I must confess that my food tasted whole lot differently before I have discovered the aromatic herbs. It is then when I felt that I actually started to eat. It was like I was born again. A whole new world of flavors appeared in front of my eyes and my taste buds. I couldn’t stop thinking about what I would discover next: what new challenging taste, what miracle dish will arise in my pans.
So, after I finished with all the exclamations like “Wow! Marvelous! Is it for real? Does this really exist? Amazing! Astonishing”, etc, etc, I came to the most practical things. Like how do I grow my own herbs (and this part was solved quite quickly: I bought herb seeds, planted them and waited for the plants to grow). And then how do I do to keep my herbs for winter.
The first method for preservation that I have found was drying them: from all the alternatives (air dry, cold dry, oven or microwave dry, dehydrate), I have chosen the air dry. I believe it’s the most effective, it is not hard at all and I have my herbs for the winter months. But… I also found that there are other methods of preserving those herbs, which are not as commonly used, like freezing or keeping them in butters and oils. And these are the ones I will tell you about in this article.
First, you need to prepare them for this process:
- Harvest the plants and make sure they are in good shape (no damaged leaves)
- Be aware of the insects that may appear.
- If they need to be washed, let them dry before you start the preservation process.
- Put them to freeze right after you picked them so they get to keep their essential oils.
Freezing works well with delicate herbs that are added to food at the end of cooking, such as basil, parsley, coriander, mint, tarragon, dill, fennel, chervil, lovage etc. Take the leaves out of the stems.
Frozen herbs will very well withstand approximately 3 months, after which they will quickly lose their flavors. You should know that frozen herbs cannot be used to garnish the dishes for they don’t have an attractive appearance: they soften really bad after they unfreeze. Use them only in cooking, even if you add them to food in the last minutes or seconds of heat treatment.
Freezing in Ice Cubes
Chop the leaves and then transfer them in cube trays. Put an equal amount in each bay, usually how much you need for one cooking. It usually takes about 1/2 -1 teaspoon chopped herbs. Pour water to cover them and then place the cube trays in the freezer. Within hours, the water freezes. Overall, about a third of the slot should be taken by leaves and two-thirds by water.
In this case water may be replaced with fruit juice or even olive oil or melted butter. But it is more convenient to use water that doesn’t affect the dishes and it will be easier to use chopped herbs.
After the water has frozen, remove the cubes from the trays and pack them in ziplock bags. Remove all the air from the bag if possible. Keep cubes in the freezer and when you need herbs, remove a cube, or how many you need. You can put them like this in the dishes but you should be aware that your are adding some water and sauces or soups may dilute. You also may defrost them first, but defrosting is optional.
As I said, you can keep them well frozen about 3 months. If freezing into ice cubes, you may extend the retention period to 6 months, following this procedure: scald the leaves only a few seconds in boiling water, drain them quickly, transfer them into the ice cube trays and pour very very cold water over them. Then get them immediately in the freezer.
Freezing in Bags
As a method of freezing without liquid filler, it is vital to make sure the herbs are dry before freezing. If you are unable to wet and dry, let them dry overnight. It is not the happiest situation, remember that herbs should be stored immediately after they have been collected, but it is much better than being frozen wet. It is best to lie them on plastic or stainless steel grill, in a well ventilated place away from heat.
Then put the herbs in bags, whole or chopped leaves, and take care to remove all the air. An interesting method of doing this is to close the bags, but not before inserting a straw in them. With this straw you can aspire the air using your mouth.
An alternative method is to stretch the leaves on a tray in a single layer, and to transfer the tray in the freezer. Once frozen, place them in vacuum plastic bags, label them and bring back in the freezer.
Do not put various herbs in the same bag , for their flavors will mix and dominate each other.
Preservation in Fats
I have already talked about fats, namely olive oil and butter when we talked about freezing into ice cube trays, but that was a different case from those that will be displayed below.
The essential oils that flavor the food are soluble in fat. Carrying the flavors is one of the roles of fat, both in the process of marinating as well in the cooking of food.
In addition, fats are preservatives and food preservation in fat is one of the oldest methods of conservation because it keeps the taste and flavor.
Here’s a great way to keep herbs and use them in cooking. It is one that I tried many times, every time with excellent results.
This method can be used for virtually any type of herbs, but it goes best with delicate herbs. Choose the best leaves and chop them. Bring the butter to room temperature, mix it with the herbs and add salt and pepper if you want to, but you can use other flavors as mustard, grated lemon, ketchup, chilli paste, etc.
Flavored butter can be stored in boxes, or you can round it for flavored butter bolts make an exceptional topping for many hot foods: any kind of meat, potatoes, rice, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, etc.
Small portions of flavored butter can define the sauces (giving them not only lubricity and luster, but also taste and aroma) or cream soups.
Flavored butters last in the refrigerator a few days, but can be kept for even three months in the freezer.
Herbs that are most suited for this type of conservation are generally more fragile herbs that are added to food at the end of cooking or after: basil, cilantro, parsley, arugula, wild garlic, dill, chervil, mint, etc. You can also use some robust herbs, like oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, etc.
The procedure is simple: herbs, clean and cleared of any drop of water, are finely chopped, crushed in a mortar or processed with a blender and then mixed with salt, pepper, garlic, grounded pine nuts (or peanuts or other nuts), freshly grated Parmesan cheese, and usually little extra virgin olive oil. Blend the mixture again, then bring the sauce to the proper consistency by addition of oil. After that transfer it into a suitable container.
To be preserved in pesto-type sauce, herbs should be harvested and prepared as I told you in the beginning of this article. Take the leaves off the stems, but you can also use thin twigs or tender stems. This is one of the advantages of the pesto sauce: that you can use stems as well, chopped, crushed or finely cut.
