Herbs produce abundantly and so have to be frequently harvested to stay fresh and fragrant, but most home gardeners struggle with using the herbs they have harvested before they die off.
To be a successful gardener, you also have to be ready to get handy with harvesting, storing and preserving your produce. Preserving your herbs guarantees a supply of your favorite herbs beyond their harvest season.
Before preservation, here are some hard and fast rules for harvesting herbs:
● During harvest season, you should harvest your herbs as often as they mature to encourage better yield.
● Many herbs are perennial plants that can be harvested regularly as long as they continue to produce.
● Herbs should be gently cleaned and dried on paper towels after harvesting. Look for dead or damaged plant material and remove it from the bunches as best as possible.
● Herb flavor and aroma are determined by the oils it contains. Herbs should be harvested when this oil concentration is highest.
● Research the parts of the herbs you’re planting that are edible. Some herbs have edible leaves, others have edible flowers, or roots, or stems. Many herbs have multiple uses for different parts.
❖ Flowering herbs: for flowering herbs, It is recommended that herb leaves are harvested before they flower, as most herbs lose their flavor or become bitter after flowering. You also want to pick the leaves while they are tender. It is also important to harvest early in the morning just before the sun’s heat comes up.
❖ Leafy herbs: Most leafy herbs are abundant producers. Harvest by pinching off the top of the stems a few inches in, and harvest them as often as possible.
❖ Seed herbs: For seed-bearing herbs like coriander, harvest the seeds as soon as they start ripening.
❖ Root herbs: root herbs like ginger can be uprooted and roots cut as soon as the sprouts are mature enough. Most root herbs can be harvested at different stages of maturity.
Freshly harvested herbs taste the best and they have the most pleasant aroma. As soon as they are picked, their flavor and smell will deteriorate very quickly. If you are unable to use herbs right away, you should store them to ensure they retain their flavor.
Traditional methods for preserving herbs include:
1. Drying herbs
● Air drying
Air drying is the easiest and most popular method for preserving herbs. Herbs should be air dried away from the direct rays of the sun, which can discolor and reduce the potency of many herbs.
You can dry herbs indoors in a large empty space or a dry corner of your kitchen or pantry.
● Low heat drying
Some herbs dry better with the help of low heat, which can be applied through different methods:
❖ Microwave drying: To dry small quantities of herbs, microwave drying is a fast and easy method. Put a single layer of clean, air-dry herb leaves between two dry paper towels and microwave on high for one to two minutes. Let the leaves cool, and reheat if needed until the herbs are brittle.
❖ Oven drying: Using a conventional oven is another way to dry herbs. Dry the herbs on cookie sheets or parchment paper at the lowest temperature possible.
❖ Home food dehydrators: Dehydrators also do an excellent job of drying herbs at home.
Note that drying concentrates the flavor of herbs so you may only need a third or a fourth as much as fresh herbs in recipes.
2. Freezing herbs
Freezing is one of the easiest methods to preserve herbs. Here’s how:
● Rinse and chop herbs, then place portions of the chopped herbs in water-filled ice cube trays and freeze. Transfer herb cubes to plastic bags or airtight plastic containers for long-term storage.
● Another method for freezing is to spread the herbs between parchment, place them in a Ziploc bag and freeze. When they thaw, herbs can be used in cooking even if they might not work as a garnish. After thawing, do not refreeze herbs.
3. Storing herbs
Hang drying or dried herb bunches in a dry, warm, well-ventilated place out of direct sunlight. A garage, shed, barn, or attic work well. Herbs may take up to a month to dry completely.
In general, dried herbs can be kept for two or three years in a cool, dry place away from sunlight, moisture, and heat, though they are best used within one year since they lose their flavor and fragrance with time. To preserve full flavor, avoid crushing dry herb leaves until they are ready for use.
Herbs can also be stored long term in oil by blending the herbs with oil into a paste (pesto) and strong in an airtight glass jar in the freezer. Green herbs like mint, basil oregano, etc store very well as pesto, as do roots like garlic, ginger and turmeric.