Foodie Friday: How to Preserve Herbs

There are three basic ways to preserve (most) herbs. Dry them, put them in vinegar or freeze them. My favorite, by far, is freezing.

This is primarily because freezing is so much easier and neater than drying, and lasts longer and is more useful than vinegar.  I’ve tried three ways of freezing herbs: freezing in olive oil, freezing in water and freezing in Ziploc freezer bags.

Let’s be honest, no preservation method is as good as fresh. On thawing, frozen herbs are soft. Don’t be expecting to be able to use them as a pretty garnish. But taste-wise? Pretty great!

PREP:

No matter what method you use, the majority of the work is in the prep. Herbs have to be cleaned, dried, but most of all de-stemmed (unless you want whole springs for stocks or bouquet garni). De-stemming is no joke. Here’s the thyme I picked to freeze:

And here is some completely de-stemmed, some saved in sprigs, and the stem discards:

Yeah, that work up there took about two hours. Suddenly those little plastic containers from the grocery store are sounding better to you, huh? I’ve been on a mission to avoid as much waste as possible in our garden this year and keep us as self-sustainable as possible, so to me it’s worth it. At least the sage and especially the tarragon I did went much quicker, just because they’re easier to de-stem.

FYI, I don’t like to chop before freezing because based on my own taste tests I think that any crushing or cutting prior to freezing decreases the taste on thaw.

FREEZING IN LIQUID:

For the water and oil methods, you put cleaned herbs in an ice cube tray, cover with your given liquid, freeze and then once frozen pop the cubes into a freezer bag so they don’t take up as much space and are sealed in.

Using liquids to freeze herbs is not my favorite. I tried each of oil and water with thyme last year, and on thawing I ended up with a lot of liquid and not that much herb. Water seemed to rob the thyme I used of its flavor. Oil maintained the flavor but meant that for every teaspoon of cleaned thyme I got at least a tablespoon of oil, which is not always necessary or desirable depending on the recipe being used. It was also messy to be handling a frozen oil cube.

SIMPLE DRY FREEZE METHOD:

As is so often true, the simplest method turned out to be the best – by freezing the herbs right in bags I was able to grab a sprig or a pinch whenever I wanted, then immediately pop the rest back in the freezer for future use.

To freeze without liquid put cleaned herbs, patted dry with a paper towel or dried using a salad spinner, straight into a freezer bag, roll to remove as much air as possible and freeze.

It is important to get as much air as possible out of your Ziploc bags before your initial freeze. To do this, spread the herbs as flat as possible in the bag, seal it 95% of the way, then roll it up from the bottom. Excess air escapes out the open portion and once it’s all rolled up you can seal the rest. Here’s some of it ready to freeze in bags:

Last year I also tried keeping all the herbs in the bottom of the bag before rolling it up and freezing. This left me with a little ‘log’ of herbs that I could pop out of the bag, chop off a portion of, and then put right back in the freezer. It worked pretty well, especially for thyme since I didn’t de-stem it all that well, so it needed lots of chopping anyway.

MAKING INFUSED VINEGARS:

This year I did make some infused tarragon vinegar – just because I had an insane amount of tarragon. What I do is fill a mason jar with water and microwave it (metal lid off, of course) until the water is boiling to do a basic sanitization. I dump the water and put in the herb sprigs (I put in probably ten 5” sprigs). Then I heat up vinegar (champagne vinegar is ideal) until it’s simmering, and pour it over the herbs until they’re completely covered, and seal up the top.

A couple things I don’t like about this. First, I’m not sure how sanitary and safe it actually is – so BE WARNED. Second, I just don’t end up using all that much vinegar, so an entire jar (even a smallish one) seems excessive and wasteful. Third, my vinegar is never as good as the infused vinegar in the store, which is almost the same price as the vinegar I use to make my infused vinegar. So basically, if I have some big need for infused vinegar (which I generally don’t) I can buy it, and preserve my herbs instead in a way I’ll actually use.

WHAT HERBS CAN YOU FREEZE?

So, what herbs can you freeze? Basically, if it’s an herb you associate with wintery, savory dishes you can freeze it. Thyme, parsley, rosemary, sage and bay leaves are all great candidates.

You can also freeze delicate herbs like mint and basil, but I just don’t think they preserve their taste as well. Freezing individual leaves on a baking sheet and then putting in a bag is the way to do it for these more delicate herbs, but at that point the effort required for the sad, soft result on thaw just isn’t worth it to me. Plus, most of the time I want to use basil or mint as a springy green accent in a salad or as garnish, which doesn’t work once they’ve been frozen.

This year I’m also trying to freeze tarragon. We’ll see how it goes! It’s kind of in-between the delicate and the tough.

MY PROCESS:

I went a little crazy with freezing herbs this year. This is because we have SO much tarragon, rosemary, thyme and especially sage. Check out these buckets – one is full of tarragon, one is full of sage. These are five gallon (food-grade) buckets to give you an idea:

Here is the tarragon and sage before clipping:

And here it is after:

I mean, the photos are terrible due to the crazy intense sunlight, but you can hardly tell the sage has been touched, it’s that much of a monster.

I’ll be freezing lots more garden items to use over the winter. I’ve already got about 25 frozen Serrano and cayenne peppers, and two pounds of grapes. I’m planning to use the grapes in a Christmas roast. I haven’t harvested the rosemary or the bay leaves yet because they will thrive even in cold months. Lord help us, I may even freeze some kale to use in stews. So tired of you, kale!

Anything you guys have had good success in freezing from the garden?

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