Reaping the Herbal Harvest
by Karyn Siegel-Maier
Drying and Storing Herbs
The last days of summer are upon us. Hopefully, you've been enjoying the delightful bouquet and flavor of fresh herbs on your table throughout the summer months. But if your growing season is quickly waning, it's time to think about preserving your herbal harvest for use during the winter. In more temperate climates, you're fortunate to be able to plant successive crops, but you'll still want to preserve a good portion of your herbs for later use.
The concentration of oils found in herbs are highest just before flowering and will provide peak flavor at this time. However, I often allow a good portion, and sometimes the entire plant, to flower before getting around to harvesting. In fact, I often use the flowers in dried mixtures, or add them fresh to soups and salads. Some herbalists also insist that herbs are best harvested while still moist with morning dew, but this is up to your discretion. I doubt it actually makes an important difference, other than the fact that the gatherer will be avoiding the hot afternoon sun.
When harvesting, you may cut down up to half of the plant by making clean cuts with scissors or shears. A sharp knife will work of course, but could "bruise" the plant and disturb the essential oils compromising flavor and quality. Once cut, rinse the herbs in cold water and remove any dead or wilting foliage. Check carefully under leaves for evidence of insects, particularly spiders. It's easy to spot critters on most plants, but others (such as sage and sorrel) tend to have large curling or folding leaves that can easily harbor an unseen tenant.
The easiest drying method is to tie the herb stalks in small bundles (about 6-7 stems) and hang them upside down. (I greatly look forward to the enticing aroma that fills my kitchen each fall when the basil, oregano and mints are brought in. I leave some of the bundles hanging from hooks all year long!) It's important that the drying herb stalks get plenty of air circulation and are free from extreme temperatures or direct sunlight.
If you're not an experienced gardener, it would be advisable to label each herb stalk before hanging to dry. During the drying process, the plants will lose their distinctive characteristics and it may prove difficult (if not impossible) to identify one herb from another. A simple twist-on-tie with a scrap of paper labeled with the species and date of cutting will suffice.
Within 2-3 weeks the herbs will be ready for jars. Test the leaves - they should crumble easily into your palm. If they don't, the herbs may need a few more days. Sterilized glass containers are best suited for storing dried herbs; plastic and paper tend to absorb the essential oils. The jars should be stored in a cool, dark place away from direct light. Dried herbs have an average shelf life of two years. (See if you can make them last that long!)
Another less traditional method of drying herbs is to use a food dehydrator. If you're in a hurry, or don't have a place to hang bunches of herbs, this is the way to go. There is also the consideration that some herbs just don't hang-dry very well, such as chives and parsley. (Their color and texture are compromised.) Some people place herbal material on cookie sheets and place them in a slow oven to dry. I don't recommend this method since the herbs tend to dry too quickly and are prone to scorching. But, if you don't have another avenue and are very diligent during the process, anything is possible.
Do you have room in your freezer? Chives, rosemary, basil, fennel, dill and parsley are examples of herbs that freeze well for fresh use later. You need to blanch the herbs first by placing them in boiling water for one minute, and then immediately immersing them in very cold water. Pat dry thoroughly and transfer to plastic baggies and place in the freezer. Again, labeling is a culinary virtue for the inexperienced. If you think identifying dried herbs can be tough, you're really in for a challenge when you wish to defrost the proper herb for a special recipe!
If you are growing caraway or dill, check for maturity of the seed heads. If the seeds have turned form green to brown, they are ready to be harvested and preserved as well. The seed heads may be cut and loosely placed in paper bags and stored in a cool dry place. In a few weeks, shake the bags vigorously and remove the plant material. You'll be left with the seeds which can be stored in glass jars to use for seasoning and pickling. Another member of the umbelliferae family, angelica, can be harvested in a different manner. The stalks and roots can be crystallized, or candied, as a traditional culinary sweet. (Recipe follows.)
Note: You may want to leave a few flower clusters on your plants to allow the plant to re-seed. Parsley, marjoram, caraway, chervil and dill will easily self-seed. However, keep in mind that parsley declines in flavor after the first year. Second year parsley is acceptable, but after that you should start over with seedlings if you grow parsley for culinary use.
2 cups angelica roots and stalks, cut to 2 inch pieces
2 cups boiling water
½ cup salt
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
1 tbls lemon juice
Place the angelica roots and stems in a large bowl and cover with the boiling water and salt. Cover and allow to sit for 24 hours. Drain and peel the roots and stalks and rinse in cold water.
Cook the sugar in the 2 cups of water until it reaches 238'F. Add the angelica and lemon juice and cook another 20 minutes. Place the angelica on a cooling rack and let rest in cool, dark place for 4 days. Refrigerate syrup. After 4 days combine the syrup and angelica pieces once more and cook again to the 238'F point, or until candied. Dry the angelica completely on a rack. Store in clean glass jars.