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Home & Garden

Learning to Grow in St. Charles: Freeze and dry your herbs for fresh flavors in winter

Basil adds a bright punch to dishes.
Basil adds a bright punch to dishes.

Herbs are such an easy and delicious way to upgrade an everyday meal. Often low-maintenance plants, I typically end up with quite a bounty at the end of the summer, and love freezing or drying them to season sauces, soups and other wintry dishes in the months to come.

A flavorful addition like basil or oregano can add a whole new dimension to your cooking – you might even forget to pick up the salt shaker.

The first step to saving herbs is to harvest, sort and wash them. The ideal time to pick herbs is in the morning – shoot for the window after dew has evaporated but before the sun starts to get hot. Toss any leaves or stems that are bruised or mangled, then wash the keepers in cool water, and drain on paper towels.

To freeze herbs, spread sprigs or leaves out on a tray or cookie sheet and put in the freezer. Once they are frozen, pack them into airtight freezer containers or plastic freezer bags. If you plan on using your herbs in soups or stews, you can dice the fresh, washed herbs, then pack them into ice cube trays. Fill the trays the rest of the way with water and freeze.

Once they're frozen, pop the ice cubes out and store in airtight freezer containers. When preparing cooked dishes, you can follow recipe instructions and use the same amount of frozen herbs as you would fresh. Simple!

Drying herbs is another option for preserving your harvest. To oven dry, spread leaves in a single layer on a cookie sheet and set oven to the lowest possible temperature. Prop open the oven door and let leaves dry for three to four hours, stirring them occasionally until they are dry. Herbs are fully dried when leaves are crispy and crumble off the stems. You should avoid crushing the leaves until you're ready to use them though, as they will lose their flavor quickly.

Herbs also can be air dried by tying stems together in small bunches and hanging them in an area with good air circulation away from the moisture of the stove, sink or dishwasher. Once completely dried, herbs can be packed in airtight containers or lidded jars. To substitute in dried herbs for fresh ones in recipes, use a heaping 1/4 teaspoon ground, or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried leaves for each 1 tablespoon of fresh chopped herbs the recipe calls for. Bon appetit!

Sarah Marcheschi is a University of Illinois Extension Kane County master gardener. Email the extension office at uiemg-kane@illinois.edu for more information.

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