Harvesting your herbs


Once your garden is growing you can harvest herbs everyday if you like. You will find that once you start using herbs in your meals, eating meals without them will be boring. Start with small amounts and increase the amounts when your family becomes used to the flavors if you haven’t cooked or ate fresh herbs in your meals. There is a big difference in using dried over fresh and an even bigger one when you dry your own versus store bought!

The best time to pick for immediate use is when you need them. But what about harvesting for future usage? Well there are several methods you can use. First some information on the herbs and what you are getting when you harvest them.

The concentration of oils in the herbs is the highest when the herb is completely dry from the sun before harvesting. This is what you are trying to capture - the oil - the actual essence of the plant. This is what gives the herb it’s taste and aroma. Without this essential oil, the herb will be flavorless! Ever get herbs from the grocery store only to find they didn’t add much pizzazz to your favorite recipe? That is probably because they have been sitting on the shelf in the warehouse or the grocery store too long before you purchased them. Regardless whether you have bought the herbs or you dry them, their potency - their oils- will have dissipated after one year of storage. Keep that in mind when you harvest from your garden and be sure to date your herbs before storing.


How do I want to preserve my herbs you may ask yourself?



You can harvest and preserve in a number of ways. Drying using the “hanging the stems upside down” method is only one way. There is freezing herbs in ice cubes, freezing butter logs or pats, oils & vinegars or in a dehydrator.

I once read that it is possible to dry in a microwave but it is not recommended because the microwaves would break up the oil cells causing the herbs to lose the essential oils that made them what they are. But of course I wanted to prove that in action not by what a book told me. So, I carefully lined the microwave with a paper towel, laid the herbs on it, turned it on the lowest setting & time and watched carefully. What I seen was the essential oils cooking and igniting the paper towel. I had flames shooting out of the microwave and paper towel floating out of the microwave when I opened the door, much like you see leaves burning and flying in the air in the fall burning pile! While it is funny to tell you now, it certainly wasn’t funny then! My saving grace was that I and the microwave weren’t hurt and my husband was at work and didn’t see the whole thing! Now that you know not to use the microwave, let’s talk about the ways to preserve herbs correctly.

The morning is the best time of the day to harvest the herbs. The dew has dried and the plant is still cool, allowing the essential oils to be fully concentrated in their leaves and stems. If you are harvesting the flowers of the herbs, they will retain their shape better if you pick them before they warm up.


To rinse or not, that is the question!


If you have grown your herbs organically, there is no need to wash them off. If anything, a slight rinse may be required if they have soil splashed on them from watering or possibly rinse insects off. Remember, if rinsed they are usually for immediate usage and will not require drying first. Rinsing is your option however be sure to shake or blot excess water off the herbs before using.

So you want to harvest for the next two or three days meals. No problem. Harvest enough herbs for your planned meals, pop into a plastic bag and store them in the refrigerator. Just don’t seal or tie the bag closed. The little bit of air the herbs get in the refrigerator will help keep them fresh. Perforated bags or clam shells (washed out from the grocery store) are great ways to hold your herbs until you are ready for them. Should they be too moist or wet, the herbs will rot and or mold. Watch them carefully and if in doubt, throw them away!

Let’s Dry Seeds!

Most herbs drop their seeds when they are ripe, so you will want to keep an eye on your plants so you can catch the seeds before they fall. The seeds will have more flavor and fragrance if left on the plants up to this stage. If the seeds are beginning to turn brown or seem more plump then before, it means they are about to be ripe and are ready for harvesting. When the seeds have ripened, bend the stalks toward the ground and shake the seeds into a paper bag to catch them.


Since ripening is a gradual process, you may not know when they are ripe or you may be gone for a day or two and do not want to miss this critical time. In that case, enclose the seed head in a paper bag and close the bag around the stem with a rubber band or a twist tie. You will know the seed heads are dry when you shake the bag and you hear the seeds rattle. Snip the stem several inches below the bag and harvest the entire seed head. Store in air tight containers, label with content & date.

I Dig Roots

Digging roots takes patience. The herbs who’s roots are dug for harvesting take at least two years to mature. Even when harvested, roots may look spindly and worthless. Never fear though, they are sufficiently potent.

Roots are dug in the fall after the leaves have dropped or changed their color. Once dug, scrub the roots, cut them in two inch pieces for drying on screens or in a dehydrator.

