By Pam Jones,
Master Gardener Volunteer, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Allegany County
The leaves are turning color, reminding us that the summer growing season is coming to a close. You have probably thought of preserving the fruits and vegetables that you have grown; making jams, jellies and freezing or canning the vegetables such as tomatoes, zucchini, corn, garlic and onions to name a few, but have you thought of preserving your herbs? There are several different ways to do this. You can put the garden herbs in pots and bring them inside on a sunny window sill or start things like parsley, cilantro, basil or marjoram from seed in the house. Remember, at the first frost in your outdoor herb garden, basil will turn black and die. Rosemary does not over winter in our area, but will do well inside and you will have fresh rosemary for use all winter. There are several other methods as well.
My grandmother used to hang things in the attic where it was dry and dark. I do not have an attic but I have an upstairs hall without windows and I set up a clothes drying rack with a sheet underneath to catch any fragments that drop. Mid-morning is the best time to pick your herbs – the dew has had a chance to evaporate and if you wait until later the heat of the day has sapped the plant. You can wash and gently dry them, I usually do not as I grow my herbs organically, but you can. Place the stems in small bundles leaving plenty of room for air circulation. I use a rubber band placed under the bundle and bring the loops up with one loop going into the other and hang them on the rack using either an opened paper clip or a clothes pin. What about string you ask, I used to do this, but as the stems dry and shrink, the string remains the same size leaving partially dried plant material on the floor! You will need to check the herbs every few days to see how they are drying. Herbs with thick leaves like rosemary will take longer than something like cilantro. If you do not have a dark place (this keeps the color bright) you can take a brown paper lunch bag, cut some slits in it for air circulation and place the herbs inside and use the rubber band around the neck of the bag.
Microwave: Drying can also be accomplished in the microwave. Be sure the herbs are dry and place them between two layers of toweling. Set the microwave on medium for 30 second intervals and check to see if the herbs are dry. This will not take very long and if you do not check carefully you can burn the herbs very easily. So, what kind of toweling should you use? I use cloth dishtowel pieces or cotton handkerchiefs. I tried this with paper towels and had a memorable experience. After one round of microwave drying, the paper towel burst into flames. Attention getting! Apparently some brands have some metal fibers in them, which is also why you should not clean your glasses with paper towels. Rather than research which brands of towels were safe, I just do not use them for this.
Solar: Another way of drying is solar drying. Temperatures need to be warm with low humidity for this method, about 100 degree and less than 60% humidity. You spread the herbs out on a screen not in direct sunlight or the color will fade. The screens make it simple to bring them in at night. You can also dry herbs under the windshield or back window of your car on screens on a hot day.
You can also use the refrigerator for drying. Just put the unwrapped herbs in the fridge and leave them alone. They will retain color and texture this way. Check daily to determine if they are dry. One problem with this method is that unless you have a commercial refrigerator, you will not be able to dry many herbs at a time with this method. If you do have a commercial refrigerator, you are probably using it for other things. Sometimes the refrigerator is too moist and the herbs mold instead of drying.
Oven: The oven can also be used for drying herbs. Unfortunately this is not very cost effective or energy efficient. Oven temperatures should be about 100 degrees for this and most ovens cannot be set that low. Drying herbs also need air circulation so if the oven does not have vents, there will be little circulation available. If you want to try this method, get an oven thermometer to see how low the temperature will go. You can also prop the door open with a stick or wooden spoon to allow some air circulation. You will need to check the herbs frequently to prevent burning. I have never tried this method as I do not turn the oven on in the summer—too hot!
Dehydrators: Don’t forget you can purchase a dehydrator. This is especially useful if you are drying a lot of herbs. You can dry large quantities of herbs in a short time, 24 hours or less on some herbs and 2 or more days with herbs that are moister and/or thicker skinned. Each dehydrator will have instructions on temperatures that are best for herbs, fruits, meats, etc. Herbs are usually dried in a dehydrator at 95 – 105 degrees Fahrenheit. There are relatively inexpensive dehydrators for the beginner (below $100.00), but if you are going to get serious and you like buying American made products you might want to look at the Excalibur that has wonderful options and can dry your herbs very quickly and with great results.
Herbs can be chopped and frozen in a small amount of water in an ice cube tray. When solid, remove the cubes and store in a freezer bag. Don’t forget to label the bags with the herb name and date of freezing. These cubes can be added to soups or stews, no defrosting necessary but you will have the fresh taste of herbs in the winter without the cost of store bought ones. A friend of mine freezes the stems of parsley separately and uses them to make stock, removing the stems when finished.
Another method is to add the chopped herbs of your choice to softened butter. You can form the herb butter into a roll using parchment and freeze it slicing off just the amount you want to use on steaks or chops, just like in the fancy restaurants. You can also place the butter/herb mixture into ice cube trays and freeze as above. When you are sautéing something, just put the frozen cube or slice into the skillet, allow a few extra minutes for it to melt, and then proceed with sautéing.
For those of you who attended last summer’s Herb presentation in Alfred, Mary Harris provides this recipe to participants that everyone loved. From Allrecipies.com
½ cup coarse sea salt another cup of sea salt
¼ cup packed each lemon thyme leaves and rosemary leaves (any herbs of your choice can be substituted).
Place ½ cup salt and herbs in the food processor. Pulse until the herbs are ground to a fine consistency. Add the remaining cup of salt and pulse to combine. Spread mixture on a baking sheet and allow to air dry for at least 2 hours. Package salt in glass bottles. This makes a delicious gift.
If you want to learn more about herbs, come to our Herbal Remedies for the Winter Months Workshop on October, 26th at the CCE Belmont Office at 5:30-7:00PM. Contact Colleen Cavagna at firstname.lastname@example.org or585-268-7644 ext. 12 for more details!