Preserving and Using Fresh Herbs

As my garden winds down for another season, I’ve been getting questions about what I’m doing with the herbs that are still in their pots.

I enjoy the efforts of growing fresh herbs all winter long, either from freezing or drying.  Preserving herbs for winter use starts early in the summer, as soon as the herbs have grown big enough.  Keeping them cut makes them more productive.  If you want to attract bees, let some of them continue growing and go to flower.

A bee snacking on a basil flower.

I also enjoy some of them fresh until mid-winter as some of my herbs are cold hardy.  When I lived in Minnesota, thyme and rosemary often stayed alive until early January.  The cold doesn’t bother them and I could pick them fresh for my soups and casseroles even when nothing else was growing.  Here in Virginia, the parsley and mints also stay alive until after several hard freezes.

Parsley on October 14 after I got done with it.

The mints, thyme and rosemary have slowed way down in their production, but the parsley has not.  I cut it to the dirt several weeks ago and already it is vigorously replacing itself.

Parsley on October 28. It’ll be ready to cut again soon.

Parsley, Thyme, Rosemary, Sage & Marjoram

These herbs do well with freezing.  Prior to cutting, I water them the day before (if possible) and shower them well to wash off any dirt or caterpillar poops.  Incidentally, if there are caterpillars, I don’t pick the herbs.  I like my butterflies!  If I can’t water them in their pots, I’ll do it in the sink after I cut them.  The problem is that it’s hard getting them really dry, which leads to later ice crystals in the freezer.

One of our homegrown butterflies. Notice it’s in the peppermint and not the parsley?
If it was laying eggs, it would be in the parsley. Instead, it’s in the mint drying its wings off.
Ergo, it just hatched somewhere nearby.

After drying in their pots for a day, I take a pair of kitchen scissors (preferably something I can put into the dishwasher) and cut them down.  I usually start out being careful and cautious to take only the oldest and biggest stems, but by the time I’m done, I’m just cutting it all down.  After a while, it takes too long to be so careful especially if I’m cutting multiple pots of herbs.

I take the herbs into the house, pick them over (trying to not freeze any green inchworms), and put them into plastic freezer bags.  Date them, stick them in the freezer, and you’re done.

From left to right:
Pot 1: Empty dirt where some Swiss chard is refusing to sprout; thyme
Pot 2: spearmint / Pot 3: peppermint
Pot 4: thyme, basil that got down but never grew back (evenings are too cold)

To use, take straight from the freezer to the pot.  Because my small plants are so prolific, I will have bags of herbs in the freezer by the end of fall and can afford to use them lavishly.  One of my favorite is to put a thick layer of them into the bottom of a roasting pan, then put chicken breasts (use with skin and bones) or turkey on top of it.  Pour in some white wine, vermouth, or chicken broth and stick it in the oven (you might have to add more liquid as it cooks).  The chicken will be tender and tasty when it’s done.

To use in soup (straight from the freezer), tie with a little cooking twine so you can remove it quickly after the pot is cooked.  Parsley is thin enough that the stems can be snipped off and the frozen parsley finally chopped.

Basil

I’m not a big fan of pesto, but if you have a favorite pesto recipe, that’s a great way to freeze extra basil.  I don’t like drying basil as I think it’s flavorless.

After cutting the basil back, I strip the leaves off the stems and put them in a food processor.  As it twirls, I add a thin stream of organic olive oil through the chute and make a slurry.  I pour it into a freezer bag (one with a reclosable top) and freeze it flat.

The basil is attempting world domination.
The miniature pinscher better watch out and not get too close!

To use, I add to stews, soups and casseroles either at the start of the process (like when I’m sauteeing the onions or meat) or towards the end as a flavoring.  I don’t have to add a lot to get flavor, which also helps keep the calories down.  Because it’s in a reclosable freezer bag (think Ziploc™), I can wiggle off a chunk without having to thaw it all.  I add it to the pot frozen and it thaws quickly as it cooks.

Spearmint, Peppermint, Lemon Balm & Catnip

After cutting back the mints, I tie them into small bunches and hang upside down in the kitchen.  Hanging them upside down helps move the essential oils from the stems into the tips of the leaves.  They don’t take long to dry – a couple of days at most – and then I crumble and store in the freezer until I’m ready to use it in my tea.  If the mint starts shedding as it dries, staple a brown paper bag over it to catch the leaves.

Spearmint in a up-close portrait.

Rosemary can be dried hanging upside down or just left on a plate.  I’m not a big fan of dried rosemary in my cooking, but put in a cheesecloth and tied shut with some twine makes for a great scent in the linen closet.

Newly dried rosemary ready to go into the linen closet.

Thyme can also be dried in a similar manner, but I find it way too much work for all those little leaves.  It’s easier to just use from the freezer.

Other Herbs

I’ve grow different things in different years, especially depending on what didn’t get used from my freezer.  If you have something not covered here (or not similar to what I listed), research the Internet and experiment.  When I was playing with the mint, I froze and dried a small bunch, then tried them out.  I found that freezing mint doesn’t work.  And how else do you think I know not to dry basil?

I grew chamomile one year.  It was hard to harvest, and whether I dried it or froze it fresh, it had hardly any taste.  After I caught a certain miniature pinscher lifting his leg on it repeatedly, I decided to pull it out and try something else.

Another basil picture! It’s one of the prettiest plants in my garden.

Lavender doesn’t grow very well in my yard.  Worse yet, I found that I don’t like it at all.  I would think it could be either dried or frozen.

With the price of herbs these days, growing and preserving your own is a great way for flavor in your meals with a low cost.

Left pot – rosemary & parsley
Middle pot – salvia for attracting bees
Right pot – spearmint

14 thoughts on “Preserving and Using Fresh Herbs

  1. Nancy, I love saving my herbs for the winter! Many of mine can stay in the garden here, but I do like to have some dried rosemary and sage in the kitchen. My favorite way to use sage is to dry it and then grind it down in a mortar. Sage is felted when it is dried so to accomplish this I add a bit of kosher salt to the mortar and then slowly grind it down. The salt helps to pulverize the sage. When it is sufficiently powdered, then I add a bit more of the solid crystals of Kosher salt and put it into a spice jar. This works nicely when seasoning chicken for the oven! ~Lynda

  2. You had me laughing about “a certain miniature pinscher” and chamomile. :) I really enjoyed this post, both the writing and the images. I’m not much for gardening, but I do enjoy learning about plants because I enjoy photographing them.

    • Thats a wonderful compliment that you enjoy both my photos and writing – thank you so much! I’ve learned a lot about plants with my garden the last few years, but I still have to look up a lot of stuff on the Internet. Every year I learned something else.

  3. Great tips, thanks! I grow basil and mint. Here on the west coast the mint grows all year so i can always walk out to my patio and snip some off fresh. I also dry it for tea. Never thought about hanging it upside down.

    • That’s the great thing about blogs – getting new ideas to try out. Thanks as always to stop by. I finally downloaded the first two Amanda books to read – I hope I have time this weekend, otherwise I might have to wait until Thanksgiving weekend.

  4. I always think about growing herbs…but they never look like yours! Once success: a rosemary bush that is taking over a corner of the house. (the tiny cheesecloth bundles are a wonderful idea, thanks)
    Oh, love that pix with the butterfly! gorgeous!

    • I’d suggest making the cheesecloth bundles bigger. They’re not scenting the closet quite as strongly as I envisioned.

      Glad you liked the butterfly – I’m so happy that we raised another batch of them this year!

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