There are many reasons I love the arrival of spring. One of the biggest is the return of my backyard herbs. That’s about the greenest my green thumb gets, especially when a bunch of them – the rosemary, thyme, oregano and mint – reliably grow back every year. Soon enough, I’ll be inundated with herbs and scrambling to keep up and keep them fresh.
Whether you have your own array of backyard or windowsill herbs, or you rely on the grocery store variety to add freshness and flavor to your cooking, these tips will come in handy.
Remove the stems easily. I find the harder the stem, the simpler it is to strip its leaves. For herbs such as thyme, rosemary and oregano, all you need to do is hold the top end of the stem with one hand and use the thumb and index finger of your other hand to move along the stem and pull. You can individually pinch off the larger leaves of herbs such as mint and basil; the smaller stems at the tip of the leaf are typically tender enough to eat, but I wouldn’t recommend eating the thicker stems off which the leaves sprout. Tender cilantro stems, however, are flavorful and edible.
Do some DIY drying. Dry herbs at home by tying them together in small bunches with twine or string and hanging them in a dry spot with good air circulation. You want to check them daily, according to “Cooking With Herbs” by Susan Belsinger and Carolyn Dille, and you’ll know when they’re ready if they crackle and crumble when rubbed between your fingers. You can extract further moisture by drying them on a baking sheet in a 200-degree oven for 3 to 5 minutes. Then you can store them – off the stem but still as whole leaves – in a clean jar with a tight-fitting lid.
Make an infused oil. A flavored olive oil is a fun way to use your herbs and add a little flair to your dish. Adding moist components to the oil increases the risk of botulism (this is especially true of garlic). You can find instructions out there on how to treat herbs with citric acid to prevent botulism, but if you are sure to clean and dry your herbs and store the oil in a clean glass jar (bonus if you boil that jar for 10 minutes to sterilize), you should be all right. Heat some oil and herbs together over low to medium heat for a few minutes, then let the oil cool. Discard the herbs and use the flavored oil right away, or cover and refrigerate it for a few days – no longer than a week.
Don’t let them wilt in the fridge. I have had the best luck keeping herbs - especially cilantro – fresh in the refrigerator by wrapping them loosely in a barely damp paper towel and then putting the bundle in a plastic bag, ideally zip-top, but I’ve also gotten away with grocery store produce bags, especially when I do a good job of keeping them closed. You can also give them the flower treatment and place the stems in a glass or jar with an inch or so of water. Cover the bunch with a plastic bag (produce bags from the grocery store are good for this, too) and keep it in place with a rubber band. “The New Food Lover’s Companion” says this method can keep herbs fresh up to 10 days, as opposed to five for the paper-towel-and-bag strategy.
Freeze them the right way. Stashing your fresh herbs in the freezer isn’t ideal; depending on the variety, their leaves may break down and turn dark and mushy. When faced with a bounty you’d like to save for later, consider making a paste. Here’s a simple recipe – herbs and oil in a food processor, then frozen in small amounts – to get you started. The mix stays soft enough that you can break off chunks as you need them, or you can freeze portions in a silicone ice cube tray that you can then pop out and stash in a freezer-safe bag.
Substitute with care. If you don’t have fresh herbs on hand, you can sometimes get away with using dried. Dried herbs are more potent and concentrated than fresh, though, so if you are using dried, only add a third of the amount originally called for (i.e., a teaspoon instead of a tablespoon).