This year has been a particularly bountiful year for herbs and now it is time to capture all that goodness for the coming winter months. We have put together some great recipes and ideas for you, so you can take advantage of all the herbal goodness around right now.
Some basics before you start:
Herb flavours are generally strongest just before the plants flower.
Pick healthy growth and discard damaged leaves.
Gather herbs and greens in the morning – after the dew has dried but before the sun gets hot.
Only wash the herbs if absolutely necessary. If needed do this in a small amount of cold water and pat dry before preserving them.
Dried herbs take up little space, they’re convenient to have near the kitchen stove, and you may have to make do with them if you don’t have a freezer or indoor herb garden. No dried herbs taste quite like fresh ones, but many have a flavour that is just as good in a different way.
In many recipes that call for fresh herbs, you can substitute dried herbs, using one-third to one-half the amount specified – use your taste to tell you how much. Dried herbs vary greatly in potency, depending on the herb itself and how long it has been stored.
The major goal in drying herbs is to eliminate the moisture as quickly as possible while retaining the oils that give the leaves colour and flavour. If the herbs are clean, do not wet them. Otherwise, rinse dust and dirt from the foliage, shake off the excess water, and spread the herbs out to dry on paper towels or dishcloths until all surface moisture has evaporated. Remove any dead or damaged foliage.
Hanging long-stemmed herbs is the easiest method of drying. Gather a small bouquet, rinse only if leaves are dusty (only if absolutely necessary) and tie the ends of the stems together. Hang them upside down in a shady place that has good air circulation. To protect them from sunlight or dust, hang the bundles inside brown paper bags punched with ventilating holes. In one or two weeks, leaves should be dry enough to remove from stalks. If the leaves can be easily crumbled, they’re ready to pack in jars.
Screen drying is suitable for small herbs, large single leaves and seed heads. Use old window screens or stretch cheesecloth over picture frames – anything that allows air to circulate freely. Place a single layer of herbs on the screen (if you place another screen on top, it makes it easy to invert the entire layer). Put herbs in a dry, shady place. Turn after a few days so they will dry evenly, which they generally will do in about a week.
Oven drying can be an added expense, but it works. Place clean leaves in a single layer on trays in a 100-degree oven. Check them frequently and remove as soon as they are brittle. Freshly picked herbs that don’t need washing can be placed in a hotter oven, about 400 degrees, with the door ajar. They will dry in 5 to 10 minutes, but you must watch them carefully to prevent burning.
Home food dehydrators also do an excellent job of drying herbs. Follow the directions provided with the dehydrator.
As soon as herbs are dry, strip off the leaves, keeping them as whole as possible. Save dried twigs for use in the charcoal grill or to throw in the fireplace for fragrance. Pack leaves in airtight jars and store them out of sunlight. For a few days after placing in jars, it is very important to examine the jars in which you have stored dried herbs. If you see any moisture in the jars, remove the herbs and repeat the drying process. Herbs will mold quickly in closed jars if not completely dry.
Chives, dill, marjoram, mints, oregano, parsley and tarragon can be frozen in small packets to use as needed. Place sprigs or chopped leaves in small plastic bags or fold them into squares of plastic wrap. Seal and label them. Add whatever you need, unthawed, to the dish you are cooking. Frozen herbs become limp when they thaw, so they are not satisfactory in salads, but you can chop them into salad dressings or blend them into mayonnaise.
Herbs and greens can be spun in the blender with just enough water to cover, and then frozen in ice-cube trays. Break out cubes, pack them in plastic bags and label. A mixture of herbs is good done this way – you can pull out as many cubes as you want to add to soup, tomato juice or sauces.
Freeze mint or lemon balm leaves and borage or violet flowers in containers filled with water to make decorative ice cakes for punch bowls or mint tea.
Get a head start on stuffing for the holidays by freezing a seasoning mix when everything is fresh in the garden. Chop onions and celery (or lovage) fine in the combination you like in stuffing. Add herbs to taste: parsley, sage, marjoram, savory and thyme. Freeze in small containers. Thaw and add to bread crumbs when you’re ready to stuff the bird.
Other Ways to Preserve Herbs
Herb infused oils – Herbal oils are wonderful for gift giving and cooking. To make culinary oil place herbs in oil, and let stand for 2 days, take out the wilted herb and re-place with fresh and do this for two weeks.. A canning jar would make a good container for making infused oil; simply cover with cheesecloth rather than a lid, to allow moisture to escape.
Do note – Unfortunately, if you have any spores on the herbs this can potentially caused botulism. Ensure your herbs are top quality and have no sign of fungus or mould on the leaves. You can add 1/8 tsp. citric acid for every 2 cups oil if desired to acidify the oil and decrease the risk of botulism. Always store the finished oil in the fridge in a clean container with tight fitting lid.
