Last Updated on September 16, 2021
Is your garden bursting with fresh herbs? Now is the time to harvest lots of delicious herbs to preserve them for winter. Here’s what to know about preserving herbs and how to preserve herbs 12 ways!
WHY TRY PRESERVING HERBS?
Sure, you can buy herbs easily at the store, but freshly-preserved, homegrown herbs have so much more flavor — and cost soooo much less! Preserving herbs is an easy, delicious way to try eating seasonally year-round.
Not to mention, in all likelihood your garden produced waaaaaaaay more herbs than you can possibly eat fresh. Don’t let all that herbal goodness go to waste! Get busy preserving herbs, and enjoy all those yummy ingredients long after your garden has gone to sleep for the winter. (You can also bring some herbs inside and grow them indoors for the winter.)
Whether you’re growing delicious culinary herbs like basil or some of the many medicinal herbs you can use for everyday ailments, you’ll want to preserve plenty to enjoy and use after the frost kills most of them off.
Our wonderful CSA farm grows tons of delicious herbs that I dry every fall and enjoy all winter.
Some of the many, many herbs to consider preserving:
- Oregano, sage, and thyme (a key ingredient in winter soups, like our favorites vegan white bean soup and homemade split pea soup)
- Medicinal herbs like creeping charlie, cleavers, mulberry leaf, elderflower, elderberry
- Herbs you’ll enjoy in tea, like mint, borage, and lemon balm
Here’s what to know about preserving basil, a top herb for kitchen use.
If you love growing herbs, check out these perennial herbs that come back year after year without all the fuss of replanting. And if you have some shadier areas, you’ll be glad that there’s no shortage of herbs that grow in shade.
WHEN AND HOW TO HARVEST HERBS
Most herbs are best gathered before they flower for optimal flavor. Harvest herbs in the morning, after the dew has dried.
Snip herbs with scissors and collect them in a basket. Hande gently, trying not to bruise delicate leaves.
Rinse well to remove bugs and dirt. Shake to remove excess water and pat dry with a clean towel. Spinning your herbs in a salad spinner can also help to remove water and speed up the drying process.
PRESERVING HERBS BY DRYING
Drying is one of the easiest ways to preserve herbs, and you have several options, from hanging herb bundles to using a dehydrator.
1. Hang herb bundles to dry
Many herbs dry so easily, you can often dry them simply by hanging them upside down. Tie the stems together with some string and hang them to dry for several days. out of direct sunlight
You need low humidity for air-drying to work. If your house is humid, you’ll need to try one of the heat-added dehydration methods described below.
2. Air dry herb leaves on a drying screen
If the air in your house is relatively dry, you can try laying herbs on a drying screen. I highly recommend one of these collapsible hanging screens, which lets you dry a lot of herbs in a small space.
Rather than leaving herbs in bundles on the stems, you need to strip the leaves and lay them on your screens without touching. You don’t need to do this with the tiny leaves of thyme, which you can dry on the stem and strip when they’re fully dehydrated.
3. Use a dehydrator on low heat
A dehydrator can give you the consistent low heat that’s optimal for drying herbs. My go-to source for all things dehydrating is expert Mary Bell, who suggests 95-110 degrees as the best temperature to aim for when drying herbs.
Check them after 3-4 hours. Different herbs will take different amounts of time depending on their water content and cell structure. When your herbs are brittle and crumble easily, they’re done and ready to store.
A dehydrator is a fantastic food preservation tool, great for drying lots more than herbs. We use ours often to dry surplus fruits like peaches and bananas (dried bananas are AM-A-ZING, btw), as well as making lots of delicious homemade fruit leather. I think a stainless steel dehydrator like this one is a smart choice, allowing you to avoid heating food on plastic, but there are lots of inexpensive plastic models as well.
To help lower the cost of whatever dehydrator you choose, you can share with a friend and you’ll both get the benefit of this incredibly useful tool.
