As summer comes to a close, many herb gardens are still full of fresh thyme, rosemary, basil, and more. This year, don’t let your beautiful bounty go to waste when that first frost wilts them. Use these three herb-saving hacks to preserve your home-grown (or store-bought) herbs and enjoy their flavors all fall and winter long.
Herb and Olive Oil Ice Cubes
Pick your herbs of choice and chop them into management sizes for your ice cube tray. You can combine herbs if you would like, or separate them out. In each ice cube section, fill with your chopped herbs about three-fourths of the way. Pour olive oil over your herbs until they are just barely covered. Freeze overnight or until solid. Remove your olive oil cubes and store them in a labeled freeze bag for later. You can keep frozen herb ice cubes for up to six months. When you are ready to use them, simply heat the olive oil ice cubes up in a pan on the stove before cooking up a flavorful meal.
The best herbs for freezing in olive oil include rosemary, thyme, sage, chives, mint, oregano, and dill. Thin-leafed herbs such as basil, cilantro, and parsley can get soggy and somewhat slimy during the freezing and reheating process. While their flavor is still good, keep this in mind when thinking about what to do with these.
Homemade Dried Herbs
There are a few different methods for drying herbs at home. Depending on how quickly you want to dry them or what space you have available, you can either air dry them, dry them in the oven, or dry them in the microwave.
To oven-dry herbs, set your oven to its lowest setting, ideally below 180ºF. Remove the leaves of the herbs you want to dry from their stems. Place the leaves on a cookie sheet that is one-inch deep or less. Place in the oven and cook on low for at least two hours and up to four hours, depending on the heat of your oven and how much moisture is in the herbs. To see if the herbs are finished drying, gently touch them and see if they crumble or break. Oven-dried herbs cook a little, which removes some of their flavor, so you may need to use more of them when you cook. Store dried herbs in air-tight containers for up to six months.
When it comes to microwave-drying herbs, remove the leaves of the herbs from their stems. Place the leaves in a folded paper towel on a microwave-safe plate and microwave at 30-second increments for about two minutes (times may vary depending on your microwave). Check between each 30 seconds to make sure the leaves haven’t burned. The herbs will not be completely dry with this method and should be used within a month. Let the herbs cool and transfer to air-tight containers.
To air-dry your herbs, gather several stems together and secure them with a piece of string or a thin rubber band. The smaller the bubbles, the quicker they will dry. Hang the bundles upside down in a dry, dark place such as a well-ventilated attic or basement. It will take a few weeks for your herbs to dry. To check if they are finished drying, feel the leaves and stems to see if they are brittle. Once they are fully dried, you can start cooking with them or store them in air-tight jars or bags. Use air-dried herbs within six months.
Another way to save herbs such as basil without freezing them into a block of olive oil is to create condiments with them. This includes herb pastes, pestos, and compound butters. These condiments can also be frozen but have different uses depending on what you make.
There are many recipes for herb pastes. The simplest way to make them is to take a cup of herbs and a tablespoon of olive oil and blend them together in a food processor or blender. You can use any combination of herbs or stick with just one. Once well combined, you can freeze in ice cube trays and add to a ziplock bag or freeze in small jars until you are ready to use it. Freeze herb pastes for up to six months. These typically use less olive oil overall and are good for adding to pasta sauces and soups.
Similarly, pesto comes in all shapes and sizes. Find your favorite pesto recipe, blend it up, and freeze it! You can freeze pesto in ice cube trays and add to a ziplock bag or freeze in small jars until you are ready to use it. It is recommended to freeze pesto without the cheese, so keep that in mind when you are making your favorite recipe. You can always add the cheese later once the pesto has thawed. Pesto without cheese can be frozen for up to six months.
Making homemade compound butter is surprisingly simple. Simply mix together one stick of room-temperature butter and half a cup of chopped herbs until well combined. Shape into a ball or log and wrap with plastic wrap. After wrapping the butter up with plastic, wrap again with tin foil before freezing. This prevents the butter from taking on any unwanted flavors from the freezer. The butter should be used within three months.