A lot of people ask about preserving them, when to harvest and how to keep them.
I’ve done it automatically for so many years I hardly think about it anymore: toss the seed onto the ground, water it, watch it grow, pinch and snip for fresh and when it gets big or bushy, cut larger bits to preserve, let some go to seed to collect seed for next year’s harvest – except for the herbs that take two years to grow and harvest, like parsley.
Most herbs grown for their foliage can be harvested in small amounts for fresh herbs throughout the growing season as soon as they are large enough to sustain such harvesting, and should be fully harvested before they flower. Pinching back the flowering buds can extend the harvest season and increase the bushiness of the plant, giving a larger harvest. If you wish to save the seeds, go ahead and let a few herbs flower and harvest the rest. If you want a second fall harvest from them, pinch back the seed heads but let the plant bolt a bit during the hot months, when the weather cools, the plants will refoliate and can be harvested until frost. (Basil, parsley, oregano, marjoram, thyme…)
Herbs harvested for their seeds go through three stages: green seeds, brown seeds, gray seeds, before the seed heads shatter and scatter. Harvest when they are brown or gray, before they shatter. (Dill, fennel, caraway…)
Herbs harvest for their flowers should have the blossoms harvested just before full flower if you’re harvesting them for the petals (for candying and salads) and crafting. If you’re harvesting the flowers for oils and pastes and syrups, harvest just after the buds open when they have their most intense flavor. (Borage, chamomile, violas, nasturtiums, squash blossoms…)
Herbs harvested for their roots should be harvested in the fall after the foliage fades, so mark them if you’re wildcrafting. Even if they’re in your garden, pushing in a stake beside them will help you find the root when you dig. (chickory, dandelion, ginseng, goldenseal…)
Tarragon and lavender should be harvested in early summer and sheared to half their height to encourage a second fall bloom.
Perennial herbs can be harvested until a month before first frost. Prune and do a final harvest then, so there won’t be any tender new growth when frost arrives.
Most herbs get dried and stuffed into small jars. Others do better preserved as a paste, and still others do well as syrups. Freezing is a less than palatable option but acceptable for herbs that will be used in soups, stews, and sauces. Freeze-drying is an option but not easy for most home growers.
During the herb harvest season, I’ll have bundles of herbs drying from various locations. Some of my bookshelves are industrial metal shelving with holes on the upright supports, and these are perfect for hanging herb bundles. I also fasten string to hooks in the ceiling and hang coat hangers from them – each coat hanger can hold 3 -5 bundles of herbs. My chandeliers and ceiling lights are perfect for suspending bundles of herbs.
I bundle a few stems (no more than a pinkie’s width on normal sized human hands – on mine, that’s thumb sized – about 4 – 6 stems) and fasten them with a rubber band, then slip a bent paperclip through the rubber band, on hook holding the herbs, one hook slipped into the holes of the bookshelves or over the string or chandelier or coathanger. There they hang until crisply dry, usually 2 – 4 weeks, when I crumble them over a sheet of paper and use that to funnel the herbs into their jars. I use old spice bottles I buy at flea markets and garage sales or half pint mason jars. For massive amounts of herbs, I may use quart mason jars.
Oven Drying: Arrange cleaned herb stems in a single layer on a cookie sheet with temperature set at 180° F. Heat for about 4 hours, keeping the oven door open the entire time (to let moisture escape). Stir herbs occasionally during this heating process. Store herbs in airtight containers once fully dry.
Cool air drying: Wash and dry herbs. Layer a cookie sheet with paper towels and then arrange herbs in a single layer. Place in the refrigerator and remove once herbs are completely dried (check daily).
Seed Drying: Tie a paper bag loosely around the seed heads, then hang to dry – about 3 – 5 weeks. When dried, shake the bags to release the seeds, then pour the seeds into a jar.
What herbs do I dry?
I don't grow all these herbs. I can often find the ones I don't grow being sold fresh at local Asian and Mexican markets so I can buy bundles there and use part fresh and dry the rest. The ones I don't grow, I've marked with an asterisk.
Bachelor button flowers
Dandelion root and blossom
Dill, Chives, Nasturtiums, Parsley
How to freeze herbs:
Wash and paper towel dry herbs. Mince the herbs with a knife, not in a food processor. The food processor minces it too fine. Spread out on a baking sheet and freeze. When the herbs are frozen, put them into a re-sealable freezer bag with as much air squeezed out as possible. When you take herbs out, squeeze out the air before re-sealing and putting the bag back into the freezer.
Frozen herbs are only suitable for cooking.
To Make Herbal Pastes:
4 cups herbs
¼ cup vegetable oil (olive oil, cold-pressed nut oil, sesame or safflower oil…)
In a food processor, I pulse these until a paste is formed, drizzling in small amounts of additional oil as needed. Some herbs need more than others. It makes between ½ and ¾ cup of paste. You can freeze them in ice cube sized dollops, or store them in tight sealing jars with a small amount of oil poured on top so no herb sticks up.
What herbs make good pastes?
Lemon herbs (basil, mint, grass, balm, verbena...)
The most famous herb paste is pesto.
Herb syrups are also a good way to preserve herbs.
Approximately 1 ounce of fresh herbs
1 ½ cups water
1 ½ cups raw sugar
Mix the water and sugar into a saucepan and heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Bring to a rich boil, then remove from the heat and add the herbs. Use a spoon to bruise the herbs against the side of the saucepan. Cover the saucepan and let the herbs steep for 30 minutes. Strain out the herbs and squeeze to remove as much moisture as possible from them, then discard the solids. Transfer the syrup to a sterilized jar or bottle. It will keep for a week in the refrigerator. It can be frozen for up to 10 months. It can be processed in a pressure canner and stored away from light for several years.