4. Use your car as a solar dehydrator
You know how hot your car gets when it’s parked in the sun? All that hot, dry air is great for preserving herbs. It sounds a little strange, but it really works, and your car will smell fantastic! Simply lay your herbs out on a screen or baking sheet in your car until they get brittle and crispy. Check tender herbs like basil after a few hours, as you would with an electric dehydrator.
5. Dry herbs in the oven
You can also use your oven set to its lowest temperature, but that’s generally not the best method with herbs, since the temperature will be higher than is optimal for preserving herbs’ delicate volatile oils and medicinal compounds. But plenty of people use this method, so try it if it’s your only option.
One workaround to try: Set your oven to the lowest possible temperature and cut the heat when your oven thermometer reads 100 degrees. Some ovens have a “keep warm” or other low setting that could heat at lower temperatures.
You may need to turn the oven on and off repeatedly to keep the oven from getting cold, but a few rounds ought to dry out most delicate herbs. I use this method with my “no-fail” baked kale chips, which saves energy and keeps me from ruining my yummy kale.
To dry herbs in the oven: Place your herbs on a baking sheet lined with a baking mat or parchment paper, making sure no leaves overlap. Place in the oven and set to the lowest temperature possible. (No need to pre-heat.)
6. Dry herbs in the microwave
Microwaving fresh herbs sounds a little odd, but New York Times food columnist Kenji López-Alt thinks it’s the best approach for preserving herbs’ flavor, arguing that the microwave heats only the water and not the plant tissue, resulting in better flavor retention.
The downside is you can only dry small batches of herbs at a time, so not as useful for a huge haul of basil, thyme, or whatever herb you have in abundance.
However, if you’d like to dry small amounts of herb quickly, go ahead and give it a try.
Simply lay your herb leaves on a plate lined with paper towels or a dish towel, and cover with another layer of paper towel or dish towel. Microwave on high in 20 or 30-second increments until herbs are crispy and crumble easily. Denser herbs like sage may take a full minute, while more delicate herbs like cilantro mat take considerably less. The wattage of microwaves varies a lot, so an 800-watt microwave should take longer than a 1200-watt microwave.
STORING DRIED HERBS
Store your dried herbs in airtight containers (these little jars are perfect) and plan to use them within 6 months for best flavor, though properly stored they make keep up to a year. Keep your jars of dried herbs in a cool, dark place, and they may still be tasty by the time the next growing season rolls around.
Dried herbs are best stored whole and crumbled at the time of use.
Don’t forget to label your herbs with the date and the name of the herb. A lot of herbs look quite a bit alike, and mint won’t be delicious in your ratatouille. 🙂
PRESERVING HERBS BY FREEZING
Freezing herbs can work well if you want to keep the fresh flavor or the herb, but a change in texture won’t be a problem, as in soup. You can freezer chopped herbs on their own, in oil, or in water. You can also make a pesto and freeze it in jars.
1. Freeze whole herbs in a storage bag
To freeze whole herbs, place your clean and dried herbs in a storage bag (try silicone storage bags for a zero-waste storage option). Vacuum sealed bags will preserve herbs the best, but if you don’t have a vacuum sealer, folding over a zip-top bag to remove excess air (and sucking out more air with a straw if you want to be more thorough) should keep herbs in good condition for some time.
Frozen herbs will start to degrade after a few months and won’t be in great shape as you near the next growing season. Of course, by then you’ll have plenty of fresh herbs at hand and won’t need frozen herbs anymore!
2. Freeze chopped herbs in ice cube trays
Chopped herbs can be placed in ice cube trays and covered with oil or water. You can then take as many herb cubes as you’d like to add to soups, stews, sauces, or salad dressings. A homemade vinaigrette with fresh herb flavor in winter is such a treat!
Instead of chopping, you can blend herbs with a little olive oil in a food processor and pour those into ice cube trays.
