preserving herbs

Lock in the taste of summer – preserving herbs

Preserve the last of your summer herb crop for all-year flavour.

Summer’s coming to an end, and unfortunately that means all our favourite summery herbs are also coming to an end. Life without basil, mint, chives, parsley, dill and coriander – what an awful thought. Admittedly, coriander is an acquired taste, but basil surely has no detractors? The answer is to preserve them, but here’s the catch. Most summer herbs lose their taste when dried, or become soggy when frozen. Drying also takes up space. And if it is wet or humid, the herbs can even become a bit iffy. The answer to preserving herbs is to preserve them in oil or butter.

This makes sense, because the flavour and aroma of herbs is found in their volatile oils, and if these are sealed up in an oil or animal-fat base, the flavour remains as intense. Herbs preserved in oil, or as a herb butter, can be frozen, and they take up very little space in the freezer. To use, just break off pieces as needed and add to soups, stews, sauces and salad dressings. Herb butters can be used in sandwiches, in baking, or any dish that uses butter. Imagine creamy scrambled egg for breakfast, hot scones for tea or grilled chops for supper, all flavoured with herb butter… yummy!

Herb-flavoured oils

For variety, keep some of your harvest aside to make flavoured oils for use in salads, and even for cooking. The best preserving herbs for oils are basil, rosemary, tarragon and lemon thyme.

  • Pick fresh herb leaves and allow to dry completely.
  • Lightly bruise the leaves and put them into a sterilised bottle. Pour in light avocado, sunflower or canola oil, making sure the herb is completely covered.
  • Seal the jar and put it on a windowsill or near a warm stove. Avoid a position that gets too hot or else the herbs will turn musty.
  • Shake the jar at least once a day. The oil should be ready within two weeks. Taste the oil, and repeat the process with fresh herbs if the flavour is not strong enough.
  • When the flavour is strong enough, strain out the herbs or leave the sprigs in the bottle. In this case the oil will only last about three months. Store in a refrigerator.

Preserving with oil – 3 easy steps

  • Wash the herbs, discard the stems and damaged leaves, and dry, using a salad spinner or with paper towels.
  • Finely chop the herbs and mix with oil to form a paste, or blend it all in a food processor. Use 1/3 cup oil to 2 cups of leaves. Use olive oil, or a lighter avocado, sunflower or grape seed oil, if you find that olive oil has too dominant a flavour.
  • Put 1 cup of herb-flavoured oil in a plastic zip-lock bag, flatten it into a thin layer and freeze it flat. In this way you can stack up a lot of herbs without taking up too much space in the freezer. Use within six months.

Saving seeds – cumin, dill and fennel

The seeds of these three herbs have a quite different taste to the leaves. They are more savoury and delicious for baking, or adding to curries and other savoury dishes. Save seeds by cutting the flower heads off the stalks when the seed is beginning to ripen. Place the seed heads upside down in a paper bag and leave in a warm, dry place for a week. The seeds then separate from the stems easily for storage in an airtight container.

Herbs that DO dry well: Perennial herbs like bay and oregano actually have a better flavour when dried. Other strongly flavoured herbs, like rosemary, marjoram, thyme, sage and savory, will also stand up to drying.

  • Pick fresh herbs after the dew has dried on the leaves.
  • Spread the leaves on brown paper, newsprint or on a drying rack in a cool room.
  • Allow 2 – 3 weeks for the herbs to dry out, checking occasionally and spreading them out a bit more.
  • Once the leaves are crisp they can be stored in an airtight container that is labelled and dated.

Preserving Herbs with Butter

You don’t have to be on a Banting diet to appreciate butter! To make flavoured butter Finely chop or mince one part herbs and mix them into two parts softened butter. Shape into a long roll and freeze. For extra flavour add grated lemon zest, garlic or ginger. To use, just cut off slices and melt over veggies or add to sauces or meat. Also use to make your own garlic bread. Best herbs: chives, parsley, tarragon, basil, sage, lemon thyme. Freezing herbs in butter Following the same method as preserving in oil, use ½ cup of softened butter to 2 – 4 tablespoons of chopped herb leaves. Pulse in a blender or by hand, put into plastic bags, flatten and freeze.

Herb-flavoured vinegar

Herbal vinegar can be made with a single herb or a mix of herbs that complement one another in flavour. Use the herb vinegar in marinades and salad dressings. Try these combinations: basil, parsley and garlic; sage, rosemary and thyme; tarragon (with or without garlic), dill and mustard seed.

To make: Sterilise and dry glass bottles. Cork or plastic stoppers will not be corroded by the vinegar. For delicately flavoured herbs use a white wine vinegar, and for more robust herbs, like rosemary, use apple cider vinegar. Use herb sprigs, removing any damaged or diseased leaves. Wash and dry the herbs. Push the sprigs into the bottle (using a skewer) and fill the bottle with vinegar. The proportions are roughly ½ cup of herbs to 2 cups of vinegar. Keep in a cool place for 4 – 6 weeks, shaking occasionally. If the flavour is not strong enough, replace with fresh herbs and leave a little longer.

The Gardener