If you choose to do a combination of herbs, do not pair very strong flavors, because they will “fight” each other. Choose balanced pairs as oregano / parsley or basil / chives, for instance.
Another advantage of the method is that, in addition to herbs, it offers a very pleasant aroma oil. Olive oil is the most used, but any other oils are also suitable. If you choose a bland and flavorless refined oil, it will have no interference in the aroma of preserved herbs. If you choose a flavored oil, such as the extra virgin olive oil, consider its aroma too and associate it with ingredients that are suitable.
A pesto sauce resists well in the refrigerator, if packaged in a jar which is sealed and if it has a 0,2 inches oil layer on the surface. The oil keeps away the bacteria and other oxidizing agents. It is available even a few months if stored like this. It may also be frozen, preferably in small containers (the quantity you use for one cooking), thus holding about 6 months.
A pesto sauce is not a simplistic composition: it contains different flavors (garlic, salt, pepper) and thickeners (pine nuts and Parmesan), in addition to herbs and oil. You can use a much simpler composition, with only the aromatic herbs and olive oil in a ratio of about 6:1. It is stored and kept as a normal pesto sauce.
If you have prepared a simple composition, only with herbs and oil, you can strain the oil when using herbs. Put it aside and use it in salad.
A frozen pesto should be defrosted before being used. If there’s something left after cooking, store it in the refrigerator and eat it within a few days.
It is one of the simplest methods of conservation and fits absolutely all herbs. The herbs are collected and prepared as noted above. You can use twigs or only the leaves, as you desire. The herbs should be dry, because water promotes dipping oil and soften leaves.
If you just want flavored oil, it is best to use tall thin bottles as packaging, which look very decorative. But if you want to also use the herbs in the oil, then use packaging with higher base and lower height for convenience. The ratio between herbs and oil is different, just like in a simple pesto, which contains only herbs and oil (see above). Also in this case, you will put oil and leaves only, and maybe the finest and thinner twigs.
When you want to use the herbs preserved in this way, drain them well, possibly even wipe the excess oil with paper towels. Herbs preserved in oil can be used for cooking but also as decoration, as they still look good.
When you choose more herbs in the same container with oil, pick only one with dominant and strong flavor. For instance, do not associate rosemary with thyme for both have strong aroma, since both can associate with parsley, basil or coriander.
I believe that this method provides nice aromatic oil, sometimes in large quantities. The association between herbs and oil is important for their tastes and aromas will combine. Follow the directions given a little above.
Oils flavored with herbs lasts several months if stored in airtight containers, away from heat and light.
The method has several distinct advantages:
- it is simple
- it is fast
- you can add other flavors to the oil besides herbs (pepper, garlic, coriander seeds, bay leaf, allspice, etc.)
- in addition to herbs, it provides highly aromatic oils, which can then be used to prepare marinades, vinaigrettes or other hot and cold sauces.
- bottles with oil and herbs can be very decorative
But there are drawbacks:
- it uses a large amounts of oil
- you need a larger storage space
Here is an interesting method, which offers the advantages of speed, simplicity and a bonus accounted for obtaining a separate condiment: flavored vinegar.
You can preserve robust herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, tarragon, lavender, sage, oregano, etc., for they are more resistant to the acidity of vinegar.
To be preserved in vinegar, herbs are collected and prepared as I have recounted earlier in this article. Break the leaves off the stems, but you can also use thin twigs or tender stems. Pay attention again to moisture, the leaves should be dry and clean.
If you choose to do a combination of herbs in vinegar again, do not pair herbs with strong flavors, because they will “cover” each other.
You may use tall jar containers, but the base should be wide enough to allow easy access to herbs. Fill the jars about halfway with freshly picked clean and dry leaves. Then pour the vinegar and leave to stand for 3-4 weeks, on the windowsill or in another sunny place. Strain the herbs and transfer them to a smaller container. They may be stored in a cool room for several months.
Vinegar from the jars will be very pleasantly flavored and can be used in the preparation of dressings and other sauces, or even for preserving fruits and vegetables.
You can use any type of vinegar, but there are some combinations proved to offer the best results:
- White wine vinegar with rosemary or lavender
- White wine or cider vinegar with tarragon
- Red wine vinegar with rosemary or thyme
- Red or white balsamic vinegar with rosemary
- Champagne vinegar with lavender
In addition to herbs, you can add other flavors: garlic, truffle, bay, berries or seeds pepper, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, ginger etc.
Honey is the first sweetener known to man and one of the first preservative people used. You can use any kind of honey, even the cheaper varieties. But it is a method that requires very clean and well dried herbs. Dirt and every drop of fluid may develop mold or unwanted fermentation. Some use already dried herbs to flavor honey for this very reason.
Use very clean and dry leaves. If you have honey in a solid state, heat it a little bit so as to have a liquid consistency. I usually use about 1 cup of fresh herbs, or half a cup of dried herbs at one cup of honey. Place the herbs in very clean and dry jars. Pour honey until it covers the herbs. If necessary, stir this mixture of herbs for the honey to spread evenly. Cover the jar and seal it tight and leave to stand for two weeks on the windowsill or other place where the sun hits. After this period, you can drain the herbs if you desire.
Besides herbs you can add other flavors, especially those suitable for desserts: fresh ginger, ginger powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cloves, cardamom. You can serve flavored honey over pancakes, muffins, cakes etc. or it may be used in the preparation of sweet fillings.
But you also may use other flavors like dried garlic, truffles, pepper, coriander seeds etc., which mate well with all herbs. Such honey is used to prepare the flavored vinaigrette and dressings, glazes for meat, various other sauces etc.