3. Freeze pestos
Rather than simply freezing a single herb, you can make a pesto with oil and salt, as well as garlic and nuts or seeds if you like. You’ll then have an herb pesto ready to top pasta dishes, add to soups, or use as spreads.
PRESERVING HERBS IN SALT
Preserving fresh herbs in salt is a beautiful and delicate way to capture their flavor. You can preserve herbs whole, or blend them with salt to make an herbal salt using a single herb or a blend of herbs.
To preserve whole herbs in salt
Layer washed and dried herb leaves with layers of uniodized sea salt in a jar, pressing down as you add more. Place the jar in the refrigerator, adding more layers as the layers of herbs compress. Herbs can be used anytime and will last several months in the refrigerator.
Note when you use the herbs, you should cut back on the salt in the recipe, as the herbs will have absorbed some of the salt. You can use the salt itself separately as a flavored salt, as it will acquire the flavor of the herbs you use.
To make an herbal salt
Combine 1 part chopped herbs with 4 parts coarse sea salt (without added iodine) and blend till combined in a food processor. Don’t blend too long or it will start to become pasty. You can also simply combine finely chopped herbs with salt if you don’t want to use the food processor.
You can put the herbal salt directly in a jar, or spread the salt mixture on a baking sheet to dry for a day or two if you’d like to remove more moisture before placing in a jar. Fresh herbal salt should be kept in the refrigerator. Leave the herbs and salt to meld for a week or two before using.
PRESERVING HERBS IN VINEGAR
You can enjoy the flavor of herbs in herbal vinegars, though it’s not quite the same thing as having a whole herb ready to use for cooking. But the flavor of a vinegar infused with elderflower, violets, spruce tips, or chive blossoms, can make a welcome addition to salads and makes a lovely (and easy!) homemade gift at the holidays.
To preserve herbs in vinegar, wash herbs and allow to air dry. You’ll need about 1 cup fresh herbs to 2 cups of vinegar. Place the herbs in a jar, pressing with a spoon to crush the herb slightly in order to release some of their oils. Cover completely with white wine vinegar (usually preferred for culinary uses) or apple cider vinegar (preferred for medicinal uses) and allow to infuse for at least a week and up to a month. Use a non-reactive cap (like these) or cover with plastic wrap or parchment before putting on lid.
Strain out the herbs and keep the infused vinegar in a bottle in a cool dry place for up to a year. Herbal vinegars may keep better stored in the refrigerator.
PRESERVING HERBS AS TINCTURES
A tincture is simply an herb that has been steeped in alcohol for a period of time. I like to use high-proof organic vodka. Tinctures keep for years, so they’re an excellent way to preserve your favorite medicinal herbs.
Typically we tincture medicinal herbs rather than culinary ones, but if you’d like to make an herbal extract, like peppermint, for example, the process is the same.
To make a tincture with fresh herbs, remove herbs from the stem and rinse them and allow to dry. Chop herbs to help them release medicinal compounds, and fill a jar 2/3 to 3/4 full. Cover completely with high-proof vodka, submerging the herbs by one inch.
Allow your tincture to steep for 4-6 weeks, shaking every few days, before straining and rebottling. Keep in a cool, dark place, and they will keep for several years. Amber bottles like these will help extend their shelf life by protecting them from light.
Here’s more on making and using herbal tinctures from Herbal Academy.
You can also infuse honey and oil with dried herbs as well, though you need to be careful about growth of mold and other contaminants. Here’s what to know about preserving herbs in honey or in oil from Herbal Academy.
What’s your favorite way of preserving herbs?
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Susannah is a proud garden geek and energy nerd who loves healthy food and natural remedies. Her work has appeared in Mother Earth Living, Ensia, Northern Gardener, Sierra, and on numerous websites. Her first book, Everything Elderberry, released in September 2020 and has been a #1 new release in holistic medicine, naturopathy, herb gardening, and other categories. Find out more and grab your copy here.