One of the best things about a garden is the ability to grow and eat your own herbs – sometimes within hours or even minutes of harvesting them. Over the years, I’ve stayed with the basics and easiest to grow: basil, rosemary, thyme, cilantro, dill and sage. This year, I’ve also branched out to parsley and fennel. I tried to grow some cumin, but it died within a few days of transplanting it.
Typically, I harvest my basil as I eat it and then the rest in October, when I freeze it. Last year, however, I had way too much to freeze, and so I made and froze pesto from some of it and dried some of it (which I then grind and store in jars like you buy in the store). The pesto was outstanding (and I substituted easier-to-find and less expensive walnuts for pine nuts).
For myself, I store many of the dried and frozen herbs in regular zip-lock storage bags. However, dried herbs also make nice gifts during the holidays, so it’s a good idea to find some nice herb jars. I have had trouble finding jars this year, but then happened upon some $2 herb jars at Crate & Barrel in June. (While they’re a little bigger and expensive than I’d like, they are very cute). Let’s face it, you can buy dried herbs for $1 at Big Lots, so how you packaged your dried herbs will matter if you want to create a thoughtful gift. If you know of a good place to get inexpensive herb jars, please let me know.
Basil. The best way to preserve this is to freeze it and then throw it into the recipe (for pasta sauce or soup) at the end. I typically wash the branches, shake them dry, pluck them off, toss the loose leaves in a colander and then freeze them on a cookie sheet before filling a plastic bag. One nice thing about basil is that you can stick the stems in a glass or pitcher of water and, if you break the stems off only at the main joints, the stem will sprout new roots and live for weeks in a glass of water placed in direct sunlight. (I've even seen basil flower in the my kitchin and form seeds).
For pesto, I puree four cups of fresh leaves with about 1 cup of olive oil, 1 cup of chopped slightly toasted walnuts, 6 chopped garlic cloves and 1 cup of grated parmesan cheese. Add more oil if it seems too thick. I then spoon it into the tiniest of Tupperware/plastic storage containers (like ¼ cup sizes) and freeze until I need it. This thaws quickly by putting the container in a bowl of warm water or even in the microwave. For a quick meal, I mix it alone with pasta or spread it over white fish (like tilapia) before putting it on the George Foreman grill for a few minutes.
For the remainder, I hang it upside down in a place shielded from direct sunlight where it will get lots of air circulation. I gather the braches into a small group, put a rubber band around the tip of the branches and then run a twist tie (like you find on bread packages) through the rubber band. I hook or twist the tie around the rod. Once it dries, I pull the dry leaves and run them through my herb mill into a cereal bowl until I have enough to fill a jar or bag.
Finally, I also prolong my basil harvest by pinching the aspiring and actual flowers twice a week until mid-September. Then, I let it go to seed and let the unsightly brown seed pods dry on the plant. If you harvest the seed pods, you will find a few (maybe 5-10) tiny black basil seeds inside each pod. I save those tiny in small coin envelopes for next year.
Pretty much everything I’ve just written about basil applies equally to Parsley. (I’ve never made pesto from parsley, but I’m told you can). Parsley is best preserved by freezing and I dry the rest for grins & giggles and for gifts. Since this is the first year I’ve grown parsley, I have no tips for preserving seeds.
Cilantro. After years of simply drying this, I learned this year that the best way to preserve it is to freeze it. Unlike basil, I don’t bother with freezing the leaves on a cookie sheet. I just wash it, shake it dry and then pluck the leaves and put them in a freezer bag.
I still dry a little of it for old time’s sake. I tried a different method of drying this year: putting the herbs in a brown paper bag before hanging them from a rod.
For the seeds, I split them between seeds for next year’s cilantro crop and storing the rest to grind as coriander.
Finally, if you like Thai or Asian food, it is good to wash and freeze some of the roots and stalks to use to make, among other things, curry paste.
Dill. I always have too much dill. It’s pretty much taken over my back yard and I weed it like crab grass. Before it goes to seed, I harvest a lot of it, wash and shake it and then hang it until it dries out. I then pull the dried leaves into the herb mill and process.
To preserve dill seeds, I wait until the seeds turn brown on the plant and then bring them inside and dry them inside a paper bag (which will catch any falling seeds) like I described above.
Sage. The best time to harvest sage is before it flowers, but you can harvest some without the flowers if you look. (There are not many leaves left on a branch after it flowers). I hang the sage upside down to dry and then process through the herb mill as described. Sage smells so good and has such a fluffy texture, I often think I am doing my recipient a disservice by processing it before putting the leaves in a jar.
Thyme. I usually process this at the end of the season (like basil). Most of my thyme survives the winter and so I am judicious in my harvest. The leaves are freakishly small, but you can hang them to dry like other herbs and process through the herb mill. Ditto for Rosemary (although I have not had much luck in the last three years with my rosemary surviving the winter).
I’ve heard rumors that you can bring herbs inside for the winter. However, I’ve never had much luck keeping my basil or rosemary alive more than a week or two – even with a grow light and southern facing window.