May 27, 2011

Preserving Herbs

It may still be cold outside, but I'm already harvesting herbs. Having fresh herbs available for cooking is refreshing, and I don't hesitate to chop away at them. In fact, herbs grow more abundantly if you cut them frequently. This means I typically have much more than I can cook with at any given time. No matter; with a little planning, it's possible to have plenty of herbs for the winter months that will be here sooner than I wish. Here's how.

Herbs freeze well. Typically, I pinch off the leaves and place them directly in a freezer bag. If I'm in a rush, I sometimes put whole stems in the bags, but this can lead to a stringy texture in the finished meal. (If you do freeze whole stems, cut them up as soon as you remove them from the freezer; otherwise, they'll be mushy and difficult to cut.) Be sure to label those herb bags; once frozen, it's difficult to tell one type of herb from another.

For soups, stews, and sauces, you can also chop herbs and place them in an ice cube tray. Add a little water, and freeze just like an ice cube. Once the cubes are hard, remove them from the tray and pop them all together in a freezer bag. When cooking, just remove one or two cubes.

The old school way to dry herbs is to tie them into bundles and hang them upside down in a dark, dry location like a closet. But if you're like me, it's tough to find a good place to do this...or you forget about the herbs until you find a crumbled mess in the corner of the closet. If you choose this method, be sure to remove the herbs once they are fully dry and store them in an air tight container.

A better method, to my way of thinking, uses a food dehydrator. The dehydrator should have a temperature dial; set it to about 95 degrees F. Keep the stems intact and you typically won't need a solid plastic tray under them, which slows down the drying process. When the herbs are completely dry, store them in an air tight container (like a Mason jar). For the best flavor, don't crumble or crush the herb until you're ready to cook.

Perhaps the best way to use fresh herbs is to cut them just before cooking. If you try to store them in the refrigerator, not only do they loose flavor and nutrients, but they tend to go bad quickly.

Substituting Dry Vs. Fresh Herbs
If a recipe calls for fresh herbs, you can use dried...and vice versa. But you will have to change the quantity used because dried herbs are more concentrated than fresh. Generally speaking, 1 teaspoon of dried herbs is the equivalent of 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs.

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