Photo by Ryan Liebe
After spending more than two years working on a farm, chef, cooking instructor and consultant Megan Huylo shares her expertise on growing, storing and drying herbs so you can make the most of your indoor (and outdoor!) garden.
Related: How to Start a Vegetable Garden
Hardy vs Tender Herbs
When it comes to herbs, there are two different types to consider: hardy and tender, according to Dr. Stuart Farrimond’s The Science of Cooking. Hardy herbs include rosemary, sage and thyme, which are typically stirred in at the beginning of recipes, while tender herbs include parsley, cilantro and basil, which are stirred in at the end. Hardy herbs stand up to heat--and the tough climates they grown in. Their flavors deepen as they heat up, become tender and release oils. Tender herbs, on the other hand are very delicate. They shine best when they’re meddled with the least. We like tearing them by hand just before using or roughly chopping them with a very sharp knife.
Both hardy and tender herbs benefit from fats like oil and butter that help transport their flavor and acids like lemon, lime and vinegar that brighten them.
Also see: How to Plant a Container Garden
Promoting Herb Growth
Both types of herbs may be grown inside. Hardy ones are easier to maintain, while the tender ones need a little more TLC. They require being trimmed more often so they don’t seed and go to flower, which ultimately causes them to stop growing. Huylo recommends trimming them by simply pinching off the top clusters as needed or as required for cooking. This helps the plant conserve its energy so it can grow outward, instead of upward, resulting in more leaves.
Hardy herbs require less maintenance because they typically take longer to seed and flower. Huylo recommends trimming them as you would a bush, simply trying to keep them in shape. Their leaves can be snipped from the bottom or top.
Storing Fresh Herbs
Another way hardy and tender herbs differ is how well they hold up when picked. Hardy herbs last longer than tender herbs. They store best unwashed in a plastic bag. Tender herbs benefit from being washed, wrapped in a damp paper towel and then placed in a plastic bag. Huylo likes storing them in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel loosely placed inside. She also says that leaving the bag partially open helps promote air circulation, which ultimately helps keeps them crisp and lively. Change the paper towel every few days to extend their shelf life even longer.
Tender herbs also store very well in a cup of water on the counter. Just don’t keep them in fridge this way; it’ll cause their leaves to brown.
Freezing Fresh Herbs
All herbs may also be stored for much longer by chopping them and adding them to ice cube trays filled with oil. The hardy ones can be heated in a pan and the fresh ones can be thawed to make a richly flavored dressing. The frozen cubes are great in a pinch and also a way to use up that bunch of parsley that otherwise might die a slow death in your crisper.
Huylo also recommends freezing chopped mint leaves in water. They’re a perfect way to refresh your water, juice or even iced tea.
Recipe Ideas for Fresh Herbs
We love using our extra herbs to whip up a pesto or salsa verde to keep in our fridge. They both generally last for up to a week and a half, and can jazz up anything you cook from a piece of meat to veggies, pasta and rice.
Juicing herbs is another option, says Huylo. They’re full of nutrients, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Huylo also blends mint and basil into her smoothies all the time in the summer. (She also makes a great ten-herb salad that we can’t get enough of. Get the recipe here.)
Drying herbs is also a good way to store an abundance. Hardy herbs pack more punch when dried than tender herbs do because their leaves trap moisture better. To dry herbs, wash them and spread them out on a paper-towel lined baking sheet. Once there is not one droplet of moisture on them, tie them in small bundles. You can use butcher’s twine, a rubber band, whatever! Then, hang them upside down in a very warm and dry place for one to three weeks, depending on the temperature and humidity of where you are.
“You’ll know they’re fully dry when you take a couple of leaves and run them through your fingers and they crumble to dust,” says Huylo.
Drying herbs in an oven at the lowest heat for two to three hours is also an option, but some of the oils will cook off. Using a dehydrator is a better option since the temperature can be set much lower. Suggested temps usually range between 95F and 115F, but refer to your instruction booklet since all dehydrators vary.
Dried herbs can last for years, but Huylo recommends using them within three to six months for the most robust flavor.
“The essential oils in it eventually dissipate and the flavors just aren’t as potent and strong,” she says. “They won’t go bad sitting in your cupboard for a year, as long as it’s dry, but you just won’t get the quality of flavor.”