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Those of us who grow herbs in containers or in the garden hate to see our fresh supply of parsley, chives, basil and other flavorful delights freeze out or go dormant. If your container herb garden is used only for the season, you can harvest your annual and perennial herbs until frost. If your herbs are planted in the garden, harvest the annual herbs until frost but leave the perennial herbs alone at this time to let them harden off into winter.
At the end of the season, container herb plants are usually too large to move into the house for winter and the light is often too low for them thrive indoors. Instead, harvest your container herbs or the annual ones from the garden and preserve them for use in wonderful soups, stews and hearty dishes prepared fall and winter. Here are some methods to preserve herbs.
Freezing. Rinse the herbs quickly in cold water, dry, and coarsely chop. Place a generous pinch of herbs like parsley or basil in water-filled ice cube trays and then freeze. Once the herb cubes are frozen, take them out of the trays and place them in marked plastic freezer bags or containers. All you have to do is throw a cube of parsley into your stew – or a cube of basil into your marinara sauce to add a touch of summer. Another way to freeze herbs is to spread them loosely onto a cookie sheet in a chest freezer, and put them in a plastic bag or container once frozen.
Air drying. Pick herb stems and rinse and dry if needed. Remove any damaged foliage and spread the herbs out on paper towels to remove excess moisture. Arrange stems in small bunches and tie them with twine or rubber bands to hang upside down in a warm, airy and dry place out of direct sun. If dust is an issue, place bunches in open ended paper bags or paper horns before hanging. Make sure that there is good air circulation around the herbs. Closets, attics or other nooks in the kitchen or pantry are ideal. Sage, thyme, summer savory, dill, and parsley are easy to dry. You can also spread herbs out on screens that are suspended above the ground. The leaves on the screens should be turned at intervals.
Drying in ovens and food dehydrators. Drying herbs in a microwave drying is great for small amounts. Lay a single layer of clean, dry leaves between dry paper towels and place them in the microwave for 1 to 2 minutes on high power. When the leaves cool, if they are not yet done, zap them again in 30-second intervals. Herbs with thicker leaves may need to be air dried for several days before microwaving. If you dry herbs in a conventional oven, spread them out evenly on cookie sheets and heat at the lowest conventional temperature. Cool and store. A food dehydrator can also be used. Follow the directions for the specific dehydrator or dry at the lowest setting and check at intervals for dryness.
When air- or oven-dried herbs are done, they will be brittle and crumble easily. Store dry leaves in labeled glass or plastic containers with tight lids or zip-lock plastic bags. Store the containers in a cool, dry place away from sunlight, moisture, and heat.
Salt method. An old Italian method of preserving basil is to pack the leaves down in a wide mouthed crock with salt between layers of leaves. When you want to use the leaves, shake off the salt and use the basil as if it were picked fresh.
So stay snug and warm this fall and winter enjoying hearty home-made soups and stews enhanced with herbs from your garden! Direct comments or questions concerning this column to Marilyn Odneal via email at MarilynOdneal@missouristate.edu; write to Missouri State Fruit Experiment Station, 9740 Red Spring Road, Mountain Grove, Mo. 65711; or call (417) 547-7500. Visit our Web site at http://mtngrv.missouristate.edu.