Harvesting, Preserving and Storing Herbs

With a supply of herbs in your garden and the knowledge of how to harvest, preserve and store them, you can make sure of having the flavours you require for cooking throughout the year. What’s more, you will be able to turn to your winter store for beauty aids and soothing drinks when fresh herbs are unobtainable. Preserving herbs is not difficult. There was a time when every housewife would know about such things. Drying is the most commonly used method and is very good, and those who own a home-freezer will find that many basic herbs can be ‘put on ice’ so to speak until they are needed.

Harvesting might sound a rather grandiose word if you have but a few herbs in pots on your window ledge, but it applies just as much to gathering in a few stems as it does to vast quantities. In any case, you must never pick or cut more herbs to be dried — or frozen — at any one time than can easily be dealt with.

Where the leaves are to be preserved cut just before the herb comes into flower. The reason for this is that much of the strength of the plant would go into the flowers and you wouldn’t get such a tasty end-product. Left until after the flowers have faded you get the problem of what to do with the stems and seeds. If the worst comes to the worst and you return from a holiday to find the season more advanced than you expected and the herbs already in flower, you can still

manage, even mixing flowers and leaves in together. This will not give a first-class result, either for colour or flavour, but would ‘do’.

Herbs should not be cut on a wet day; choose a bright sunny one. Leave it until after the dew had disappeared so the foliage is dry, and pick before the sun gets very hot.

Using a sharp implement, where necessary, you can cut the stems of small-leaved plants to make life easier for drying and dealing with the herb later on. Large leaves can be picked individually but whatever you do, be careful not to damage them, especially such fragrant ones as lemon balm which suffer from bruising.

Marjoram and thyme are easy herbs to dry. When picking basil always keep some leaves on the plant as this seems to encourage others to grow. Be careful leaves do not darken. If drying in bunches, 2—3 sprigs per bunch, no more. Borage is not a simple herb to dry, nor is chervil. Chives are far better used fresh or frozen. Dill and fennel leaves can be dried but are best for their seeds. Parsley requires care, and should be picked before it bolts.

Plants from which the seeds are to be harvested should be left until the heads turn brown. You have to watch your timing carefully or the seeds will fall and scatter. Better be early than late. Pick on a dry day. Caraway, coriander, dill, fennel and lovage are good for their seeds.

Chamomile flowers are dried for making into teas, potpourri and so on. Other herbal flowers, such as tansy, can also be dried. Pick them on a dry day before they are fully opened.

Garlic is something of an exception as far as drying herbs is concerned. Harvest in the autumn. Leave it on top of the ground or in a warm, (not hot) dry atmosphere until ready, then store in a cool, airy place as you do onions.

Angelica stems for candying must be young and tender; get ready for that in April to May.

Herbs that are to be home-frozen should be picked when young and very fresh, and dealt with as quickly as possible.

Drying really means that the herbs need to be in a steady warm temperature with the dry air circulating all the time to

take away moisture, and there should be no risk of condensation. Drying in the sun, which might sound tempting, is not always effective and can mar the colour. Generally, the more quickly herbs are dried the more of their aroma is preserved.

Most homes have plenty of suitable spots. An attic which is warmed by the sun, that is clean and airy and which doesn’t suffer from quick heat loss at night; a spare room; an airing cupboard; the cooker; the kitchen: a garage which is not likely to be filled with petrol fumes, can all be used successfully; always avoid placing herbs in the sun’s rays.

You can tie herbs, keeping each variety to itself, in bunches and hang them up to dry. Keep bundles small. They could become mildewed in the middle if too full. When there is a danger of them becoming dusty, cover them with fine muslin. You know the herbs are clean to start with; if not you will have to wash them first, then leave them in the open-air to dry again.

Bunches take between 14—21 days to get crisp and brittle, at which stage they are ready to be prepared for storing.

An alternative method is to have drying trays ready. These can be wooden frames with a fine mesh base, or home-made from cake trays or roasting tins, over which butter muslin is stretched. Lay the leaves or sprigs a little way from each other. You can layer trays in an airing cupboard, as long as you know there won’t be any damp clothes put in, too, and by leaving a gap between each layer the air can move freely.

Laying herbs in bunches or hanging them in a very cool oven can be both successful and speedy. The temperature should be as low as possible; if necessary keep the door ajar. If you can’t get the temperature low leave the trays outside the oven with the door open, or hang herbs above the cooker. As soon as the herbs are ready, let them cool before storing.

Parsley is not an easy herb to dry, you have to be watchful with it, but is easy to freeze.

There are various schools of thought about the best way of coping with parsley, and it is by trial and error you arrive at the method that you like best. The secret is to keep colour and flavour successfully. There are those who maintain it

must be plunged into boiling water in which a pinch of bicarbonate of soda has been added before it is dried. Others prefer it absolutely dry, and yet others who insist on plunging it into boiling water for a few seconds to make sure no insects are lurking inside the foliage.

