Harvesting and Preserving Herbs

It is very satisfing using fresh herbs  from your own garden in your meals. As summer comes to a close it is time to think about pruning, harvesting and preserving your herbs for use in the kitchen through the winter months.
The time to gather your herbs is in summer. It is best to harvest the leaves before the herb plant flowers, if you are harvesting the flowers pick them just after they are fully opened. Try harvest your plants in the morning after the dew (if any) has evaporated. Gathering them when they are dry will help prevent the leaves going mouldy during the drying process.

Preserving your Herb Harvest

The most popular method is to dry the herbs. There are many  ways you can do this and it is suitable for both the leaves and flowers. Prepare the foliage by removing any damaged or blemished foliage and be gentle so you don't bruise the leaves or flowers as they will loose their essential oils.

Natural Drying 
  • Gather the herbs into bunches and tie with string. Hang by a nail or a prepared string line in a dry, dark, room that has a bit of warmth. Make sure there is space between each bunch to ensure the air circulates between them.   
  • Drying them on a flat surface takes a little more room and the use of an airy cupboard. Remove the leaves from the stems and spread thinly on a trays or a flat cane baskets. By using this technique it is possible to stack them on top of each other but leave a space between each tray so the air can circulate.
Oven Drying
  • Oven drying is another method that can be used to preserve your herb harvest. It is an expensive way to do the job but if you are in a hurry and have a small quantity then this is a good option. Heat the oven to 32° celcius, remove all the leaves or flowers from the stalks and thinly spread them out on a baking tray. Leave the door left open to ventilate and for moisture to escape. Turn and/or stir the herbs often, they are ready when they are crisp and crumble in your hands – watch this though there is a fine line between done and overdone!
    A variation on this method is to use the oven to finish the drying process on herbs that have been hung. Heat the oven to its lowest temperature and then turn off, put herbs on to baking sheets and place in the oven. Check for dryness and repeat the process if they are not quite ready.
Freezing
  • Annual herbs like Basil and Coriander are best preserved by freezing. Although they wont be as good as fresh herbs; they are perfect for cooked dishes. There are a couple of ways that you can do this:
    • Freeze individual bunches, put a few small bunches in to a plastic bag, all the air needs to be removed, place in the freezer till you need them.
    • Pick off all the fresh leaves and place as many as you can in to an empty ice cube tray, fill the tray with water and push the leaves under the water, place in the freezer. Once the cubes are frozen remove from the tray and place in a plastic bag, they will keep in the freezer for up to a year.
    • Make a herb paste. Combine ¼ cup of water per 1 cup of herbs and blend thoroughly. Spoon the paste in to the ice cube trays. Freeze, remove from the tray and place in a plastic bag in the freezer. Use a cube at a time in your cooking and add in according to your own taste.

Storage

Knowing when your herbs are dry enough to store is up to you to judge (it can be anywhere from two days to two weeks). It depends on the type of herb you are drying because they all differ in the thickness of the stems and leaves.  Generally speaking when they are brittle in leaf and stalk but still green in colour they are usually ready. One way to check this is that if there is still quite a bit of bend in either the stalk or leaves, they need a little more time.  Check your herbs regularly as it is easy to over dry them and turn them brown. This means that they lose their colour and vitality.

Once the leaves are dry pack them into glass jars with a tight fitting lid. Try to store the leaves whole as crushing them will release essential oils. Nothing is more detrimental to stored herbs than the light and heat as it fades their colour and spoils their qualities. Find a place for your jars that is out of the light such as in the pantry, add a large label around the jar for extra protection and don’t forget to put the date on them.

Team McGregor’s tips for your Herb Garden

  • If the plants are gritty then you can rinse them, thoroughly dry them use a salad spinner or pat them dry with a paper towel.
  • If you have sprayed your herbs for bugs leave your harvesting until the withholding period (this will be stated on the bottle) is over. 
  • Dried herbs from your own garden make great present especially if you personalise the label.