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Learning to Grow: Save herbs for great taste all winter

Published: Friday, Aug. 16, 2013 2:52 p.m. CDT

As the summer draws to a close and the days get cooler, it becomes harder to stay focused on weeding and watering when our thoughts are drifting toward sweaters and school supplies.

The garden is staging its grand finale, and we know that the pumpkins and mums are waiting in the wings, eager to have their moment. But if you’ve enjoyed incorporating fresh herbs from the garden into your meals this summer, you may want to consider preserving your harvest for the months to come, before rushing headlong into autumn.

Since many of the herbs we love to grow here in Zone 5 won’t survive the winter (parsley, basil, rosemary, and dill, among others), saving them is a wonderful way to bottle up a little of the summer sunshine, and guard against the chill of the grey days ahead.

There are several popular methods for saving herbs. Certainly the easiest is air drying.

  Since the herbs dry slowly, their oils aren’t depleted the way they might be when dried in an oven or microwave, which will actually cook them. Harvest healthy stems, (should be free of diseases, pests, yellowing, etc.), from your herb plants in the morning.

Plants should be mature, but not yet flowering, as the leaves will be most flavorful at this time. Shake lightly to remove soil and insects or rinse with cold water and pat dry.

Secure the stems together using rubber bands or twine and hang them upside down in a warm, dry location. Check their progress weekly, until they have dried and will crumble. Then store in an airtight container for up to a year.

Air drying works best with herbs that have a low moisture content to begin with such as dill, rosemary and thyme.

If you are looking to speed up this process, you can oven dry your herbs. (Note: Your kitchen will most decidedly not resemble that of a French farmhouse with bunches of lavender and rosemary hanging from the rafters, but to each his own.)

Place the herbs in a single layer on a parchment lined baking sheet, set the temperature to 150 degrees, and leave the door slightly ajar for proper air circulation. Remove when crumbly, after about 1-4 hours. Store in an airtight container.

Freezing is another method that has grown in popularity of late, and is particularly effective for herbs that have a higher moisture content like parsley, basil and cilantro. Leaves can be chopped up and packed into ice cube trays. Then fill trays with water or olive oil and freeze.

Alternatively, leaves can be pureed in a blender with a bit of water or olive oil, then fill ice cube trays with the resulting paste and freeze. Cubes can be stored in an airtight container for several months.

Regardless of which method you choose, you won’t regret holding onto a bit of summer’s bounty, and saving herbs from your garden is a fairly quick and easy way to do just that.

They’re always a treat to have on hand, and the flavors will enhance the sauces, soups and stews that will be bubbling on our stovetops all winter long.

• Sarah Marcheschi is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener for Kane County. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166 for more information.

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