Like most people, my first foray into gardening was herbs. My small garden was easy to care for and had a lot to offer when it came to culinary experiences.
Despite all of the benefits my herbs provided, I always encountered issues with waste. My garden was producing far too many herbs than I needed. As a result, many of those delicious herbs ended up spoiling in the fridge or getting tossed in the compost bin.
That’s when I decided to learn how to preserve and store herbs. I knew that if I didn’t find a solution I would have to stop trimming my plants, which could result in stunted growth and poor health.
Luckily, I found several effective preservation methods. Now, I have a constant supply of herbs all year long. While it does take a bit of time, drying your herbs isn’t difficult at all.
What Are Some Methods to Store Herbs?
Preserving herbs lets you have a constant supply, even when your favorite plants aren’t in season. With proper preservation, your herbs can last between one and three years.
Though, it’s recommended that you keep preserved herbs for no more than a year. Older dried herbs won’t make you sick, but they’ll have much less flavor.
Preservation is all about retaining all of the essential oils in the cell walls while preventing spoilage. There are a few different ways to achieve this.
Humans have been drying herbs since before history was ever recorded. It continues to be a great preservation method for large-scale commercial farmers and home growers.
Not all herbs will dry out fully. However, plants with low moisture content tend to retain their strong flavors after drying. You can dry out stems, leaves, seeds, and even blossoms.
The goal of drying is to remove excess moisture. Even the slightest bit of moisture can cause microscopic bacteria to multiply and spoil your herbs. By getting rid of that water, you’re stopping the bacteria in its tracks and keeping your herbs full of flavor.
Freezing is another great storage method that keeps your herbs tasting great for up to a year. The process helps to keep the essential oils, which hold all of the flavor, intact.
There are a couple of ways to freeze your cultivated plants. The most common method involves blanching them, which helps to stop the natural enzyme process that leads to slow spoilage.
Finally, there’s preserving. This storage technique involves using other liquids, such as oil or vinegar, to keep herbs fresh and in good condition. The great thing about preservation is that it prevents a lot of issues that you may encounter with other methods, such as browning or freezer burn.
Preserving herbs does come with its own set of risks, which we’ll go over later. Your herbs also tend to have a shorter shelf life.
With that said, preserving has the added benefit of convenience. You can infuse the herbal flavor into butter for delicious stews, create unique oils, and more. What’s not to love?
How to Dry Herbs
If you plan on drying your herbs, you have a few different options on how you want to get the job done. Some methods are more effective than others. This is especially true if you live in a humid environment where natural techniques aren’t so easy.
The best method is good, old-fashioned air drying. Constant ventilation in a dry area will cause the moisture to evaporate right out of the plant. It’s a relatively easy process. But, it can take several weeks depending on where you choose to dry the plants.
To start drying your herbs, cut them from the stem. Give the herbs a good shake to get rid of any insects or dirt. You should also remove any discolored leaves. They’ve already lost flavor, so they’re not worth the trouble.
It’s recommended that you create bundles with four to six stems in them. This lets air get around all of the herbs without any issues. Then, just use some twine or a rubber band to bundle them on the end.
Now, it’s all about hanging them up in a cool dry place. The herbs should be out of direct sunlight but have plenty of ventilation. Ideally, the temperature of the drying spot will be around 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
An alternative to hanging is placing them in a paper bag. Just punch some ventilation holes all over the bag to let air in. Then, put the herb bundle in upside down and place the bag high off the floor for proper airflow.
The amount of time it’ll take your herbs to dry out completely will depend on its thickness and moisture content. Plants with thin leaves can take as little as a week. However, thicker plants may take up to a month.
If you have delicate herbs that you want to keep intact, you can also use a drying rack. Just place the herbs on a cooling rack or mesh screen. Cover them up with some cheesecloth to keep dust away and they’ll be dry in no time.
If you’re in a pinch or live in a humid climate, microwave drying can be an effective option. Be very cautious with this technique. Herbs contain volatile oils. The flavorful oils can evaporate quickly under even light heat. Sometimes, they do so at room temperature. You need to avoid excessive heat if you want to keep your herbs in good shape.
The best way to use the microwave is to put it on “defrost mode.” The defrost function usually operates at 30 percent of the machine’s normal power level. So, you can easily keep an eye out on your herbs and work slowly to prevent oil evaporation.
Place a paper towel on the microwave tray and arrange the leaves of the herbs evenly. Provide plenty of space between them, as they could easily stick to one another. Then, cover the herbs with another paper towel.
Use short bursts of defrosting power. Start at 30 seconds and check dryness levels. Typically, this method takes only a few minutes. Just make sure to keep an eye on the herbs to ensure that they aren’t cooked in the process.
