By Brandy Cavanagh
Purdue Extension, Elkhart County
I know from the conversations that I have had with many of you that you are interested in using more herbs in your cooking. In addition to herbs being used in specific dishes, herbs are frequently incorporated into other ingredients such as butters, mustards, vinegars, and salts. I know that many of you are aware of herbs having long been employed 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 many cooked dishes add flavor without adding calories and you don’t have to use a lot of the salt with the herbs.
Since it is spring I am encouraging you to use fresh herbs that you grow, purchase at local produce stands or in your favorite grocery store. If you are a cook and working at improving your cooking skills there is nothing like snipping your own herbs and adding to salads, cheeses, egg dishes, beverages and everything else that you are preparing.
Gather or purchase fresh herbs only as needed. I encourage you to practice this as fresh herbs are highly perishable. There are times in the herb’s plant-life cycle that are better than others for harvesting and I am going to share them. I wanted you to know though that it is okay to harvest the herbs when you need them; that is the plus of growing your own herbs. It is recommended or best that herbs be harvested at the same moment in their life cycle, after the flower buds have formed, and before they burst into bloom. They can of course be picked at other times, but this is when the main crop should be taken, when the foliage is at its most abundant, and the flavor most intense. After flowering, most of the strength which is also the flavor goes into producing seeds, and in some cases, woody stems, causing the flavor to grow weaker.
If your herbs are at the height of harvest time try to choose a warm, dry day for harvesting and try to pick or cut the herbs in the morning after the dew has evaporated, and before the sun becomes intense. To use fresh herbs they should be lightly rinsed, dried with a clean cloth or towel and placed in a container and refrigerated for later use. To dry you can air dry by lightly rinsing, towel drying and then placing in a single layer on a rack covered with a thin towel or cheese cloth in a dry room. I also like the room to be dark so the herbs don’t fade. Leave them until completely dry; this may take from two days for delicate herbs like mint, to a week for woody herbs like rosemary. Another way of air drying is to dry the entire bunch or branch – again lightly rinse, towel dry and then hang in a dry, dark room or closet. 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 like rosemary and thyme may be left on sprigs, for easy removal after cooking. Dried herbs keep best if you store them in the smallest container and in the dark. The longer the herbs are stored they weaker in flavor they become, so you will have to use more of them after 6 months or so. The cooking habit of seasoning to taste needs to be practiced so that you have the flavor you want.
Most of the herbs that do not dry well can be frozen. This applies to all the delicate annuals; chervil, dill, and basil, as well as to chives, and tarragon. It is very simple to do; in the case of large leafed herbs like basil, simply pick the leaves off the stalks and pack twelve or so into small plastic freezer bags. Chives can be packed in bunches or chopped and then bagged. Parsley heads, loosely bundled, can be bagged and frozen. What matters most is that you learn, experiment, and enjoy the flavor of fresh herbs.
Purdue University’s Department of Horticulture has a publication on ‘Growing Herbs’ that you can download for free here.