The Alchemical Kitchen: Save the Flavor
Preserving culinary herbs.
by Rebecca Brenner
As I harvest and dry the last of this season’s herbs, I am reminded of everything the Alchemical Kitchen aspires to be. The process of growing, harvesting and preserving my own herbs is a microcosm of my desires to be more self-sufficient, connected to the earth, in tune with the rhythms of the seasons and aware of the fluctuating natural cycles.
I make small bundles of lavender and rosemary to hang in dark closets. I stack small screens with spacers to allow basil and sage leaves to dry evenly. Tarragon and thyme go straight into freezer bags, dated and labeled. I wash dill and fennel seeds, let them dry, and store them in vintage glass jars—all to be simmered into soups, baked into dough, and sautéed into stir-fry through out the winter.
Even as this season’s herbs dry, I decide to start a small, indoor kitchen herb garden. Just a few culinary herbs—oregano, basil, parsley —to be enjoyed fresh throughout the colder months. Such a small process of self-sufficiency, me and my herbs. As new herbs begin to sprout inside the kitchen window, I refocus on drying and storing.
I remind myself that this microcosm of ideals also connects me to a lineage much larger than my own life—a lineage of culinary herbalists over many centuries, throughout every culture. I think of early settlers, with kitchen gardens right outside their back doors, harvesting herbs for meals and medicine. As I catch sight of my herbs drying high in the kitchen rafters, I wonder how they may have dried and stored theirs.
I stop to make lunch. Sprinkling my own dried dill into pasta salad, I think of Roman heroes who were crowned with fresh sprigs of dill. The last of fresh mint leaves in my glass of water remind me of sailors in the Middle Ages who used mint to freshen their stored water on long voyages. Steeping dried mint and lavender into a hot tea after lunch, I am reminded that an herb’s history connects me to other people and places. My food choices are not separate from the past, present or future.
My husband Allan warns me not to get lost in romantic correlations. I assure him I’m not. It’s more about being connected, in relationship even, with nature, history, lineage and story. Maybe my microcosm can become a bridge from individual food choices to community activism to positive change. My jars of dried herbs and small kitchen herb garden are not just about soups and casseroles, they are a vehicle for awareness and understanding.
Each herb has a specific time of day, moisture content and maturity that is best for harvesting. Make sure to research which specific technique is most appropriate for each herb. You will find most culinary herbs want to be harvested mid-morning, after dew has begun to dry and the sun is not fully out. Most mentioned here are best harvested just before they bloom.
Air drying or using heat are the most common methods for drying your herbs. One popular way is to bundle a few stems together and hang upside down in a warm, dark cupboard. If you do not have extra cupboard space, hang upside down in a small paper bag, cinching top of bag and stems together. Most herbs take two to four weeks to dry completely. You can also dry leaves on small screens in a warm, dark space.
To quickly dry herbs, separate on cookie sheet and place in a pre-heated oven of 180 degrees F. With the door ajar, allow to dry for three to four hours.
Strip completely dried leaves from stems and pour into small glass jars with tight-fitting lids.
Tarragon and thyme are hardier than many other herbs and can be frozen as is—simply wash, pat dry, place in freezer bags and label. You can also chop most of the herbs listed below and freeze into individual ice cubes with water. Once solid, release cubes and place in freezer bag, clearly dating and labeling.
Anise: Harvest seeds when they turn brown. Remove, wash and air-dry completely (three to five days).
Basil: Harvest just before flowers bloom. For more even results, remove individual leaves and dry on small screen.
Caraway: Harvest the blooms and shake out seeds as they dry. Wash the seeds and air-dry completely.
Chives: Harvest mid-morning, cutting just below the soil with a sharp knife. (This allows the plant to continue to flourish throughout the season.) Add about a teaspoon of chopped chives to each section of an ice cube tray. Cover with water and freeze overnight. Remove cubes to a freezer bag, dated and labeled.
Coriander: Harvest flowering heads and air-dry on screen. Shake out seeds, wash and air-dry completely.
Dill: Harvest seeds from flowering plant when they are completely brown. Wash and air-dry completely.
Fennel: Harvest in the fall when seeds are ripe and beginning to split. Cut off the small brown hair (the umbel) on each seed. Wash and allow to air-dry completely.
Lavender: Harvest flower stalks just as the flowers are ready to bloom. Tie six to eight stems together and hang upside down in a warm, dry place for one to three weeks. Remove and store flowers; discard the stems.
Oregano: Harvest any time before flowering. Tie six to eight stems together and hang upside down in a warm, dry place for three to five weeks. Remove and store leaves; discard the stems.
Rosemary: Harvest leaves before the plant flowers. Tie six to eight stems together and hang upside down in a warm, dry place for three to five weeks. Remove and store leaves; discard the stems.
Sage: Harvest before flowering. Place leaves on screens, making sure none overlap. Allow to dry in a warm, dark place for two to three weeks.
Tarragon: Harvest throughout the summer and freeze extra.
Thyme: Harvest flowering plant. Tie six to eight stems together and hang upside down in a warm, dry place for three to five weeks. Remove and store leaves; discard the stems. You can also freeze extra thyme throughout the season.
Rebecca Brenner, Ph.D., is a nutritionist and owner of Park City Holistic Health. For more healthy DIY recipes visit her at www.parkcityholistichealth.com and www.playfulnoshings.blogspot.com.