You can hang one or two bunches of parsley in a hot oven, 400°F, Mark 6, for up to one minute, then reduce heat to lowest possible setting and leave the oven door ajar until the parsley is brittle. If you do this make sure the parsley does not scorch.

Or you can hang it, or lay it on trays, in the oven at 225° F, Mark ¾, for about an hour and then leave it in a very cool oven until it is crisp.

Another way is to leave it on trays outside the oven with the temperature at 250°-275°F, Mark &-1, until it is ready.

All of these methods work.

Seeds have to be looked after, too. Cut the tops off the plants with the seed heads attached and lay them carefully on prepared trays, then cover with clean, dry pieces of linen or cotton and leave in a warm, airy room until the seeds loosen. Beat out the seeds with a stick and lay them to dry in an evenly warm spot where the temperature must not go above 70°F. Turn them over daily. When fully dry they can be stored.

If you want to retain the natural cream colour of chamomile flowers – which is delightful — pick them when they are dry and lay them in a warm place, on trays, and turn them daily to prevent them lumping together.

Candying is another way of preserving, and for this flowers are usually chosen, but perhaps angelica is one of the best known of all, and for this you use the young, tender stems. To crystallise your angelica takes about two weeks, but if you do some for gifts as well, you will be making charming as well as more unusual presents for your friends.

Choose stems that are bright in colour and cut into 3-inch long pieces. Immerse in a boiling brine ‘solution ½-oz salt to 4-pts. water); leave to soak for 10 minutes, drain and rinse in cold water. Pop back into fresh boiling water, simmer until

tender, 5—10 minutes. Remove, drain and scrape away outer skin.

Weigh the stems. For every pound allow 6-oz. sugar and ‘/4-pint water. Dissolve sugar in the water, bring to boiling point, pour over stems. If there isn’t sufficient syrup make more in the same way. Leave 24 hours. Drain syrup off, add 2-oz. more sugar to it, bring to boil, pour over stems, leave 24 hours. Repeat this process daily until the 8th day. On the 8th day add 3-oz. sugar and the stems to the syrup, boil for 3—4 minutes, return to bowl and leave 48 hours. On the 10th day repeat this process, by which time the syrup should be the consistency of honey when cold. Leave 4 days, Dry off in a cool oven, 100°F—120°F, or less than Mark ½ with the door ajar.

When it is cold, store the angelica between layers of waxed paper in a clean, air-tight container.

Before you get around to storing herbs you must make sure you have an adequate supply of containers. Small glass jars with tight-fitting lids or corks are ideal, and these must be spotlessly clean and dry.

If you intend to keep herbs on the sprig, (sage, thyme, rosemary are excellent for this and useful for making bunches of herbs, or for putting into vinegars or oils as decoration) you do need suitably-sized jars.

You do for bay too, if you want to keep that on the stalk and pick leaves off as required. Bay leaves have a tendency to curl up at the edges. Should you be fussy, you can lay them, once they are dry, under a board, for about 10 days, to flatten. Bay leaves can be stored crumbled, whole or crushed. Whole is probably more useful as you can always break off as much as you want at any one time.

Removing leaves from herb sprigs once they are brittle is very easy. So large or small leaves can be crumbled or crushed, whichever way you prefer. Crumbled preserves the flavour longer, crushed and then powdered is easier for quick seasonings. To powder, roll crumbled leaves with a rolling pin and then rub through a fine hair sieve. Jar immediately.

There is a measure of insurance attached to using glass jars. It is easy to see if moisture appears in them. Should this

happen, the contents could not have been dried sufficiently, so tip them out on to greaseproof paper or muslin and dry again.

Store the jars in a dark, cool place, or wrap dark blue paper round them, or use opaque jars. Label them clearly with the name of the herb and the date on which it was packed.

Dried herbs and seeds should be effective for up to one year. Some last better than others, though. Rosemary, sage, marjoram and basil, for instance, can be used for longer, whereas tarragon and lemon balm can begin to lose something of their flavouring after about nine months.

Seeds are best stored whole and crushed (or powdered) immediately before use.

There are various ways you can home-freeze herbs; to a certain extent it depends on how you want to use them. Whichever your method, wash, dry and freeze as quickly as possible.

One way is to snip chives with scissors, or chop mint, or borage or parsley, or whatever herb you want, lay it in ice cube trays, cover with cold water and freeze. Remove the cubes, wrap each one separately and bag or box together in herbs of one kind. Label clearly and date.

These cubes served in drinks, are often time-saving, apart from being decorative. You can add ice cubes straight into your sauces and casseroles.

