Thursday, 7 November 2013

Hanging on to herbs

Even the most well-stocked herb garden will be looking a little thin by this time of year. Well-established rosemary bushes, bay trees, and sage plants will have fresh leaves all year round, but mint will die down completely, marjoram will be looking rather woody by now, and parsley and oregano will be distinctly straggly.
Most herbs can be preserved for use when fresh leaves aren't available. These days we tend to think of dried herbs as an inferior substitute and it's true that some herbs keep better than others, but it's also the case that your properly dried herbs will be far superior to a jar of dusty leaves that has been hanging out at the back of the mini-mart for months, if not years.
Some herbs dry better than others: oregano, tarragon, and bay leaves all dry well and can be used in a variety of ways. Don't even try to dry basil leaves, and there are better ways to preserve parsley.
You should pick your herbs for drying with care. Find long branches with plenty of healthy leaves on them. Remove any brown or damaged leaves and check over for insects and mites. Wash and dry if necessary. Tie the stems together and wrap loosely in muslin or put them in large paper bag. Close the bag around the bottom of the stems and punch some air holes at the top of the bag.
Find somewhere warm, and well-ventilated without being draughty, where you can hang your herbs up. If you can’t hang them up, then lay them out singly with space around each stem on a tray 
Under the rafters in the loft, an airing cupboard, or a cupboard under the stairs are both good. I dry most things over the cooker hood 
Leave the herbs until completely dry, then transfer to a jar. Try not to break up the leaves – they will retina their flavour better if you crumble them just before you use them.  
Seal tightly and store in a cool, dark, cupboard. Try to use them within three months to get the best of their flavour.

Freezing herbs
What about those herbs that don't dry well? Parsley and basil are both reasonably good after freezing. You can freeze whole leaves in a bag, or in ice cube trays. In both cases, I'd say they are best used stirred into dishes such as casseroles, rather than in salads or as a garnish.
To freeze in a bag, pick out your best leaves or sprigs and lay them out in a single layer, not touching, on a tray. Place in the freezer and leave until frozen. Then transfer to a freezer bag and seal. 
To freeze in an ice cube, chop the herb finely, then squish into ice cube trays. Carefully fill the tray until the herbs are just covered. Freeze, then remove from the freezer and top up each cube with water – that way the chopped leaves won't all float up to the top of the cube and be exposed to the air. 
Once completely frozen, push the cubes out of the trays, transfer to a bag and replace in the freezer. 
Frozen herbs - by either method - should be used within three months. 

Herb vinegars
Thyme vinegar, left, and tarragon vinegar, steeping. The
vinegar will be strained and decanted before being
stored and used.
Herb vinegars make beautifully flavoured salad dressings. Tarragon vinegar is probably my favourite but rosemary or thyme vinegars are also intensely fragrant and will give your gravy a lovely sharp herby finish.
Again, pick leafy stems in prime condition. Bruise the leaves slightly, either by running the rolling pin over them or with a pestle. Put the herbs in a sterilised jar, cover with a plain vinegar (I usually use white wine vinegar, sometimes cider vinegar) and leave somewhere warm for 2-3 weeks, giving it a good shake every now and then. 
Strain the vinegar through a fine sieve or muslin into another sterilised bottle. Seal and use when required.  

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