Harvesting and Preserving Herbs

Harvesting and Preserving Herbs
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Harvesting and Preserving Herbs

Herbs Are a Wonderful Way to Add Extra Nutrients and Delicious Flavor Into Your Meals

Most herbs pack some hefty health benefits also. Many of the culinary herbs that we grow to eat have medicinal benefits. The herbs you’re growing might be full of antioxidants, antivirals, antibiotics, and other amazing benefits. Suffice to say, if you’re growing herbs, you should be harvesting them and preserving them so that you can use them and enjoy both the flavor and benefits as long as possible.

Harvesting Herbs

When should you harvest herbs? This is a frequently asked question from gardeners that are new to growing herbs. Unfortunately, the answer lies somewhere along the lines of “it depends”. The ideal time to harvest herbs is when the oils that are responsible for aroma and flavor are at their peak. This is going to vary depending on what type of herb you are growing.

Here are some general guidelines to ensure that you’re harvesting herbs at their peak:

Herbs that are grown for their leaves should be harvested before the herbs bloom. When the plant blooms, the oils that are produced that develop the flavor and aroma are changed. This can lead to an off flavor in your herbs. Basil and chives may look pretty when they bloom, but you’ll want to harvest them before they bloom to get the best possible flavor.

If you’re growing herbs for their seeds, like dill, you’ll need to pay attention to the seed pods. The seed pods will change color as they mature. The seed pods will start as green, then as they mature, they’ll turn brown and then a shade of brownish gray. Not long after they turn brownish gray, the seed pods will open up. The ideal time to harvest the seeds is when the seed pods are brownish gray, just before they’ve opened up.

Herbs that are harvested for their flowers should be allowed to bloom. You want to harvest the blooms when they’re at their peak before they start to die back. Chamomile and lavender are common examples of herbs grown for their blooms. When growing chamomile, allow the blooms to open completely and then harvest the blossoms. Lavender flowers can be harvested in the spring and then again in the fall. If you want the most intense oil concentration, you can harvest the flower buds before they open.

Many herbs are grown for their roots. If you’re harvesting herbs for their roots, then you’ll want to allow the plant to grow all season. Once the foliage dies back, you can harvest the root. While the plant is actively growing, the majority of the oils and nutrients are in the top of the plant- in the leaves, stems and flowers. When the plant starts to die back, all of those nutrients and oils are sent back down into the root. Waiting to harvest the root after the plant dies back will ensure that you get the most benefit and flavor out of your herb roots.

When you’re harvesting herbs, especially the foliage of herbs, it can be tricky to know how much to actually harvest without killing your plant. The good thing is that most herb plants hold up really well to being aggressively harvested. In fact, you can usually harvest ¾ of your herb plant at a time! Harvesting your herbs helps to encourage them to produce bushier growth and more leaves. If your herbs are looking a little leggy, there’s a simple fix- harvest them!

Preserving Your Herbs

Fresh herbs are wonderful to use in the kitchen, but what do you do with all the herbs that you harvest that you don’t use fresh? What’s the best way to preserve them? Again, this is answer isn’t cut and clear. The best way to preserve your herbs is going to depend on the herb itself and how you plan on using it.

Drying Your Herbs

Dried herbs are one of the oldest methods for preserving herbs. It’s very straightforward and simple. Start with clean herbs. If you need to rinse the dust off them, do so with water and pat them dry. Herbs that are clean do not need to be rinsed.

When you harvest your herbs, you can tie them up into bundles and hang them upside down in a dry place. Over a few weeks, they’ll dry up. You can do the same thing with an herb drying rack. These are usually fabric mesh ‘shelves’ that you lay your herbs on. The air around the herbs will help them to dry up. When drying your herbs, try to keep them out of direct sunlight. The UV rays will discolor the herbs and break down some of the oils that produce the flavor and aroma. Instead, dry them indoors or in a dry, shaded space.

If you want to get your herbs dried quickly, you can stick them in a dehydrator, your oven, or a microwave. A dehydrator can dry your herbs over a few hours, instead of a few weeks. Dehydrating herbs in a microwave is a great way to preserve the color and flavor of your herbs. It’s also one of the fastest preserving methods. Lay a single layer of paper towels on a plate, then cover it with a thin layer of herbs. Cover this with another paper towel. Work in one- to two- minute intervals, microwaving the herbs until they are completely dry. To dry herbs in your oven, use the lowest temperature setting and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Leave the herbs in the oven until they are dry.

Once your herbs are dry, you can shop them or grind them up and put them into containers to store them. This is the same process that is used with herbs that you’d buy in the spice section of the grocery store.

Freezing Your Herbs

Freezing is an easy way to have herbs on hand if you’re limited on your space for storing dried herbs. Herbs that are frozen and thawed won’t have the same texture as fresh herbs, so you’ll want to use them in dishes where they are cooked. They won’t be suitable for a pretty garnish, but the flavor and nutrients are all still there.

There are a couple of options for freezing your herbs. You can freeze them as is or you can freeze them in oil. In either case, the preparation is the same.

Start by rinsing your herbs off and patting them dry with a paper towel or lint-free towel. Roughly chop them up. If you want to freeze them alone, line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Layer the chopped herbs on the parchment paper and place the sheet in the freezer for a few hours. Once they’re frozen you can remove the herbs from the baking sheet and place into a Ziploc bag.

Herbs frozen in oil are a wonderful, delicious way to add incredible flavor to your favorite dishes. Start with your clean, chopped herbs. Place a teaspoon to a tablespoon of the chopped herbs in each cell of an ice cube tray. Cover the herbs with your favorite oil and stick it in the freezer overnight. In the morning, you can remove the frozen cubes of oil and herbs. Place them into a Ziploc bag and put back into the freezer. When you get ready to cook, simply take a cube or two out of the freezer and add it directly to your dish for amazing flavor.

Other Preserving Ideas

Herbs are incredible useful and versatile, so don’t be scared to use them and preserve them in new ways. You can create herb infused oils, salts, and vinegars easily. These are great ways to add incredible flavor and health benefits to your favorite dishes.

You can also experiment with using herbs to create homemade soaps, cleaners, tinctures, and other fun household products. Let your creativity run wild!