Another way is to lay sprigs or leaves out on foil in the fast-freeze section and bag or box when frozen, making sure that all the air is expelled. Or, you can place the washed, dried herbs straight into containers, again making sure the air is all out, and freeze. Parsley frozen on the sprig crumbles immediately when rubbed in your fingers.

Frozen herbs will keep successfully for up to six months.

Thawed sprigs are not recommended for garnish. They can look rather limp and sorry for themselves.

Dried or frozen herbs are always worth preserving.

Cooking with Herbs

Growing your own herbs provides you with a splendid opportunity to be adventurous in your cooking. You can blend different flavours in stews and casseroles, create exciting sauces for fish, meat and pasta dishes, add interest to salads, to egg and cheese recipes, and make puddings and cakes, biscuits and breads that will be the envy of all your friends.

With herbs you can garnish and decorate to provide eye-appeal to your culinary creations and it is important that a dish looks as good as it tastes.

Certain herbs have become associated with different foods. Be guided, but not dominated, by this association. You have to experiment for yourself. Start with small quantities, as over-flavouring is unsatisfactory. A herb should complement and blend into a recipe, not be an overpowering element in it; and the amount that suits one person might not please another. So using ‘a pinch’, that is a quarter of a level teaspoonful, makes sense as a beginning.

You will also have to adjust the quantities according to whether you are using freshly picked, dried or frozen herbs, and realise that some are far more strongly flavoured than others.

Generally speaking, dried have a more concentrated flavour than fresh herbs, so use less; frozen ones don’t have quite such a pronounced taste as those taken straight from

the garden, so you might have to use more.

Parsley, mint, lemon thyme can be used without too much thought; chives too, if you like a slightly oniony touch.

Chervil, tarragon, thyme, bay leaves, savory, lovage, marjoram and hyssop have strong flavours and should be used sparingly.

Among well-known cookery terms that can bemuse inexperienced cooks are ‘a bunch of herbs’, ‘a bouquet garni’, ‘aux fines herbes’ and ‘mixed herbs’. These terms can also stifle your imagination and ingenuity if you believe they are unalterable.

A bunch of herbs is not really any different from a bouquet garni. You make a bunch of herbs when you tie small sprigs of herbs with cotton or string to the handle of the pan and allow them to cook with other ingredients. They can easily be removed before dishing up. The sprigs recommended are parsley and thyme and a bay leaf. A bouquet garni can be exactly the same, or it can be thyme, parsley and bay leaf put in a muslin bag with three or four peppercorns.

The important thing is that you can make your own mixtures; rosemary, savory, marjoram, chervil, basil are all very suitable. Make the most of whatever you have available.

When a recipe calls for ‘aux fines herbes’, and this is usually for an egg or salad dish or a sauce, it generally means equal quantities of finely chopped chervil, parsley, tarragon and chives. But ‘fines herbes’ can also be a combination of three or more perfumed herbs, so you can take your pick.

‘Mixed herbs’ generally refers to thyme, marjoram, parsley and savory.

Make the most of herbs for salads. The fresh foliage, finely chopped, can make an amazing difference and flowers of bergamot or borage add colour as well. You can also make excellent dressings that are your own, exclusive ‘blend’. For instance, add a handful of chopped mixed herbs, such as chives, tarragon, chervil or salad burnet, to a standard salad cream, mayonnaise or vinegar about 30 minutes before it is to be used. Add finely chopped, mixed herbs to soured cream or natural yogurt, seasoning to taste, on another occasion.

You can make your own seasonings for stews and soups and so on, by blending dried, powdered herbs.

A Victorian aromatic seasoning is: 3 oz. each basil, marjoram and thyme, 2 oz each winter savory and peppercorns, 1 oz each bay leaves, mace, nutmeg, cloves, ½ oz dried, grated lemon peel. Pound them all together, sieve finely and store. Adding 1 level teaspoon powdered garlic makes a stronger flavour still. Use in quantities as required.

A useful seasoning for egg and chicken recipes is: 1 level tablespoon each dried powdered summer savory, tarragon, chervil and basil.

Aromatic mixtures such as these are easy to make, so never attempt to store one for too long; the flavour can deteriorate. The use of sauces in cooking is invaluable. Here in Britain, we tend to be somewhat stereotyped with our use of herbs for them. Parsley sauce is perhaps the best known and very good it is too, especially with fish or broad beans. You get the best flavour from it if the parsley is chopped, (it must be dry, otherwise the sauce will become coloured) and added after the sauce is made. You can toss in as much as you like.

But chervil can be used as a change; indeed, chervil makes an easy substitute for parsley in any case.

Finely chopped fresh fennel leaves are another alternative to parsley. This sauce is delicious with fish.

When housewives were unable to rush down to the nearest supermarket they had to rely on flavourings that were easily available. As a result they used their garden ‘store cupboard’.

