Harvesting Herbs for Winter
Have you sensed the nights beginning to get a little cooler? I’ve noticed the song of the crickets beginning to slow as well. They know that the days are becoming shorter. I love lying in bed at night with a cool evening breeze drifting through the window and listening to the sound of the crickets slower “approach of Autumn” cadence. As nature begins to slow down and prepare for the end of another growth season, so too can we begin to prepare and look for ways to mimic her rhythms and slow down as well. We can celebrate this season of harvest by fully appreciating the last of the fresh local summer bounties from your garden or the farmers markets and if you are blessed with an abundance, by taking the time to store away some of this bounty for the winter ahead. I’ve been more than a little preoccupied with my pots of herbs on the deck lately, so it seems only right to devote this post to how to extend the enjoyment of these beauties into the cold winter months ahead. If you too have an abundance of herbs and enjoy cooking with them, read on.
Cutting and Harvesting Herbs
As a general rule of thumb, you’ll want to trim and harvest your herbs throughout the summer months. By snipping and cutting up to a third of the plant’s foliage you actually will encourage branching and a more full, robust plant. You’ll also want to take your cuttings before the plant begins to flower if you will be using the leaves. After the plants bloom they often have a strong and bitter flavor to the leaves and stems. And it is advised to do your pruning in the morning - after the sun has dried the dew, yet before it has heated the leaves up enough to begin releasing their essential oils. It’s these oils in the leaves that give them their robust scents and flavors, so you want to retain as much of the oils as possible. When you are doing your snipping, cut just above a set of leaves and this will help the plant to bush out nicely. Make sure to discard any leaves that are moldy, diseased or damaged.
Give some consideration to the humidity level in your home when determining how you want to store your freshly picked herbs. The humidity in Kentucky has been really high in recent years - I’ve tried air drying herbs more than once only to have them mold and have to send them all to the compost pile. A better method for me would be to get a food dehydrator, though since I don’t have one, this year I think I’m going to try freezing them. I’ll get to that later though.
You don’t need anything fancy to dry herbs. Simply gather up small bundles by the stems and secure with twine, string used for baking or elastic bands. The elastic are the best option for this purpose as they will be more likely to continue to hold your little bundles when the stems begin to shrink as they dry. The best place to hang them is in a warm dark location with plenty of air circulation. If you can manage it, placing a small fan in a pantry or closet can provide extra air circulation and make for an ideal location. The lack of good air circulation simply increases the likelihood of mold growth. Dry conditions are also very important for this reason. As a result, I try to only pick sections of the plant that are already clean and won’t need to be washed. A coat hanger works nicely as a mechanism for the hanging process - simply split your little bundles in half and hang one half over the straight edge of the clothes hanger and the other half over the other side. To keep the dust off you can poke the top of the clothes hanger handle through the bottom of a brown paper grocery bag and let the bag cover the herbs. After two or three weeks, the leaves will become very dry and crumbly. When they are completely dry like this, you can store them in clean glass jars.
I’ve not yet tried freezing herbs beyond in pesto, but that is my plan this year, so I’ll share the research that I’ve found and let you know later how it goes. One benefit of freezing herbs is that you preserve the essential oils, so the flavor should be stronger than if you were to have dried them. You also are able to wash them if you need to. There are a couple of methods for freezing herbs. One way is to simply put the clean, dry herbs (either still on the stems or with stems removed) in a plastic storage bag and freeze. I’m trying to avoid using plastic bags as much as possible these days, so I would think placing them in small jars would work equally as well. I’m going to give this method a try with rosemary, sage, mint, lemon verbena and lemon grass this year.
The other method of freezing herbs is to finely chop the herbs and add them to an oil (or blend them into a paste with the oil). This can then be stored in plastic bags (or jars) or in ice cube trays that you later transfer to bags or jars once frozen. You can also chop up the herbs, add to ice cube trays and then fully cover them with water. Again these can be transferred to bags or jars once frozen. These would work nicely to use later in soups or stews.
We often make pesto this time of year and I have had great success in freezing it in both baggies and ice cube trays. These make for a nice quick dinner throughout the winter. And while basil is the star of the show for pesto, don’t think that it has to be made entirely with basil or that you have to use expensive nuts like pine nuts to make it good. One of my favorite pestos is actually made with arugula and cashews. We use just about any greens we currently have on hand or an abundance of in the garden. We even throw in a couple of green tomatoes from time to time. As long as at least half of your “greens” are basil, the flavor of the basil is strong enough that you will still will have a delicious pesto. If you are following a recipe, simply substitute spinach, arugula etc. for a portion of the basil and know that almonds also substitute nicely for pine nuts. Then when you go to use it, simply let it thaw while your pasta is cooking, add it to the cooked pasta, pair with a simple salad and dinner is served in no time.
A couple weeks ago in the blog post about rosemary I mentioned that you could use it to make an herb butter. This is another great way to use your herbs that can be frozen and used later if you package it well to protect it from getting freeze burned. It can be stored in plastic or glass containers or wrapped in plastic wrap. Many combinations of freshly chopped herbs mixed with butter are quite nice to use both for cooking and to put on fresh baked bread products. Just get creative and have fun mixing and matching tastes.
Wintering Over Herbs - Inside and Out
If your weather doesn’t get too frigid in the wintertime, many of the herbs in pots or in the garden will survive the winter. I snip thyme and oregano from my potted plants outside year around. These are quite hardy and always come back strong in the spring. My sage always dies off after the first hard frost, but the plant survives and comes back every year. I’ve never had any luck with potted mint lasting the winter outdoors, so I’m going to try bringing it inside this year and hope for the best. I also bring my rosemary in, though it is a bit finicky with getting just the right amount of water. I’ve not tried to bring in chives, thyme, parsley or oregano, but I understand that each of these grow well indoors throughout the winter months with good lighting.
Do you have any tips for harvesting, saving or extending the life of your herbs? Please share any thoughts in the comments below. Have a wonderful week! Julie