Autumn is bittersweet. The burst of color left behind as plants gather their energy inward for the winter is a delight, but it also means that the outward signs of life will retreat into the dormant – and often barren landscape. Even though the bounty of the Hildegarden has waned, we can still gather what remains, to store and preserve fresh herbs, before the first frost arrives.
Six Ways to Preserve Fresh Herbs
Fresh herbs are a treat during the winter months, but the store-bought versions can be expensive and are often picked over. Luckily, with a little bit of work you can enjoy the flavors of your herb garden all winter long by preserving your fresh herbs.
So taste the sweet nectar of Viriditas throughout winter by following these six ways to preserve fresh herbs.
(1) Drying Herbs
The easiest way to preserve fresh herbs is to dry them. Drying works quite well with hardy, low-moisture herbs like rosemary, thyme, and sage. For more tender greens like lavender, lemon balm, mint, and basil, drying just doesn’t seem to capture their flavor – or color. We’ll get to some delicious ways to preserve those herbs later on.
The three most common techniques to dry, and preserve fresh herbs are by air (hanging), oven drying, or using a food dehydrator.
Here in the Hildegard kitchen we don’t have a food dehydrator. And while the oven would work fine, it is a precarious technique that requires careful attention. Something this writer is not long on.
Air drying herbs
Besides, the naturally arid climate here in Colorado is great for drying – and we rather like the smell of fresh cut herbs while they cure. So we’ll focus on the old-fashioned way.
To air dry your herbs simply cut the fresh herbs, leaving enough stem to bundle. Rinse off with cold water and let dry. Once they are dry to the touch, bundle them at their stems with twine and hang in a cool, preferably dark place.
Some twines are treated and can leave reside or have a distasteful odor, so we use a natural cotton twine to bundle ours. Natural cotton twine also works well for sage smudges, as it burns cleanly.
Depending on the herb and climate, air-drying can take up to three weeks. Here in Colorado, it can take as little as one week. Keep an eye on your herbs for signs of mold. When dry and slightly brittle to the touch, transfer to airtight containers and store in a cool, dark place. For tightly bound herbs like sage smudges, the drying process will take much longer.
(2) Preserving in Oil & Butter
This particular technique to preserve fresh herbs may be thought of as a kind of suspended animation, as opposed to an actual oil infusion. Oil infusions are great, but due to presence of moisture in the herbs, microbes, and the natural volatility of most oils, they are susceptible to contamination and bacterial blooms.
Not to worry, you can still enjoy the taste of fresh herbs suspended in oils or butter without the risk of contamination. Herbs like basil, parsley, oregano, thyme, and sage all work really well.
Freezing fresh herbs in oil or butter
Harvest your herbs, rinse, and dry, and then cut or mince. Place the fresh herbs evenly into an ice tray and fill each cube with extra virgin olive oil. For higher temperature cooking you can use grape seed oil.
We used silicone ice trays, which prevent sticking, but any tray should work. For the butter version, simply blend the herbs with room-temperature butter, then spatula into the ice tray.
Cover the trays and freeze. Remove the cubes and store in the freezer in an airtight container. These herb-cubes are great for winter foods, including starting soups, as rubs for fowl or roasts, for flavoring sauces, or just to drizzle over roasted root vegetables.
Preserve fresh herbs you plan to cook
Try using different combinations of herbs. For our butter blend we used lemon thyme, rosemary, and sage (since we’ve already got cornbread stuffing on the mind.) A simple olive oil and basil blend is really versatile and can even be whipped into a quick pesto recipe later on. This year we used coconut oil to keep some of our large harvest of Thai basil fresh and on-hand for those curry cravings.
One of our favorite method to preserve fresh herbs is to infuse with local honey. While most honey sources should work fine, raw, unfiltered local honey is the best as it has been shown to contain the most beneficial byproducts.
Honey naturally contains antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties so it is a great way to enhance your cooking, baking, or tea with the flavors of your favorite herbs – along with the healing properties of this sweet nectar.
Consider the best combination with honey
Mint, lemon balm, lavender, and sage are great when infused in honey. The infused honey can be used to sweeten and spice-up your cookies, liven up your cup of tea, or even blend into a cocktail.
Wash and let dry your desired herbs. The herbs can be added to the honey whole or minced. We prepared honey with fresh sage, which tastes great in a cup of tea but can also make excellent honey-butter or the base for a poultry glaze. We also prepared a lemon balm infused honey for when cold season comes around – or to just enjoy its calming sweetness.
Store in a cool, dry place and allow at least 6 weeks for the flavors to fully infuse.
Much like honey, using sugar to preserve fresh herbs is a great way to keep the flavors alive, and to impart the fresh herb flavor into cooking and baking. Adding sugar infused with savory herbs like rosemary and thyme can be a great way to add that sweet zest to your tomato sauces. Our lavender sugar will go great in tea, Hildegard cookies of joy, spelt coffee cake, spelt flour bread, spelt coffee, or quickly converted into simple syrup for cocktails.
The herbs can be layered or minced into the sugar. For best results, store in the refrigerator.
For eons, salt was the only way to preserve foods. Be it smoked, dried, or just plain salted, using salt to preserve fresh foods was the way to go. Preserving fresh herbs in salt is no exception.
Through osmosis – which also happens to kill bacteria, salt preserves the herbs while incorporating the flavors and aromas through the extraction of the water in the herbs. The result is an herbed salt that can create wonderful flavors with very small amounts of salt.
Distinct salt rub for meats and stews
We use a couple of different natural sea salts, a French sea salt and a Himalayan pink sea salt. The downside of these natural sea salts is that they tend to cake, but many standard table salts contain anti-caking agents as well as iodine which can alter the flavor and promote discoloration of the herbs. Our two preparations include a fresh basil salt and a rosemary-sage-chive salt.
The fresh herbs can be layered in jars between layers of salt (add thicker layers at the top and bottom to completely cover) or in the case of a rub the herbs can be minced and blended with the salt in a blender or grinder for a more even blend. For best results refrigerate the salts.
(6) Alcohol Infusions
Hildegard won’t mind, will she? Infusing in alcohol is a new one for us this year. An alcohol infusion would be a great way to make our own bitters but since this post is focusing on fresh herbs from the garden and we don’t have enough bitter tasting foods to really make a good bitter, we will stick to a basic alcohol infusion.
We used local, organic 90-proof grain alcohol as our base. We’ve added a plentiful amount of fennel seeds harvested from our massive (if we do say so ourselves) fennel plant with some fresh sage and fresh lemon balm. Hopefully, the concoction will yield a unique and tasty alcohol that can be used in cocktails or as the base for a tonic or digestif.
Alcohol infusions can be done with most herbs, bitter fruits, rinds, and floral blossoms. Typically, the stronger the base alcohol the better for the infusion, but generally a standard 80-proof clear alcohol like vodka works just fine. Add your herbs to the alcohol in a air-tight container and let sit until the desired taste.