Harvesting herbs: enjoy some now, and dry or freeze some for later

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Featured Article - posted Wed., Aug. 7, 2013
- Contributed Photo

Wondering what to do with all the wonderfully aromatic herbs in your garden? There’s still plenty of time to harvest them. By drying and storing your own herbs, not only are you assured of fresh seasonings, but consider the savings; store-bought herbs can be quite expensive.

Herbs can be used fresh straight from the garden, dried, or frozen. When harvesting herbs such as basil, oregano, tarragon or savory, it is best to collect them in the morning of a dry, sunny day after the dew has dried. Herb plants harvested for leaves should ideally be picked before flowering for maximum flavor and fragrance. Keep the flower heads of herbs like basil and mint trimmed off for top-quality leaf production. Annual herbs can be collected up to frost, however, the harvest of perennial herbs should end about six weeks before the first expected frost to encourage new growth, that will be stimulated by cutting, to harden off.

When harvesting for leaves, cut off several inches of stem. Don’t just strip off the leaves. Small-leaved varieties including tarragon, oregano and thyme are left on the stems to dry, while for larger-leaved basils and lovage, cutting the leaves from the stem and laying them flat will facilitate drying.

Four factors important for drying are heat, dry air, darkness and good air circulation. Attics are usually quite suitable for drying herbs, but a garage or shed will do equally well. Lay the herbs on stainless steel screens, wooden racks or cookie sheets covered with paper towels. Spread the leaves or stems so they do not overlap. Stir them every day and keep them out of direct sunlight. They are ready when the leaves feel dry and crumbly.

Long-stemmed herbs can be tied in bunches and hung from rafters to dry. Herbs can also be dried in an older gas oven with an ever-burning pilot light or in a microwave, which is really quick and my favorite way to dry them. When drying herbs in a microwave, they should be dry to start with, so pick the herbs early in the day, rinse them out, shake or spin to remove as much water as possible, and let them dry before popping them into the microwave. I put about a cup of herbs between two paper towels on a plate and microwave on high in 30-second bursts for two to four minutes, depending on how succulent the leaves are. Sometimes the paper towels get very wet, and in that case, you can change them. You will need to experiment with the amount of herbs and times. They should feel dry and crumble easily.

When dry, strip the leaves from the stems and store in glass jars out of the heat and direct sunlight. Some claim herbs are more flavorful when the leaves are stored whole and not crumbled, but I really have not found much of a difference.

For seed harvest of coriander, dill, anise, fennel and the like, cut the seed heads before seeds begin to shatter. Tie together and place seed heads down in a paper bag. The bag can be tied at the stem end and hung from the rafters or just set in a warm dry, dark area. The reason for tying is to keep dust and debris out.

If you prefer to freeze herbs, they can be frozen like any other green leafy vegetable. Blanching is not recommended except in the case of basil. Unblanched basil leaves will turn black when frozen. Most herbs keep in the freezer for three to six months. A favorite option of mine is to puree the herbs with water, pour this mixture into ice cube trays and freeze. When solid, pop the cubes out and store in labeled freezer bags or containers. These can be used in soups and stews for fall and winter meals.

Why not harvest some herbs now? Their flavor will be greatly appreciated long after the growing season ends. If you have questions about growing and harvesting herbs or on other home and garden topics, feel free to call the UConn Home & Garden Education Center with more information about your problem at 877-486-6271, e-mail ladybug@uconn.edu, or contact your local Cooperative Extension Center.

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