Dry Those Herbs!

You have grown all those herbs and now you will want to reap the harvest for the winter months! It is so easy to dry herbs! After everything you have grown, will have enough herbs to get you through the winter season in addition to having enough for gift giving!

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There are three ways to dry herbs, air drying by hanging the herbs upside down, air drying by laying on screens or using your dehydrator. You will want to try each eventually to see what works best for you and the climate you are living in. Believe it or not, this will make a difference. Here in Tennessee, the summer months tend to be very humid. I have found that using my dehydrator is easier and quicker for me. An added plus is I do not have to worry either whether the herbs will get moldy in the excess humidity.

Hanging To Dry

For this method, you will need a well ventilated, dark, dry location to hang your herbs. If you have an attic, this may work perfectly for you. Even a spare room will work. Wherever you hang your harvest, keep in mind small leaves, seeds or flowers may fall to the floor making clean up afterwards a possible issue.

Gather your herbs early in the morning after the dew has dried but before the plant gets too overheated. Remember, we want as much of the essential oil in our herbs as possible for both taste and aroma. Don’t wash them unless they are muddy. If they have to be washed, allow them to dry completely before bunching. This should be done on screens or on a wooden drain rack so the air can circulate and speed up the drying. Tie your bunches with rubber bands, twist ties or even elastic thread. My favorite is rubber bands. The rubber bands tighten as the herbs dry allowing them to remain in a bunch.

If you are drying culinary (cooking) herbs, you will want to enclose bunches of herbs in small paper bags to keep the herbs from getting dusty while they dry. Yes, they will take a little longer to dry this way, possibly up to three weeks in a well-ventilated room but they will stay clean! Who wants to eat dusty herbs? If humidity is an issue, you might try using cheesecloth instead of bags to dry your herbs. This fabric will allow air to circulate but will still trap the dust from getting to your herbs.

Hang the bunches at least a foot from the wall and at least 6 inches from each other for good circulation. Hey, if you have just a few bunches to dry, a folding clothes rack is perfect. It also allows you to move it to another area if you need the space or if the humidity increases in the original area of hanging!

The quickest way to hang herbs, is to place a screw eye in the rafter or ceiling and one at the complete opposite end of the room. Then run a wire or string through the screw eyes and tie the wire/string at each end. Now hang the bunches of herbs on the wire/string! You could also use a cup hook in the required spacing and hang each herbal bunch on the hook. I am sure you can think of many more ways to hang your herbs that would work for you. Just be sure to allow for air circulation.

You will find that most herbs will dry completely in two weeks. The herbs will feel crispy dry to the touch when they are ready for packaging. Don’t remove them until they feel this way.

I had an herbal business in Indiana years ago. My chosen spot for hanging herbs both culinary and ornamental, was near the ceiling of my store. I had a sheet metal roof. For drying herbs, that was a major plus. Most of my herbal bunches were completely dry and ready to sell the very next morning!

When your culinary herbs are dried, strip the leaves from the stems and store in tightly closed bottles or jars in a dark cupboard. To dry decorative bunches of herbs, wrap each bunch in tissue paper to prevent damage. Lay the each wrapped bunch flat in a large cardboard box and cover until ready for use.

When you use your dried culinary herbs, remember that the herb is now more potent then when it was fresh because the water has been removed. Reduce the amount of herbs you put into your recipes to ½ to 1/3 as much as you would if they were fresh herbs! Better to add more if needed then to ruin a recipe with to much herb.

More Information on Seeds for Long Term Storage

Seed heads should be in paper bags from the day you harvested them. Remember (as above) you will know the seeds have ripened when the bag rattles from the fallen seed. Your seeds must be completely dry before you can store them. One way to check for this is to try and push your fingernail into the seed. If they are dry, they are ready to store in tightly sealed jars for usage through the winter season.

Should the seed not be dry and the air is humid, place the seed in jar & lay a piece of cheesecloth over the jar’s mouth. Each day for several days you will want to pour the seeds from one jar into another clean dry jar. Once the seed has dried completely, place the lid on the jar and store in a dark cool place.

Screen Drying or Dehydrators

Elevated screens are practical when drying herbs that are small and would be normally to difficult to handle, such as small leaves or herbal flowers. Place the herb on the screen and drape cheese to keep the herbs clean. When dry, store in tightly sealed jars until ready for use.

