October 31, 2022
By Merrie Witkin
Last month’s column discussed ways to preserve fresh herbs. This month we discuss storing and using dried herbs, including in herb mixtures. Over the past few weeks my dining room table has been covered with large tubs, towels and drying trays to clean and air dry much of my harvest. While you can use the microwave or a warm oven to speed up the process, I have found that leaving them to air dry in a reasonably warm non-sunny location works just fine and reduces the risk of overcooking them. Since sunlight speeds oxidation (the enemy of the essential oils that provide herbs with their pungency), I leave the shades down where they are drying. Nothing Martha Stewart-ish here!
Storing dried herbs. The key to successfully storing your herbs is to make sure they are fully dry before you put them away. If after air drying the leaves still have some moisture in them—test a leaf to see if it crackles and crumbles or still bends, you can speed their finish by placing them on a sheet pan in a very low oven (not more than 180 degrees) and leave the oven door slightly ajar, or heat the oven to its lowest available temperature, and then turn it off. Test the herbs after about 5 minutes or so to see if the excess moisture is gone. Once the herbs are fully dry, gently destem them to keep the leaves intact to the extent practicable, and carefully put the dried leaves in airtight jars or tins out of direct light and away from heat (such as in a cabinet, cupboard or pantry) to preserve their best flavor. Since crushing the dried leaves releases their essential oils, generally crumble or crush the leaves only as and when you are ready to use them in cooking. Remember to label each jar because, honestly, a lot of jars of dried herbs look alike!
Herb blends. If you are lucky with an abundant herb harvest, it can be fun to prepare your own dried herb blends. The best are mixes of herbs you use often and in combination, so that you have them ready at hand when needed. There are a great many herb and spice blends marketed for sale, some of them essentially of American invention (such as “Italian Seasoning”), but making your own mixtures allows you to control the ingredients and their volume and avoid excess salt and fillers. Among the more famous blends is the mixture of native herbs that grow wild in the hills of southern France known as “Herbes de Provence.” At the eastern and southern ends of the Mediterranean you will find another age-old popular herb and spice blend known as “Za’atar”.
Herbes de Provence. If you travel to the south of France and visit Nice, Aix-en-Provence, Grasse, Arles or Marseille, at every gift shop or market you will find packets of the mixture labeled “Herbes de Provence”. While likely a culinary popularization of local herbs dating back to the 60’s and 70’s, the basic recipe includes as essential herbs dried rosemary, thyme, marjoram and savory, oftentimes oregano which marries well with these herbs, and then optionally, lavender—ubiquitous in Provence—which adds a strong floral note, and fennel seeds, which add a hint of licorice. Some recipes I have seen recently include sage or dried basil, and tarragon (likely because of its licorice-like undertones), but my preference is to omit those herbs as their strong flavor can readily overpower the other herbs or just muddy the flavor profile the mix is intended to impart. Here is the mix I use:
2 tbsp dried rosemary
4 tbsp (1/4 cup) dried thyme
2 tbsp dried savory
2 tbsp dried marjoram
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried lavender (optional)
1 tsp fennel seeds (optional)
How to use? Herbes de Provence is wonderful as a seasoning for roast chicken. Use it when roasting tomatoes, and with any number of roast vegetables—whether sheet pan roasted or in a casserole or tian (a layered gratineed vegetable dish) in the southern French style. It marries particularly well with eggplant, zucchini and onions, as well with cauliflower. Mix a spoonful into your wine vinegar to soften before adding the oil to flavor a vinaigrette dressing. Use the mixture (without the lavender) to season a roast beef or pot roast, or lamb, or to perfume a firm fleshed roast fish.
Za’atar. Za’atar is an Arabic word that refers to both a culinary herb or family of herbs, as well as the popular spice mixture found throughout Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, and North Africa. The herb, variously called Syrian Oregano or Mediterranean thyme (Origanum syriacum, thought to be related to the biblical hyssop) is, traditionally, the centerpiece of the mixture, with the addition of Mediterranean sumac to provide a citrusy balance and toasted sesame seeds for some nutty crunch (1). The local Hudson Valley herbs which, collectively, approximate the flavor of Syrian Oregano, are common thyme, marjoram, oregano and savory. Here is the mixture I use:
1.5 tbsp sumac
1 tbsp dried thyme
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tbsp dried marjoram or savory
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1 tsp Kosher salt
How to use? If you visit the Middle East you will find Za’atar on tables as a condiment along with olive oil and fresh flatbread. It is often sprinkled atop hummus just before serving, and Israelis use it on cream cheese with their bagels. Like Herbes de Provence, Za’atar provides a wonderfully tasty seasoning for roast chicken, lamb or other meats to be roasted, as well as for vegetables and in salads and salad dressings (such as fattoush). Here, as we approach Halloween, it makes a terrific seasoning for roasting those pumpkin seeds you are left with after carving your pumpkin: Just rinse the seeds to remove the pulp and strings, toss them lightly with olive oil and sprinkle them liberally with za’atar, and bake them on a sheet pan in a 325 degree oven until toasted, about 15-20 minutes. Check them after 10 minutes, and stir or turn to ensure even toasting.
Once you make a batch of za’atar, you will find many ways to use it and surprise your family and friends with something out of the ordinary.
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.