Herb vinegars – add subtle flavour to salad dressings and sauces. Try rice-wine vinegar with dill, purple basil, tarragon, chervil and shallots, to use with delicate lettuces and greens. Cider or red-wine vinegar is fine for robust herbs such as rosemary, sage and oregano, to use for salads with pungent greens. Garlic is good in any vinegar. Try a variety of vinegars and herbs to make an interesting row on your shelf or to use as gifts. To make flavoured vinegar, fill a glass jar with clean herbs, (for best flavour twist a handful of herbs, stems and all, to release their oils,) then drop them into the vinegar. Or mix the tough leaves and stems left over from making salads or green mayonnaise – basil, parsley, tarragon, chives or dill. For garlic or shallot vinegar, spin several whole cloves in the blender with each cup of vinegar. Let herb vinegars stand in a warm spot for a few weeks (but not direct sunlight), then strain liquid into clean bottles. Fresh sprigs of herbs now can be added to the bottles to identify the vinegar and make it prettier.
Herb butters – are good in any dish that uses herbs and butter – which means they have thousands of possible uses. Packed in crocks or other attractive containers, they make nice gifts. Herbs that are easily chopped by hand, such as dill and chives, can be creamed into soft butter. It’s easier to spin other herb leaves or greens in the blender with melted butter, salted or unsalted, until they are finely chopped. Or use a food processor, and you needn’t melt butter. In general, use about 1/2 cup roughly chopped herbs or greens to 1/2 cup butter. Add some lemon juice, a few drops of Tabasco or grated cheese for variations. Most refrigerated herb butters will stay fresh-tasting for up to a month, and they can be frozen for up to 3 months.
Herb mustards – can be as mild or tangy as you like. Try adding fines herbes to Dijon mustard, or ground horseradish and chopped sage to lusty German mustards. Pep up bland American mustards by blending them with a handful of mixed herbs. Make your own special mustard blend: Stir enough white-wine vinegar into dry mustard to make a paste. Add a little sugar and salt to taste, then finely chopped herbs, minced garlic or shallots, grated horseradish or hot peppers. Experiment with combinations until you have the taste you like and one appropriate to the food you’re serving the mustard with.
Herb Salt – Homemade herb salts are slightly preferable to commercial ones, but should still be used in moderation. Crush very dry minced herb leaves with an equal amount of salt in a mortar, or whirl them together in the blender. Spread mixture on cookie sheets and dry for an hour in a 200F oven.
Herb jams & jellies – you can enhance many ordinary jellies and jams by using herb infusions as part of the liquid called for in recipes. Example -Lemon balm is good with apple jelly, sage with cider jelly, mints with wine jelly.
A good basic recipe for herbal jelly is as follows:
1-½ cup fresh herbs (try lavender, lemon verbena, diathanus, sage, basil etc.) 3-¼ cup water 1 box powdered pectin 4 cup white sugar 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
Bring water to a boil, add herbs, cover, remove from heat and steep for at least ½ hour (overnight is best). Strain (don’t squeeze herbs) and measure 3 cups liquid. Place in a deep pot and add pectin & vinegar. Bring to a boil then whisk sugar in. Reboil to a rolling boil that can’t be stirred down. Cook for 1 minute. Remove from heat and let sit for 1 minute. Skim if necessary. Quickly bottle & seal. Process 10 minutes in boiling water bath. Age at least 2 weeks.
A good basic herbal jam recipe is as follows:
1pkg.-powdered pectin 2-½ cups water ½ cup lemon juice 3 cups sugar 1 cup herbs, tightly packed: – Violet blossoms, whole – Rose petals, chopped – white bits removed – Calendula petals – Lavender blossoms – Lemon balm leaves, chopped – Peppermint leaves, chopped
Combine pectin, water and lemon juice and bring to a boil; add sugar all at once and stir and boil 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add herbs immediately. Pour into hot sterilized jars and seal. Process 10 minutes in boiling water bath. Age at least 2 weeks.
Herbal Syrup – wonderful toppings for pancakes, waffles, desserts and bases for beverages, herbal syrups make great gifts. In syrups, the ratio of sugar to liquid (water or juice) determines the thickness of the syrup. A 1:1 ratio produces a thin syrup, while a 2:1 ratio (two parts sugar to one part liquid) is thick. Most people prefer the thicker syrup because it is more concentrated and good for pouring, but you may adjust the basic recipe to your liking. A small amount of lemon juice is included in the recipe to cut the sweetness and boost the herb flavour. When measuring herbs, use the leaves whole and gently pack them down into the measuring cup. If using lavender blossoms or other edible flowers, add them whole to the measuring cup until you have one cup.