Dehydrators are the way to go if you have too much humidity for successful air drying. Parsley dries very well in a dehydrator because it retains it’s color and flavor better then when it is air dried. Roots dry better in dehydrators too! Roots could take up to three days which is much faster then air drying. All other herbs could be dry as quickly as 24 hours depending on the herb, the amount used in the dehydrator and the humidity.

When drying thyme in a dehydrator, you may wish to use cheesecloth on the screens to prevent the dried leaves from falling to the bottom of the unit. Follow the directions of your unit for drying herbs as far as temperature. I have a unit that has a heating coil and no blower. It dries very well but requires frequent rotating of the trays for even drying. I also have a huge motorized unit with a temperature dial that allows me to control the temperature plus it has a blower to assist in drying. Both machines have their good points.

Brrr, It’s Cold!

So, your interested in freezing herbs! Well here is a quick and easy way reap the benefits of your harvest. If you are freezing small quantities or pack your freezer bags lightly, this method is a breeze. All you are going to do is chop the herbs up lightly, slip them into a freezer bag, label and place the bag in the freezer. When you want some of your harvest for a meal, simple break off as much as needed. Can’t get much easier then that, or can it?

Herbal ice cubes are handy, quick and if you do a little planning ahead of time, it might be the best way to freeze. Everyone has their favorite recipes that require a certain amount and variety of herb, so why not prepare those amounts so all you have to do is pull out an ice cube, drop in it a recipe and presto - no guessing or mistakes. This method is fantastic for soups, stews, casseroles and oven dishes. Let’s get started!

You would normally blanch the herbs prior to freezing for freshness and better flavor. But this method is so easy, you can skip the blanching method all together!

Measure your herbs in the amount needed for your favorite recipe and pack into ice cube trays. Yes that’s what I said, ice cube trays. Now pour enough boiling water over the herbs in the ice cube trays (without overflowing the water). This method will blanch the herbs enough for storage. Slide the trays into your freezer. When they are frozen, pop the cubes out of the trays, store in freezer bags/containers, label with the herb name, the quantity of herb the cube contains (believe me you will not remember in the middle of winter otherwise) and place the container back in the freezer. When you are ready to make your recipe, pull out the number & varieties of herbal ice cubes and add to the dish you are preparing! Was that easy or what?

Herbal ice cubes are great for herbs that do not dry well! Try freezing Basil, Chervil, Chives, Cilantro, Fennel, Lovage, Parsley and Sweet Cicely. You may find that you want to mix several herbs in the same ice cube. Go for it! One thing that you may wish to do however is label or have your Herbal Ice Cube trays be a different color from the trays you use for regular (water) ice cubes. Your iced tea may taste very funny if you have frozen chives and tarragon in the trays and then used them for beverages!

When using the frozen herbs in a recipe, measure them as if they were fresh herbs. Frozen herbs contain a lot of water and are not as concentrated as dried herbs are in flavor. Begin by using as much as three times as much as the recipe suggests for dried herbs. If more is needed, just add to taste.

One herb that freezes very well is Cilantro but it is best in frozen in oil. Mince the herb finely and add the oil until mixture in a smooth paste. Pack this paste in small plastic bags or in the ice cube trays. When frozen, the cubes can be added to a larger bag for seasonal storage. Be sure to label and date the container/bags!

Experiment with the oils when freezing the herbs in ice cube trays. You may find that a lighter oil, say canola oil is tastier for Lovage or Basil in olive oil. Just chose the oil that compliments the herbs and any of the recipes you will be preparing in the future. You may even want to store your herbs in bags/containers according to the recipes. This bag is strictly for spaghetti, this bag for Grandma’s chicken noodle soup, etc. What ever is easiest for you and makes the best sense.

Forget The Salt & Pass The Herbs!

Now that you have experimented all summer with herbal blends in your recipes, you may want to get even more daring! Let’s mix several dried herbs into a blend that you can just reach for when cooking! Just a shake or two from the bottle with your herbal blends and you’ve just given a meal some interest!

Why not make a lemon herbal blend for fish or a yummy chicken sauce? Lemon balm, lemon basil, lemon verbena, lemon thyme and lemongrass leaves are just a few of the herbs you could blend together. Is pizza or pasta on the menu for dinner tonight? Oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary would be a delicious blend!

