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Preserving herbs gives meals fresh flavor all year

Linn County Master Gardener

OSU Linn County Master Food Preserver.

Herbs in the garden are growing like grass and weeds! If we don’t harvest them before they flower they will be spreading their seeds like weeds. 

Some culinary herbs like tarragon, parsley and lemon balm are especially generous with little plants popping up in unexpected places. Free starts anyone? 

The best flavor from culinary herbs is just as flower buds start to form, so that is the time to cut them back. Fresh flavor for scrambled eggs or pasta sauces is just a snip away.

What will we do with all those herb cuttings? Have you seen how much a fresh sprig costs in the grocery store? 

Traditionally they are dried for later use. Artistically they are arranged in herbal wreaths or swags to give as gifts or hang near the kitchen. 

For better flavor in cooking many herbs can be chopped and frozen in baggies or ice cube trays. Pesto sauces are popular. Herbed oils, vinegars, butters and jellies make unique gifts.

Harvest herbs in the morning when they are at their daily peak. Immerse them in cool water, shaking them to dislodge any soil or insects. Wilted leaves often perk up with a cool soak. 

Discard decayed leaves and stems. Trim the stems with a sharp knife just above a break or bruise. 

Pat them dry gently with a towel, trying not to bruise the leaves or stems. Lettuce spinners will bruise leaves, encouraging oxidation that causes brown or black spots on the leaves. 

Most herbs, except basil will keep well in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for a day or two. Basil leaves turn black when chilled. 

Darkness in the refrigerator helps to keep the fresh green color; light can causes yellow or white spots to appear from breakdown of chlorophyl. 

Fresh life can be extended by placing the stems in a jar of water that holds them snugly, leaves above the rim. Cover the jar loosely with plastic such as a produce bag. 

Refrigerate, changing the water when it turns murky. Snip off any stems that show signs of decay.

To preserve herbs longer than two or three weeks, consider drying or freezing fresh herbs. 

For air drying bundle herbs in bunches no thicker than three-fourths inch at the stem end. Tie the bundles with cotton string, leaving enough of a tail to make a hanging loop. 

Hang the bundles, leaves down, in a dry place under 90 degrees, away from direct sunlight, where air can circulate. It may take seven to 10 days for the leaves to become crisp enough to crumble. 

To dry in a dehydrator, spread the herbs in a single layer and use the coolest temperature setting. A semi-full dehydrator may take up to five hours to dry to crispness, but start checking at four hours to avoid over evaporation of flavor. 

To dry herbs in a microwave, arrange one-half to 1 cup of leaves on a paper-towel-lined platter, then cover with another layer of paper towel. Heat the leaves for 1 minute, then check at additional 30-second intervals until dry and crisp enough to crumble; a total of two to four minutes. 

If you have access to a freeze-dry machine the dried herbs will have fresh-frozen flavor with convenient dry storage. All dried herbs should be kept in airtight containers.

For freshest preserved flavor, freeze leaves right after plucking from the stems. Lay them in a single layer on a baking sheet and freeze uncovered about an hour, until the leaves are rigid. The frozen leaves will not stick together if quickly poured into a labelled freezer container and popped right back into the freezer. 

They can be poured out, crumbled or chopped as needed while frozen. Rosemary, thyme, basil, mint and sage will darken when thawed, but they will do the same when cooked too. 

To keep fresh green color to use herbs in pesto or butters, blanch a handful at a time one or two seconds in boiling water, immerse in ice water, drain dry on paper towels, then freeze in ice cube trays.

Santiam Community Gardens in Lyons is planning some free culinary herb workshops to create seasoning mixes, herbal jellies, vinegars, wreaths and other products with fresh herbs. Call or text 503-859-2517, or email [email protected] to get on the class list and receive notification when the dates are set.

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