since it tends to draw out more flavor from the herb.

Cold Method - Add the herbs, etc. to cold vinegar. Let stand four to six weeks. Strain; add new herbs.

Solar Method - Add herbs to vinegar. Place outside in sunshine. Strain in four weeks. Add fresh herbs. This method can present problems with insects and flies.

Storage: Store in dark, cool area (pantry) in glass jar sealed with non-metallic closures, i.e. corks. If corks are used, dip in hot paraffin several times to assure proper seal. Metallic lids can be used by placing wax paper over the opening and screwing the lid on over the wax paper.

10. Sachets: Another way to capture the fragrance of your herbs to scent clothing, woolen blankets, bedclothes or even to freshen the air is through sachets. Dried herbs tied in a piece of silk are the easiest types of sachet to make. Some of the best herbs to use for sachets are rosemary, lemon balm, mint, summer savory, chamomile, thyme, lavender, marjoram, basil and the seeds of coriander, fennel and dill. Choose your favorite combination of these or add dried rose petals, rose leaves or cloves to selected herbs.

G. Douglas Crater, Professor and Head and Susan L. Wilson, Research Associate
Ornamental Horticulture and Landscape Design, The University of Tennessee

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