What herbs make good syrups?
Anise hyssop: 6 to 8 sprigs with flowers, or a handful of flowers
Basil: 6 to 8 sprigs of anise, cinnamon, green or lemon basil; flowers are good
Bay: 10 to 12 leaves
Bergamot: 6 to 8 sprigs, or handful of flowers
Calendula: Petals only from 10 to 12 flowers
Chamomile: Large handful of flowers
Elderflower: 6 to 8 flower heads
Ginger root: 5 or 6 thin slices of peeled root
Lavender: 10 flower spikes or 1 tablespoon of flower petals
Lemon balm, lemon thyme or lemon verbena: 8 to 10 sprigs
Mint: 10 to 12 sprigs of orange mint, peppermint or spearmint
Rose: 1 generous cup of petals
Rosemary: 5 or 6 sprigs
Sage: 4 common sage sprigs; 6 fruit-scented or pineapple sage sprigs; flowers, too
Scented geraniums: 12 to 15 leaves, or handful of flowers
Sweet woodruff: 1 generous cup small sprigs and/or flowers
Tarragon: 6 to 8 sprigs
Vanilla: 1 bean, halved and split lengthwise
Violas: 1 generous packed cup violets, Johnny-jump-ups or pansy petals
OK, you can probably use any salt, but I prefer kosher salt because it’s flakier and seems to dry the herbs faster. Layer fresh herbs (cleaned, air dried, unbruised) between layers of salt, covering the herbs completely. Leave them until the herbs are thoroughly dried, about 3 – 4 weeks. Shake the salt off and store the herbs in airtight containers. The salt can then be used as a seasoning, so you get dual use out of this method. You can mix different herbed salts together – leave some of the dried herb in the salt to both look pretty and boost the flavor a bit.
Most any culinary herb can be dried this way.
I prefer raw or turbinado sugar for this. Do not use brown sugars or powdered sugars or stevia or artificial sugars. Granulated white sugar is good, too, if you use it. Layer the fresh, cleaned and dried, undamaged herbs with sugar, covering the herbs completely. Leave them until thoroughly dried – about 3 – 4 weeks. Shake the sugar off and store the herbs in airtight containers. The sugar can be used to sweeten beverages and in cooking or baking.
Use sweet herbs for this type of drying: mints, violas, lavender, roses, vanilla beans, pelargonium leaves.
1 ounce of chopped or minced fresh herbs
1 stick of softened butter
Chop herbs and mix with butter to taste. Divide up into single serving pats or cube sizes large enough for cooking. Freeze. Be sure to label them because if you make lots of different herb butters, they will all look the same once frozen. Thaw the single serving pats before serving, but the cooking cubes can go frozen into the pot or pan.
Mix and match the herbs to complement or pair up with the meal you are serving, for example, use a blend of Italian herbs for Italian dishes or a fines herbes blend for French dishes. Or whatever you think will be a tasty combination. Or just use a single herb for a focal note for the meal.
3 – 5 5” sprigs of fresh herbs (or approximately 1 ounce fresh herbs or 1/2 ounce or 2 tablespoons dried herbs)
8 ounces light vegetable oil (sunflower, safflower, olive, peanut…)
Rinse off the herbs and allow them to dry thoroughly. Slightly bruise the herbs and put them into the sterilized bottles. Heat the oil on low, just until warm. Pour the oil into bottles, over herbs. Allow the contents to cool. Seal bottle with a lid or cork. Allow to sit in a cool spot out of direct sunlight, for about 1 week before using.
Strain out any fresh herbs. Dried herbs can remain in the oil, but the oil will stay fresh a bit longer if these too are strained.
Oils should be used within 2 months, maximum. Straining out the herbs and refrigerating will help the oil last longer, but not too much longer than 3 or 4 months.
Good choices for herbal oil infusions include: basil, bay, chives, cilantro, dill, mint, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, savory, tarragon, and thyme.
2 – 3 5” sprigs of fresh herbs (a single herb or a combination)
¼ cup dried herbs (single or combination)
1 cup vinegar
If using pungent herbs like garlic, onions, or peppers, use 1 clove or 1 small pepper per cup of vinegar – unless you’re making pepper sauce, then pack the jar with peppers, a garlic clove or two, a pearl onion or two, and then the vinegar.
To make: put the herbs in a sterilized jar. Gently warm the vinegar, then pour it over the herbs. Seal the jar and let it steep for a week or two. Strain out the herbs. If you want a decorative touch of herbs in the jar, add a fresh sprig or three of herbs to the jar.
Use these vinegars fairly quickly for maximum flavor. If kept in a dark cabinet, they can last up to a year.
Some vinegars are better with certain herbs, although any vinegar will work for most herbs.
White and white wine vinegar: borage, dill, savory, sage, basil, lavender, fennel, parsley, rosemary, tarragon, thyme, garlic, onions, peppers, chives
Red Wine Vinegar: basil, oregano, thyme, garlic, peppers
Cider vinegar: lovage, orange peels, raspberry, lavender blossoms
Alegar: peppers, garlic, onions, chives, sage, dill,
Rice vinegar: parsley, dill, savory, sage, rosemary, purple basil, tarragon, thyme, garlic
Use herbal vinegars for meat marinades, tomatoes or cucumber dishes, salad dressings, bean salads, potato salads, soups, stews, or sauces.
Part of My Herb Cabinet: