The use of fresh herbs in cooking can open the door to culinary magic. Fresh herbs can elevate a plate of spaghetti for the family into an Italian experience. Herbs can be the catalyst for trying new foods from different cultures. How about making artisan bread highlighting your wonderful herbs? And you don’t even have to get that fancy. Even just adding a sprig of fresh parsley or rosemary to decorate a plate of food being served changes the everyday meal into an event.
The best part of growing your own herbs is that you can save some of your harvest for the winter months by properly drying, storing or freezing them. Imagine just adding some of the parsley that you dried to a cup of winter soup so you can taste a bit of summer in every spoonful. Chives that you cut and froze last summer, sprinkled over potatoes, can add not just great flavor but fresh color, too.
Of course, nothing beats the health benefits of fresh, homegrown organic herbs. If you have a bright sunny window, you can grow herbs indoors through the winter. Try some easier to grow herbs like parsley, basil or mint. You may need to experiment a little to see what will grow well, whether your garden is a container or a huge tilled plot in your backyard. You can purchase kits for starting herbs indoors, making it very easy to try, or you can do your own thing. If you have an herb that you really use a lot of, you might want to concentrate on just that herb to start growing indoors.
For purposes of storage, herbs are divided into two categories: tender and hard. A tender herb has a softer stem and leaves, like parsley and basil. A hard herb has a woody stem and even the leaves are stiff. Hard herbs include rosemary and thyme. Hard herbs and soft herbs are stored differently to get the longest shelf life.
If you are storing tender herbs, treat them like a bouquet of fresh flowers. Trim them from the plant and cut the bottom of the stems off. Then, stand them upright in a jar or container with about an inch of water in the jar. Cover loosely with a plastic food storage bag or cling wrap. Place in the refrigerator until you are ready to use. Add water as needed or change the water if it discolors. This method works well for parsley, cilantro, mint, tarragon and dill. The one exception is basil. Basil hates the cold. If you refrigerate it, the basil leaves will turn black and be ruined. Prepare the basil the same as the other tender herbs, but instead of placing it in the refrigerator, keep it on the counter where it will get a little sun.
When storing hard herbs, place the herbs in a salad spinner to remove the excess water (or just pat them dry with paper towels). Then, lay the herbs in a single layer on a damp paper towel. Roll the herbs up, tuck them into a Ziploc® storage bag and refrigerate in the crisper drawer. This method works well for rosemary, chives, thyme, oregano and sage.
One thing that’s worth noting: Many people feel adding water to the plants shortens the shelf life of the herbs and choose not to wash the herbs until they are ready to use them. This means they harvest them and then bundle them up or place them in water until they’re ready for use—dirt and all. Others feel that if you have your herbs washed and ready to use, there is a greater likelihood that you will grab the herbs and use them when cooking. It’s completely your preference. If you’re more likely to use your cleaned herbs, give them a wash. If you don’t mind leaving a bit of dirt on your herbs, store them as is until you’re ready to use them. Either way, always make sure you check your plants for and remove any dead or discolored leaves or broken stems.
Using these storage methods, your herbs should last two to three weeks. By planting enough herbs, you can ensure you have more than enough to get you through summer and well into winter. Keep a few plants indoors and you can indulge year round.