Fresh rose petals are one exception: Before measuring, snip or pinch off the bitter white spot at the bottom of each rose petal where it attached to the bud, then add the individual petals to the measuring cup. Be sure that any roses, herbs or flowers you use are completely chemical-free.
Basic Herbal Syrup Recipe 1 cup water 2 cups granulated sugar 1 cup fresh herb leaves or flowers 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice Whole spices, such as vanilla bean or cinnamon stick (optional)
Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and stir until sugar is completely dissolved, about 1 minute. Turn off heat, cover and set aside for 20 minutes. Strain into glass bottles or jars. Cap and refrigerate for up to six months.
Herb Sugar – make wonderful additions to baking and even the tea table. Many common herbs and spices can be used to create a subtly flavoured sugar. Flavoured sugars can be used to sweeten hot and iced teas and in cookie, pie, cake and pudding recipes in place of plain granulated sugar. Examples of herbs and spices that can be used to flavour sugar include ( but a certainly not limited to) lavender, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, fennel seeds, lemon or orange peel, vanilla beans, clove pinks, roses, mint, and lemon verbena. To make you will need 2 cups granulated or raw sugar, 1 cup fresh herbs (1/2 cup dried), and a pint canning jar or similar size container. Alternate layers of herbs and flower petals in the jar. Make sure to start and end with a layer of sugar so that all the petals are completely covered with the sugar. Close the lid on the jar. Shake the container once a day to help the aroma and flavour of the herbs to permeate throughout the sugar. At the end of 2 weeks, place a sieve over a bowl and pour the sugar through the sieve to separate out the herbs. Throw out the herbs and place the infused sugar back into the jar.
Herb Infused Honey – a yummy treat, infusing herbs in honey is a wonderful in tea or as a topping for toast, waffles or deserts. There are two ways to make this delicious treat – for method one you will need 1cup liquid honey and 1Tbsp. fresh or 1 tsp. dry herbs, chopped coarsely (lavender, rose petal, mint, chamomile, lemon verbena are all good choices). Place the herbs in cheesecloth and tie to form a bag. Warm the honey slightly (do not heat higher than 100F) Pour honey into a jar with the herb bag and cover. Allow to sit for 1 week then remove the herb bag.
Put honey in a decorative bottle if desired. For method two you will need ½ cup chopped fresh herbs (or ¼ cup dried herbs) and 2 cups honey. Combine everything in a saucepan and heat over medium heat. As the honey becomes runny, turn heat to low and bring to a low boil (watch carefully as the honey can boil up if heat is too high). Once it comes to a boil and begins to froth, turn off heat and let sit until cool. Repeat this process at least once more to get a good strong flavour. After the last heating pour your honey through a fine mesh strainer and into a clean glass jar. Store in a cool, dark place. Lasts a year.
Herb Cordials – a cordial is an alcoholic beverage with a high sugar content and flavourings such as fruits, nuts, herbs, spices or creams. Many cordials start with base alcohols such as vodka, brandy, rum etc. To make start with your base alcohol, add fruit, herbs, spices or other flavourings and set aside for 2-4 weeks in a well-sealed jar or wide-mouth bottle. You should add enough alcohol to cover all of the fruit and other items. The fruit will need to be able to “swim” in the container, while staying completely covered with alcohol. Store the mixture away from sunlight. After an appropriate time has passed (usually about 30 days), strain the solids from the liquid until the liquid is free of particles. Add sugar syrup (simple syrup – see recipe below) to taste and let the cordial mixture rest for at least 2-6 months before serving. If you have the patience, put your bottle of cordial in the back of a cabinet and forget about it for at least a year.
A wonderful cordial to try is Strawberry Rosemary Cordial; to make it use 4 c. chopped strawberries, 1-1/2 c. white brandy or vodka, and 3-4 sprigs fresh rosemary. Wash, stem and use paper towel to dry the strawberries, then chop and place in jar. Pour brandy over the strawberries, and add the rosemary sprigs. Steep in a covered jar for 3 months. Gently shake the mixture daily. After 3 months, strain all solids and add simple syrup to taste.
Simple Syrup (This can be used to make herbal syrups and cordials)
1 c. white granulated sugar 1/2 c. water (for herbal syrups use a strong herbal tea infusion in place of plain water)
You may substitute brown sugar or honey for the white sugar. For whatever amount of syrup you need, the ratio will nearly always be 1 part water to 2 parts sugar for one recipe of simple syrup. Boil the water and sugar together for about 5 minutes, at a full boil, or until all the sugar dissolves and the syrup is clear. (If making a cordial then cool the syrup before adding it to the alcohol, as heat evaporates the alcohol.)