Using your standard kitchen oven usually isn’t a good idea. As we mentioned earlier, excessive heat can completely ruin your herbs if you’re not careful.
Though, some ovens are capable of getting the job done. It all depends on the available temperature settings. You can try this method out on a small batch to see how things go.
Just spread the herbs onto a sheet-lined baking tray. Put the oven on the lowest temperature settings possible. Generally, anything over 180 degrees Fahrenheit is too much for herbs. Unfortunately, most residential ovens can’t go anything lower than 200 degrees. If you have a warming function, use that. If not, keep the door open a bit to keep the temperature as low as possible.
Check on the herbs every few minutes to monitor moisture levels. Once they’re crisp enough to fall apart with some light pressure, you’re good to go.
If you’re worried about the heat affecting the flavor in the herbs, you may be able to dry them without using heat at all. For electric ovens, the small oven light may be enough to evaporate all the moisture if you leave the herbs in overnight. For gas ovens, the pilot light may do the trick as well.
Using a Dehydrator
Dehydrators are purpose-built for these kinds of tasks in mind, so why not take advantage of them? To prepare the device for your herbs, preheat it to temperatures between 95 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit. If you live in a particularly humid environment, you may want to bump up the settings to 125 degrees for better results.
Then, arrange the stems and leaves on the tray. Place them in one single layer with nothing touching. After a few hours, the herbs will be crisp and ready for dry storage.
What Herbs Can You Dry?
Not all herbs will take to the drying process. Generally, hardier plants with low moisture do the best. These include herbs like bay, thyme, rosemary, oregano, and more. As a good rule of thumb, the dryer the herb feels when it’s growing, the better it is for drying.
Those herbs are easier to work with and can be air-dried. You can dry more delicate plants as well. These include plants like parsley and basil. Though, you might want to consider using a dehydrator, as they tend to fall apart using other methods.
Also, thin plants with high-moisture often lose a lot of their flavor during the drying process. Drying is great if you have a large supply, but those herbs are better when they’re used fresh or frozen.
How to Store Dried Herbs
Once your herbs are free of moisture, you’re ready to store them in your pantry! Your best bet would be to keep them in an airtight container or bag.
Moisture can quickly lead to mold, so make sure to keep your herbs in a dry place. Also, keep your storage containers out of direct sunlight. They should do just fine in your kitchen cupboard. If they will have some sun exposure, consider getting tinted containers to block out some of those UV rays.
You can store the herbs stem and all or crush them up. It’s recommended that you leave the leaves whole to retain the flavor. Just break them up with your finger whenever you want to use them in a dish.
Another important tip is to label all of your dried herbs. I made the mistake of not jotting down the drying date my first couple of batches. As I added new herbs to the collection, I had an awful mixture of full-flavored and bland herbs. Keep things labeled so that you know when to throw out old herbs after a year.
How to Freeze Herbs
Tender herbs like parsley, basil, and cilantro do much better frozen than dried. Freezing keeps things fresh and prevents bacteria from taking over. Thus, your herbs will stay vibrant and green for much longer.
The simplest way to do this is to just freeze a handful of dried herbs in a ziplock bag. Whenever you want to use them, you can chop them up or break the frozen clump apart with your fingers.
For even greater versatility, consider freezing the herbs separately on a baking sheet. Just place a single layer of herbs on the tray so that they’re not touching. Once they’re frozen to a crisp, put them in an airtight container or bag for later use.
Before you do anything, you might want to blanch your herbs. Blanching helps to slow down the loss of vitamins while also preventing discoloration and spoiling. Some herbs, such as basil, must be blanched before freezing unless you want to deal with black discoloration.
To blanch the herbs, just put them in a colander and boil a pot of water. Once the water is hot enough, pour it over the herbs. Then, immediately submerge the herbs in ice water to halt the cooking process. The herbs only need a second of heat, so work fast!
Herb Ice Cubes
Whether you decide to blanch your herbs or not, one of the most popular ways to freeze herbs is with an ice cube tray. Cubed chunks of herbs are very easy to work with. Plus, you can combine complementary flavor profiles into a single cube for convenience.
All you have to do is finely chop your herbs and place them in the tray. Fill the squares about half way. Then, top them off with some water.
Want to take your frozen herbs to the next level? Try adding some additional ingredients to the mix. Instead of using water, utilize olive oil or melted butter. You can even create pesto or your own unique herb blend.
These blends are useful whenever you’re short on time. Pop them in some ice cube trays, wait until they’re frozen, and transfer them to a sealed container to have flavorful cubes always at the ready.
Which Herbs Can You Freeze
Technically speaking, all herbs will freeze just fine. No matter how thick the leaves are, freezing will do wonders to preserve the quality and flavor of your herbs.
