How To Harvest and Preserve Herbs
Garden-fresh herbs provide your favorite dishes with the flavors of summer. Try these easy ways to preserve the harvest so you can savor fresh-picked taste well beyond the growing season.
The flavor in herbs comes from essential oils contained in leaves, flowers or seeds. The goal is to time harvest for when oils are at their peak. Follow these tips to gather the most flavorful herbs:
- Pick early in the day, after the dew dries but before midday heat arrives. Avoid picking wet materials.
- For most flavorful leaves, harvest after flower buds appear but before they open.
- For most flavorful flowers, pick before buds open.
- Start harvesting leaves early in the season, as soon as plants have enough stems to support growth. With young plants having few leaves, remove just a few to avoid stunting growth. For larger, established plants, harvest up to three-fourths of stems at a time.
- In cold regions, stop harvesting perennial herbs four weeks before the average frost date. Harvest annual herbs right up to frost.
How to preserve
It’s not difficult to preserve herbs successfully. Follow one of these common methods.
Freezing is the most effective way to preserve flavor, color and nutrients. Frozen herbs typically retain flavor for 3-6 months. Use them to season soups, cooked sauces, breads and stews. There are three ways to freeze herbs:
- Wash harvested stems, remove leaves and place into freezer bags. To use, break or chop a section of leaves from the main clump. Chop and add to your recipe.
- Freeze washed individual leaves on a flat tray. Once frozen, place in freezer bags. Use individual leaves as needed.
- Wash herbs and chop finely. Scoop into plastic ice cube trays and fill with water. Once cubes freeze, remove from trays and store in plastic freezer bags. Create custom herb blends using this method by mixing several herbs in each ice cube.
Best herbs for freezing individual leaves: Chives, cilantro, lemon balm, mint, parsley, rosemary, sage
Best herbs for freezing whole stems: Dill, rosemary, tarragon, thyme
Drying herbs is a simple and convenient method of preservation. Dried herbs typically retain their best flavor up to 6 months. Ideally, store dried herbs in airtight glass jars or metal tins; avoid plastic bags. Whole leaves retain flavor longer than chopped. Store leaves whole, and crumble or crush them as you cook. Use to season soups, stews, breads, cooked sauces, teas and desserts.
There are several methods for drying herbs. You can microwave small amounts of herbs, but it’s easy to over-dry and reduce essential oils. An electric dehydrator with a low setting (80-90 degrees) also works well. Always dry one type of herb at a time, and follow the dehydrator’s instruction manual.
Air drying is probably easiest. At an optimum drying temperature of 80-90˚F, herbs dry in a few days.
To air dry herbs, you need a place that’s warm, dark and dry with good ventilation. An attic, barn loft or garden shed works well. Follow one of these methods:
- For screen drying, arrange herbs in a single layer on a screen. Cover with a single layer of cheesecloth if you’re drying in a dusty environment. Place trays in the drying area.
- Dry small-leaved herbs like thyme or oregano by gathering stems into small bundles and hanging them upside down. If your drying area is dusty, slip bundles into paper bags with holes punched in them to allow air circulation.
With either method, check herbs daily. When leaves are fully dry and crackly to the touch, place into jars. For bundled herbs, strip whole dried leaves from stems and place into jars.
Best herbs for drying: Basil, dill, fennel, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme