I know many of you are interested in using more herbs in your cooking. In addition to herbs being used in specific dishes, they are frequently incorporated into other ingredients such as butters, mustards, vinegars and salts. Herbs have long been used to brew tea. Minced tarragon, chives, parsley, or cilantro adds a dimension of freshness and spark to store-bought mustard or homemade blends. Almost any fresh herb is suitable for use in flavoring vinegars. Herb-flavored salts sprinkled on salad greens, fresh vegetables, and cooked dishes add flavor without adding calories. You also don’t have to use a lot of the salt when using herbs.
Since it is summer, I am encouraging you to use fresh herbs that you grow, purchase at local produce stands or buy at the grocery store. If you are working at improving your cooking skills, there is nothing like snipping your own herbs and adding them to salads, flavored cheese, egg dishes, and beverages. Gather or purchase fresh herbs only as needed as they are highly perishable. Herbs should be harvested when the foliage is most abundant as this is when the flavor is most intense. After flowering, most of the plant’s strength goes into producing seeds and in some cases woody stems.
If you are harvesting your herbs when their foliage is abundant, try to choose a warm, dry day and try to pick (or cut) the herbs in the morning after the dew has evaporated and before the sun gets intense. Lightly rinse and dry the herbs with a clean cloth or towel and place them in a container and refrigerate for later use. You can also let them air dry (after towel drying) by placing them in a single layer on a rack covered with a thin towel in a dry room. I like the room to be dark so the herbs don’t fade. I’ve found a closet works well for this. Let them dry completely; this may take two days for delicate herbs like mint or up to a week for woody herbs like rosemary. The challenge is that sometimes the air doesn’t always penetrate right into the center.
Once dried, the herbs become brittle. In almost all cases, the leaves should be rubbed off the stalks and packed into small jars. There is no need to reduce the leaves to powder. A few herbs like rosemary and thyme may be left on sprigs for easy removal after cooking. Dried herbs keep best if you store them in a small container in the dark. The longer the herbs are stored, the weaker in flavor they become. If you are using herbs that are 6 months or older, you may need to use more of them to get the same flavor as fresher herbs.
Most of the herbs that do not dry well can be frozen. This applies to delicate annuals such as chervil, dill, and basil, as well as chives and tarragon. In the case of large leafed herbs like basil, simply pick the leaves off the stalks and pack 12 or so into small plastic freezer bags. Chives can be packed in bunches or chopped and then bagged. Parsley heads can be loosely bundled, bagged, and froze.
What matters most is that you learn, experiment and enjoy the flavor of fresh herbs. For more information on growing your own fresh herbs, visit https://ag.purdue.edu/hla/pubs/HO/HO-28.pdf.
Mary Ann Lienhart Cross is extension educator, Health and Human Sciences, Purdue Extension Elkhart County. She can be reached at 574-533-0554 or firstname.lastname@example.org.