Although, some herbs are better for freezing than drying. These include tender plants with a lot of moisture. Some examples include basil, chives, mint, oregano, tarragon, and more.
The great thing about freezing these herbs is that you can use them in the same proportions as if they were fresh. The same can’t be said about dried herbs. So, it’s great to separate the herbs into recipe-sized portions and keep them in your freezer for whenever you want a boost of flavor.
How to Preserve Herbs
Preserving your herbs with another cooking ingredient gives you a ton of ways to incorporate them into recipes. Though, preservation methods are a bit limited in terms of lifespan. Most techniques will last only a few weeks.
Is there anything better than creating your own compound butter? It’s a quick and easy way to take advantage of some of those powerful flavors.
The first step is to soften a stick of butter. Just leave it out of the refrigerator for a bit until it’s pliable and easy to mix. Then, chop up your favorite herb. Plants like tarragon, parsley, and chives work great with butter.
When you chop up the herbs, you’re releasing all of those delicious essential oils. Once you mix the herbs into the butter with a fork or mixer, the essential oils will combine with the fats to infuse the flavor.
Using Vinegar and Oil
Vinegar and oil will take on the flavor of the herbs just like butter will. Herbal vinegar and flavored oils are great for dips and make lovely gifts. To make them, just crush up the fresh herbs a bit with your fingers to get the oils flowing.
Then, pop the herbs into a glass jar or bottle. To get as much flavor as possible, you can use the entire stem. Then, pour the liquid over the herb and let them steep for a couple of weeks. Make sure that the container is airtight.
Risks of Botulism
Infusing herbs with oil and butter does come with the risk of botulism. Botulism is a form of food poisoning that’s caused by a specific type of bacteria. The disease has the potential to cause paralysis and even death. Because oxygen can’t penetrate oils, there’s an increased risk in the disease.
If you plan on preserving your herbs with butter or oil, you need to make sure that they have been acidified first. To be safe, the pH balance should be below 4.6. You can do this by shredding the herbs and soaking them in vinegar before you add the oil or butter.
How to Store Preserved Herbs
Whether you decide to make herbal butter or flavored olive oil, proper storage is key. The risk of botulism is very real, so you need to ensure that you store the preserved herbs safely and minimize your risks.
For compound butter, refrigeration is best. You can wrap the butter up in some parchment paper and pop it into your refrigerator for up to two weeks. If you want it to last longer, you can store it in the freezer for up to six months.
Oils should be in an airtight container away from heat or direct sunlight. To minimize your risk of botulism, use acidic herbs and keep the oil in the refrigerator. The oil is only safe for two weeks, so make sure to consume it before then.
Vinegar lasts a bit longer. Like oil, vinegar needs to stay away from sunlight. In a dark pantry or cupboard, they will last for up to two months. If you keep the vinegar in the refrigerator, you can continue using it for up to six months.
As always, create a label for everything you create. It’ll help you stay on top of your preserved herbs and help you avoid any nasty surprises.
Precautions When Storing Herbs
Regardless of the preservation method you choose, things can still go wrong during storage. To keep your herbs in good shape, keep the following precautions in mind.
Excessive Light Exposure
The chlorophyll that creates that beautiful green color breaks down when exposed to white light. So, keep your herbs in the dark as much as possible. This even applies to fresh herbs you keep in your refrigerator.
Too Much Oxygen
What happens if your herbs are left out in the open? The essential oils will start to oxidize due to oxygen exposure.
This can result in a rancid taste and discoloration. For fresh herbs, the problem is even worse. Oxygen will speed up the spoiling process, especially if there’s bruising on the leaves already.
The Right Amount of Moisture
It should go without saying that dry herbs need to stay in a moisture-proof environment. Keep them in airtight containers to prevent humidity from having an effect as well.
When it comes to fresh herbs in the refrigerator, the right amount of moisture is critical. With too much moisture, you run the risk of feeding bacteria that will lead to spoiling. However, a lack of moisture will cause rapid evaporation, leaving your herbs dry and bitter.
As we stated earlier, herbs don’t react well to temperature changes. The essential oils are more than capable of evaporating at room temperature.
To keep the herbs tasting great, store them in a cool place that doesn’t have too many temperature fluctuations.
As you can see, there are plenty of ways to make the most out of your herb garden. Preserving and drying techniques are relatively easy to do. Yet, they can boost the flavor of your dishes all year long. All while reducing waste and keeping your plants in good condition.
All you have to do to get started is hang some of your herbs up to dry. Try out a couple of these techniques to see which ones work best for you.
Once you get the hang of things, you’ll never be without flavorful herbs again.