The cool, fall weather has been here long enough that most gardens are finally on their last leg. For many, the biggest draw of a home garden is the easy access to fresh herbs. But soon it will be too cold, and there won’t be any herbs left to pick straight from the garden. So what can you do to prolong access to your herb garden?
Each herb favors different types of treatments, so Doug Oster, garden editor for the Tribune-Review and Everybodygardens.com gave us the dirt on how to best save each of the common herbs in the coming winter months.
Move herbs Indoors
If you grew herbs in containers this summer, some of them may continue to thrive if you bring them indoors.
“There are certain herbs that will happily keep going on the window sill,” said Oster. “Rosemary, thyme, sage, mint, lemon balm. Those will be happy to limp along near a window indoors. They’re not going to look as great as when they have full sun, but they’ll survive.”
Parsley is another herb that’s great for the window sill. But the flavor of dried parsley is much different than fresh parsley (and some might say worse), so if you use parsley often, it would be worth investing in a small potted parsley plant specifically for indoors this winter.
Some herbs like thyme, oregano and sage, won’t lose flavor when dried, so this is the best method for their over-winter storage.
“Just cut a little piece of string, pull off the leaves, tie the stems together and hang them upside-down,” said Oster. “I have an unheated sun porch which speeds up the process, but you can hang them anywhere, and they’ll be fine.”
Once dry, store in a cool place where they will not be exposed to new moisture.
Freezing herbs can be an overlooked method of preservation. Mixing them with olive oil can reduce the browning and freezer burn that will naturally occur with this method. While freezing can also be used for the herbs previously mentioned including rosemary, sage, thyme and oregano, it can also work for softer herbs like mint and basil. You’ll loose a lot of the texture in these softer varieties, but the flavor will still be there.
“I take as much of the herb as I can and put it into a food processor with some olive oil. Then I’ll pour that into an ice cube tray,” said Oster. “One cube is enough for a whole pot of soup or sauce. It retains the flavor well.”
Basil is perhaps the most valued herb in the garden because of its versatility in the kitchen. Whether you grow basil in the backyard, or have purchased a bunch at the store, it seems everyone is looking for an effective way to keep basil healthy and on-hand.
There are a few options for storing basil. Basil leaves can be placed on a baking sheet in the freezer then transferred to a ziplock bag when frozen, but they will loose the color and some texture. Basil can also be mixed with oil in a food processor and frozen, but again, it’ll lose it’s leafy texture. Plus the uses for cubes become limited to cooking.
So how can a basil fanatic keep this herb going past its prime?
While the basic Genovese basil won’t last long without natural sunlight, other species of basil are able to make the journey from indoors to outdoors and back again.
“African blue basil is great for back and forth. You can bring it outside in the spring after the last frost and bring it in again this time of year, in October, before the next frost hits it,” suggested Oster. “For some reason, the stems still grow and it can survive on the window sill until next year.”
Spicy globe basil is another species, Oster suggests, that has a fairly good shot at wintering indoors.
So if you’re crazy about basil, consider starting a container of either of these specialty basils to feed your fix until the spring.
There is typically more than one way to store each herb — it just depends on your intended use for that herb. But there is one safety measure to consider.
“The only thing I tell people is to never store anything in oil at room temperature because you never know what the reaction could be between what’s in the oil and what’s in the herb itself,” said Oster. “Putting herbs in oil and leaving them on the counter is the perfect storm for botulism. It could kill you.”
So the take-away:
If herbs mean that much to you, get to lining your window sills and start your own winter-time indoors garden. While there are methods of storing herbs, fresh will always be best.
Tips for freezing herbs in oil
- Choose fresh, healthy herbs from your garden or a local market.
- Consider what you’ll use them for this winter and chop the herbs finely in a food processor, by hand, or leave them full size.
- Pack the cube tray wells about 2/3 full of herbs. (Consider making blends too, such as rosemary and thyme for chicken and potatoes, or basil and mint for a spicy peanut sauce.) Alternatively, you could load a food processor with herbs and oil at the same time to make a paste.
- Pour olive oil or melted butter into tray wells until full.
- Cover with plastic wrap and freeze overnight.
- Remove cubes from tray and transfer to freezer bags or small containers. Be sure to label each bag or container with the herb and oil inside.
- Pop a cube into your soups, sauces and crockpots all year long for cheap, easy herbs and save yourself a trip to the store.
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