September 29, 2022
By Merrie Witkin
It has been a tough summer for Hudson Valley gardeners, with high temperatures and the longest drought (at least in Southern Ulster County) I can remember. With a little care, my herb garden survived, nonetheless. So now is the time to harvest and preserve the remaining herbs (1). For many herbs, drying is the easiest—and most time honored— way to preserve them for use any time of the year. Tender herbs like chives, parsley, basil and cilantro tend to dry less well, but can be preserved in a number of ways, including by freezing and in herb butters. This month I will explore some of the ways to preserve fresh herbs. Next month I will discuss storing and using dried herbs in herb mixtures.
Harvesting herbs. To maintain the best flavor, harvest your herbs in the morning while the air is still cool and before the herb’s volatile oils evaporate. For perennial herbs, cut about 1/3 of the stems’ current year’s growth, using a sharp scissors or cutter. Annual herbs can be harvested more aggressively. For those herbs which produce valuable seed heads like dill, cilantro and fennel, the seed heads are ready for harvesting when they turn color, but before they open and scatter. To save the seeds, harvest on a dry day and cut the whole heads off into a paper bag for drying.
Bring the herbs inside and rinse them in cool water to remove dirt, keeping each different kind separate. Shake off the water and lay the herbs on clean towels and pick off any bad leaves. They will then be ready for drying or using fresh. For a short description of drying methods, see June, 2022 WLVT Field Notes, “Foragers and Herbalists: When Mint Comes into its Own”.
Freezing tender herbs. Emily Johnson, writing on the food blog Epicurious (2), describes the simple method that best preserves the flavor of fresh herbs while preventing ice crystals and freezer burn. The method is to destem the herbs and chop them fine, either with a knife or in a food processor if you have a large volume, then add a small amount of olive (or a neutral flavored) oil. The small tender stems of parsley, dill and cilantro can also be used as they are a great source of flavor. You can then freeze the herbs in an ice cube tray for individual portions, or store them flat in a freezer bag, which you can then break off bits from the frozen block as needed. If using an ice cube tray, portion out spoonfuls into each cube tray and top with a thin layer of oil (if not already added). Freeze the trays and then once they are frozen solid, transfer the individual cubes to a freezer bag for long term storage. When ready to use, thaw the amount needed and add to soups, sauces, salad dressings, stews, roasts or eggs. The only place where they will not work quite as well is as a garnish or salad herb.
Making herb butters. Herb butters are a simple way to add flavor and elevate dishes; fresh herbs and butter offer almost unlimited combinations of flavor to suit your individual palate. Because fats carry flavor better than other liquids, herb-flavored butters offer a great way to enhance bread, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, steamed or sautéed vegetables and pasta.
Parsley butter. My friend Christine likes to preserve her parsley by making parsley butter. Her method is: use a very large bunch of flat leafed parsley and one stick of room temperature unsalted butter, take the leaves and top tender stems and chop them medium fine. Using a stiff spoon or spatula, mix the butter to ensure it is soft enough to blend with the parsley, then add as much chopped parsley as the butter will take and still bind together. Then, with either wax or parchment paper, Christine cuts small rectangles and folds the paper so as to make packets that will hold about 1-2 tablespoons each of the parsley butter mixture. Scoop that amount onto each paper piece, flatten the mixture slightly and fold over the paper edges to form an enclosed packet that will fit into a quart sized freezer bag. Put as many of these packets as you can fit in to the baggie, label it, squeeze out the air and keep in the door of your freezer. Alternatively, gather the mixture together onto waxed or parchment paper and roll into a log. Seal the ends and refrigerate until fully cold and solid. You can then cut the log in to individual pats for freezing in a similar manner. Take out the individual pats as needed to use on meats, soups, to make scrambled eggs or otherwise in any way you would use parsley in cooking. (For the parsley pictured above, that whole amount required 2 sticks of good quality butter.) By using unsalted butter, you can control the amount of salt in your finished product by adding salt as desired.
Tarragon butter. My favorite herb butter is made with tarragon. Tarragon butter is my go-to hack to finish filets, steaks and fish and provide a soupçon of elegance, without going to the trouble of making a bearnaise sauce. To 1 stick of room temperature good quality unsalted butter (1/2 cup) add 1 good sized clove of shallot minced finely, and 1½ tablespoons of finely minced fresh tarragon leaves. Beat the mixture with your wooden spoon or a fork until well blended and soft, then add 1½ teaspoons of lemon juice, a teaspoon of grated lemon rind and kosher salt to taste. Mix until fully blended and then roll/package as described above.
Preserving with salt. You can also use salt to preserve fresh herbs. As a desiccant, the salt will slowly dry out the herbs without spoilage. The trick is to use a wet coarse salt, which is what you find with minimally processed panned sea salts. The size of the crystal and type of salt is key. Do not use table or kosher salt, as it will dry and form large overly salty clumps. You can generally find coarse wet sea salt salt in health food stores. Before Covid you could buy it by the scoop from open bins. Now it will likely be packaged. One readily available brand is Celtic Sea Salt which is available in health food stores or online.
I have been making a Provence-style fresh herb blend for years, having learned the technique in a cooking class in a French manor house north of Nice more than 20 years ago (long before fancy salts were all the rage). This is a very forgiving recipe–the choice and amount of herbs and garlic you add may vary and is a function of personal taste. To use the blend because of the large crystal size, you will need either a salt grinder or mortar and pestle.
The heady, almost intoxicating, scent you get from this blend when freshly made makes the effort worthwhile.
Herb sea salt
Ingredients and tools:
For each batch you will need:
2 lbs coarse grey sea salt–this is a wet salt (what the French call “gros sel de mer”)
3 ounces of whole black or green peppercorns
A good to large-sized bunch of each of the following fresh herbs: Rosemary, Thyme, Oregano, Savory, and Marjoram
Enough garlic for about a half pound (or about 3-4 large fresh whole heads) or more. You can use as much garlic as you can tolerate. The garlic, along with the herbs, will mellow and dry over time.
Canning or other clean, dry glass jars with clean coated (non-reactive) lids. You will also need a large mixing bowl and a food processor.
1. Most annual and perennial herbs can be harvested in midsummer and again in the fall, as cutting promotes regrowth.
2. “How to Freeze Herbs So They stay Super-Fresh,” August 8, 2017 post at epicurious.com.