Farmer’s markets and gardens are bursting with tasty fresh herbs this time of the year, so it is a perfect time to not only enjoy them fresh, but to also try preserving herbs for use later. Especially the frost-tender ones, such as basil and pineapple sage, which will be gone with the first nip of frost. Preserving fresh organic herbs is a great way to add flavor to your food, plus by not purchasing pesticide-grown plants you support a healthy environment at the same time! And you'll save money by not having to buy tiny bottles of the dried stuff that loses its flavor before you have time to use it up.
Drying herbs couldn’t be simpler and is a great way to preserve parsley, rosemary, mint, thyme, and many others. But some herbs will be mere shadows of their former selves when dried, hardly worth the time and effort it takes to do it. Luckily, there are lots of simple alternatives, such as freezing and making herbal butters and vinegars, and pretty much all herbs are suited to these methods.
Freezing herbs is easy, even if you have a small freezer. The simplest way to freeze herbs is to spread dry, clean whole or chopped leaves onto a cookie sheet, freeze overnight, and put the frozen herbs into sealed containers in the freezer for later use. Frozen herbs prepared this way last for months before they start to get tired-looking. I like to freeze chives for sprinkling on baked potatoes in the dead of winter, when my herb patch is locked under snow.
For longer storage, freeze herbs by snipping leaves into small bits, packing the bits into an empty ice-cube tray, filling about ¾ full with water, and freezing; one measured tablespoon of herbs per cube is a good amount. The next day, top off with water and freeze again (this covers the floating bits with ice to prevent freezer burn). Pop the finished cubes into a sealed container in the freezer. Drop frozen cubes into soups, stews, and such, for fresh-cut flavor.
Pesto also freezes well—freeze it in an ice-cube tray and store the cubes in airtight containers in the freezer. First, discover the secret of making gorgeous, emerald-green pesto.
Another great method for preserving herbs is to make them into flavored butter and freeze that. Mince 1 part herbs (one type, or a blend) and mash into 2 parts of softened organic butter, shape into a log, and freeze. Cut off slices of herb-flavored butter as needed to melt over vegetables, meat, or fish, or to sauté in recipes for the taste of summer all winter long. My favorite flavored butter is made with minced garlic and parsley, which makes awesome garlic bread!
Herb-flavored vinegar is a delicious, pretty way to savor herbs long after the growing season is past. You don’t need any special equipment to make them; just reuse attractive glass bottles, so your tasty gifts will also be tasteful.
To make flavored vinegar you will need bottles and cork stoppers to fit them (vinegar eats metal lids, even coated ones), enough good commercial vinegar to fill them, and fresh or dried herbs and spices. I like to use white wine vinegar for delicate flavors like lemon balm and organic apple cider vinegar for more robust flavors like rosemary.
Wash and pat dry any fresh herbs—tarragon is a classic vinegar flavoring—and slide the whole leaves into the bottles, using a chopstick or wooden skewer as needed. Peeled garlic cloves and any kind of small peppers (slit down the side) are also nice choices for making flavored vinegar. Use about ½ cup of herbs per 2 cups of vinegar, or more if you want a very concentrated flavor. Fill the bottles with room temperature vinegar and a cork. Store in a cool, dark place. The flavor will continue to strengthen for four to six weeks. Use herb-flavored vinegars in salad dressings and marinades, splashed over veggies, or anywhere a recipe calls for vinegar or lemon juice.
To store vinegar longer, melt some beeswax (in a small tin can set in a pan of simmering water), and dip the corked end of the bottle into the wax to coat the top ¼ inch of the glass and the exposed cork. Let the wax harden, and repeat several times to build up a good coating. For extra-special gifting, drape a short length of ¼"- to ½"-wide ribbon over the top of the just-dipped bottle after the first dip. Hold the loose ends against the bottle neck and dip the top again, ribbon and all. The ribbon looks really classy, and makes it easy to remove the wax seal later.
You can also use your glass jars and corks for flavored oils. BUT placing herbs, garlic, peppers, fruit, and such, that contain even a trace of moisture into any oil is asking for trouble: The oil seals out the air and makes the perfect environment for botulism bacteria to thrive in the plant material. To be safe, you must store herb-flavored oils in the refrigerator and use them within a few weeks.
As an alternative, you can dry the herbs and other flavorings in a food dehydrator, or in the sun, until they are completely dry before adding them to a light-flavored organic olive oil or other cold-pressed oil. Add about 2 tablespoons of crushed dried herbs to 2 cups of oil.
Farm gal, library worker, and all-around money-pincher Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on Rodale.com.