13 Mar Harvest and Preserve Your Herbs
HARVEST TIME IN THE GARDEN
Its happening. The days are getting shorter, the nights getting colder, and I’m getting more cranky (yes, even more). Summer is coming to a close, and the harvest season is upon us. Many gardeners lose steam around this time of year— the thrill of weeding is gone, and most of us have already had more tomatoes than we know what to do with. Work demands are increasing, the holiday season is coming into view, and the garden gets less attention than it deserves. Many herbs in the garden are still producing heavily despite the neglect they may suffer. Here in this article we’re going to look at how to get the most out of your herbs before they turn to compost. You’re not going to cook that whole bushel of Thyme (or Basil, Rosemary, or Sage, for that matter) in one meal, most likely. But there are ways to preserve your herbs for winter-long use. First, we’ll go over the harvesting process. After that, we’ll move on to preserving the harvest.
TAKING THE SICKLE
You should harvest herbs all season long, not removing more than 2/3 of the plant’s stems and foliage until frost. Once Autumn season comes, be on the watch for temperature drops. You want to take your final harvest around the time of the first frost. For annual herbs, this final harvest spells the plant’s utter destruction; for perennials, this is simply a drastic pruning. With herbs, the value is typically found in the leaves and stems. Take your pruners, shearers, or sickle and cut the plant down at its main stem or, if it is multi-stemmed, cut all stems down to the crown (‘the crown’ is where the stem/s meet the soil). You can also pull the entire plant out of the soil and compost the roots. Rinse the foliage of any soil and/or insects, then either place on a vented surface with airflow underneath or hang to dry somewhere out of direct sunlight with decent ventilation. You should have plans for these herbs, because some (such as Basil or Cilantro) will dry and wither rather quickly. Some will need hours or days to dry, depending on the plant and the intended use. Take a look at some Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) I’ve harvested and began drying on paper towels with a fan overhead:
METHODS OF PRESERVATION
Ice Cubes. Many herbs preserve well in frozen, cubed form. After drying your herbs, chop them up and fill your ice cube trays with them, then pour water over the top. After an hour or two, top off the cubes with a bit more water to cover any herb bits poking from the top to prevent freezer burn. Or, instead of water, you could blend your basil with olive oil and pour the mix into cube trays. When the cubes are completely frozen, pop them out and toss them in a freezer bag or container. Use as needed— your herbal cubes will stay good for up to one year.
Frozen Basil Cubes
Vinegar. Herbal vinegars probably have the longest shelf life of all these techniques. To make an herbal vinegar, you will need bottles and cork stoppers, as vinegar will eat away at metal lids. Put about 1/2 cup of herbs (or more for a stronger kick) in the bottle, add any extras like garlic, onion, or pepper for customized flavoring, and pour your choice of vinegar over everything. Cork it up and store in a cool, dark place. The herbal flavor will become more enhanced over the next 4 weeks. Experiment with various herbs and different vinegars to come up with unique flavor combinations.
Oil. It is essential to thoroughly dry your herbs before preserving in oil, as the presence of moisture could encourage the growth of botulism bacteria. Cover your dehydrated herbs with your choice of oil and store in a cool, dry place. To completely guard yourself against botulism, use the oil within a few weeks. A longer ‘steeping’ time will produce a stronger herbal flavor, however.
Butter. A little off the beaten path in the way of herbal preservation are herbal butters. Combine 1 part minced herbs of your choice with 2 parts softened butter, shape as you like, and freeze. Use all fall and winter long by cutting slices from your log of herbal butter to melt on bread, potatoes, or your favorite hat.
Salt. A really simple way to preserve many herbs and also enhance the flavor of your run of the mill table salt. Simply chop up your herb, place in a bag, plastic container, or jar, and cover with your choice of salt. Shake it up to fully incorporate the herbs and the salt. Over time the salt will
take on more of the herb’s aroma and flavor.
With all these ways to keep your herbs, you can feast from your garden throughout the entire winter and even until the next season’s crop springs up. If you have a favorite way you like to preserve your harvest, we’d love to hear about it— come stop by our Garden Center in Red Hook or Manhattan or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Happy harvesting, and Bon Appétit!