Here are some examples that are well worth trying. Put one or two bay leaves with milk to warm, not boil, and then allow to cool. Make rice, sago puddings with this milk. It js very good for custards, as well. Treat lemon verbena in a similar fashion for a baked custard.

Keep a bay leaf in a jar or tin with caster sugar. The sugar will add flavour to puddings and cakes.

To an apple pie recipe that includes cinnamon, add half a teaspoon crushed coriander seeds. Another tasty pie idea is to sprinkle a few dill seeds in with apple slices for a pie or tart.

Rhubarb is quite sharp, even when sweetened, but if you cook it with a few pieces of young, tender angelica stems

much of the tartness will disappear.

Try just a pinch of powdered coriander in a summer junket.

For cakes and breads and biscuits, add your own herb flavourings; for instance, sprinkle coriander or caraway seeds on top of a loaf or cake; add one teaspoon powdered rosemary to a standard biscuit mixture. Mix caraway seeds into a dough.

Indeed, making the most of herbs is almost an endless task. For example, add a little chopped chervil to batter when you are frying fish, or a pinch of dried thyme into the pancake mixture when they are for a savoury meal. Add a teaspoon of sage to the batter for a sausage toad-in-the-hole.

Plainly cooked white fish can be on the boring side, not though if you add fennel, lemon thyme and marjoram to the milk in which the fish is boiled. While on the subject of fish, tinned salmon or tuna, mixed with mayonnaise, sprinkled with dill seeds, served on cracker biscuits are easy canapes.

Lovage, which is quite powerfully flavoured, makes an ideal alternative for celery in soups and stews.

Bay is strongly flavoured, and to begin with only use ½ leaf per two people. Use it when boiling bacon for extra good flavour.

Now let us have a look at which herbs to use with

what.

Beef: Horseradish, basil, marjoram, thyme,

rosemary.

Pork and Bacon: Sage, basil, rosemary, chives, parsley, bay.

Lamb: Rosemary, garlic, summer savory, dill,

bay.

Veal: Thyme, sage, rosemary, lemon verbena,

lemon balm.

Stews: Bay, dill, garlic, horseradish, marjoram,

parsley, thyme, hyssop (use sparingly), lovage (sparingly), sage, rosemary, tarragon, chives, coriander seeds (and for curries).

Soups: Basil, (especially for tomato or turtle)

mint (especially for pea), parsley, thyme, bay, fennel (for fish). Nettles and sorrel make soups in their own right.

Poultry: Parsley, sage, summer savory, tarragon,

thyme, rosemary, fennel.

Fish: Fennel, sage, parsley, basil, chives,

chervil.

Eggs: Chives, tarragon, chervil, marjoram,

basil, parsley, salad burnet (especially for omelets).

Hard Cheeses: Basil, thyme, chervil, sage.

Soft Cheeses: Mint, dill, sage, basil, caraway, chives,

garlic, parsley.

Salads: Salad burnet, chives, borage, fennel,

tarragon, chervil, thyme, lemon balm, garlic, sage, angelica leaves, dill foliage.

Pasta: Basil, chervil, garlic, mint, parsley,

thyme.

Cabbage: Parsley, caraway, finely chopped bor-

age — added just before serving.

Peas: Summer savory, mint.

Carrots: Summer savory, mint, basil, parsley.

Potatoes: Mint, parsley, chives, garlic.

Spinach: Mint.

Beans: Summer savory, sage, parsley.

Tomatoes: Basil, marjoram, chives, parsley, lemon

balm.

Stuffings: Parsley, sage, thyme (lemon thyme good

with veal), chervil.

Sauces: Bay, dill (for fish), fennel (for fish),

garlic, mint, parsley, horseradish, chervil, angelica leaves (sweet sauce).

Teas and As you wish, (tarragon famous for

Vinegars: vinegar).

Breads, Cakes, Caraway, coriander, rosemary, basil.

Biscuits:

Desserts: Mint, lemon verbena, bay, caraway,

angelica, dill, tansy.

Jams and Jellies: Cold Drinks and Cups:

Garnishes:

Lemon verbena, mint, parsley.

Borage and flowers, mint, lemon balm,

rosemary, salad burnet, lovage, bergamot

and flowers.

Parsley, mint, thyme, rosemary, lemon

balm, basil, chervil, savory, borage

flowers, bergamot flowers, angelica,

chives.

It would be wrong to finish this chapter****************** without particular reference to nettles, sorrel and garlic.

The young leaves of nettle and sorrel can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable in the same way as spinach; both, too, can be used for soups. Gather nettles, tops only, in the spring when they are especially tasty — wear rubber gloves when you do!

Garlic, which can be used in all savoury dishes and for salads has a strong taste and powerful aroma. It is best to ask if guests like it, or use very carefully; too much can be off-putting.

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