When you are making your dried herbal blends remember that the herbs will have a more intense flavor then the fresh! Reduce the quantities by ½ to 1/3 in your recipes. Adjust the to taste as you go so that you do not overpower the meal or make it inedible.

Now here is a little trick for enhancing the flavor of your dried herbs. Add dried herbs to cooking oil, turn the heat on low and stir the herbs for just a couple of minutes to release the oils, then stir them into your recipe. Are you planning to add dried herbs to a cold dish or a salad dressing? Mix the herb in the recipe and allow to set at room temperature for at least an hour to bring out the flavors of the herbs. So you want to use the herb seeds to your recipe? Those little seeds are hard so try heating the dried seeds in a skillet before adding to your favorite dish or crunch them in a mortar and pestle just before serving!

Something else you may wish to try with your dried herbal blends is making a Bouquet garni. Don’t let the name scare you! It is just an herbal blend in a piece of cheesecloth, tied at the top and dropped into the cooking pot. This method may be used when you want the flavor but not the look of herbs floating in a recipe. The basic combination of herbs for a Bouquet garni is bay leaf, parsley and thyme. Other herbs can be added to this or you could make up your own combinations.

Let’s make herbal butter! Choose the herbs that complement the dish you are preparing, mince or chop the herbs finely and mix them into softened butter. You can get really creative and shape the butter into logs (using wax paper to roll the shape), leaving them in logs or cutting them into pats placed on a serving dish, garnish with fresh herbs that are in the butter or press the herbal butter into individual small ramekin dishes or salt bowls.

Frozen herbs are really easy to use and add a rich flavor to soups, stews and sauces. In most cases you can just toss the ice cubes in the pot as you are cooking. If however you are planning to make bread or dough for a pizza, remember all that water you added to the ice cube tray when preparing the herbs for freezing! Thaw the ice cubes first and drain well, you may even want to pat them dry with a paper towel to be sure all the moisture is out.

Vinegars

What type of vinegar or herbs do I use for my herbal vinegar? The possibilities are endless. Fresh herbs are used because their flavor is richer and deeper then those of dried herbs. The acid that is in the vinegar draws out the essential oils of the herbs giving you a product that is full of complex flavors.

The type of vinegar used alters the flavor of your vinegar as much of the types of herbs. Try all of these vinegars to decide which is your favorite, white or red wine vinegar, rice vinegar or even apple cider vinegar! Apple cider vinegar compliments herbs like dill or summer savory very well. It is usually stronger in flavor then the wine vinegars or rice though. As with all your experiments with herbs, make and test small batches before preserving gallons of vinegars. One vinegar you should not use is white vinegar! It is too harsh in flavor. (Don’t rule white vinegar out of herbal concoctions though, it makes a superior base for cleaning herbal products - more of that in a future article!)

The procedure for all herbal vinegars is the same, no matter what herbs or combination of herbs you are using. All that is needed is some herbs or herb flowers, the vinegar, glass jars and a stainless steel or glass saucepan. (Vinegar reacts with many metals, especially aluminum.)

While heating your vinegar until warm (not boiling), mince your herbs or bruised the herbs while adding them to your jar, then slowly add the warm vinegar over the herbs. Place the lid on the jar and steep the herb mixture for 2 to 3 weeks, strain and then rebottle with the name of your finished product and date. You may even wish to add the type of vinegar so that you can duplicate the flavor if it turns out to be a winner for your family!

I have been asked many times what type of jar to use for steeping. I always use a canning jar because I do canning and it is easy as well as convenient for me. Any jar can be used though as long as it is clean, not damaged and has a lid. Be aware though that over time, the vinegar will erode the metal lids and rims. Since I only steep the herbs in a canning jar, I am not worried about throwing the lid away if it starts to corrode. After the herbal vinegar has steeped, I strain the mixture and use recycled bottles that I can seal with a cork. Yes, you can purchase bottles too! I just happen to believe in recycling, so I love cute little bottles that held something else in them. If you find you are using herbal vinegars a lot, try getting white plastic bottles that have the squirt top, you know the ones that look like the ketchup bottle you have for cook-outs! They are fantastic!

Think Herbs!