Herbs are amazing. I love using both fresh and dry herbs in everything I make. There are some staples that I go back to consistently and sometimes every night, other I save for specific uses. Some are better fresh, other can be even better dried. This is just the start to a lot of information I want to get into about herbs. Using them, storing them, even growing them! I'll get to everything eventually but for now I want to focus on the first part: storage and preserving.
With due time I will talk in depth about herbs but in the moment of fresh herbs in your hands you need to know how to keep them healthy for a while in a kitchen and how to save them for later use if you don't use them fast enough. Whether you bought them at the store or farmer's market, or grew them in a window, what do you do with fresh herbs?
Storing Fresh Herbs
There are various ways to keep herbs fresh in a kitchen. Part of it also depends on how they are purchased. Sometimes it's fresh cut, others may still have roots. Knowing how each needs different care will allow you to keep you herbs for a long time before you need to use them.
Loose Fresh Cut Herbs:
Fresh cut herbs are what you will most likely will see in a lot of produce sections beside packaged (which I will get to). Fresh cut may be bound with a wire tie to keep many stems together. Many times referred to as a bunch for quantity. These herbs are a little more delicate and need to be taken care of to survive storage if you want to maintain freshness. There are two main ways to keep these herbs fresh.
First you can use a jar and a bag. Place the herbs stem side down into a jar with an inch or so of filtered water. You want to stems to be submerged but not super deep, just barely covered. Cover the herbs and jar with plastic bag or bee wax bag. This will create a nice humid environment. Keep the herbs on the top shelf of the fridge. Change the water every few days. The herbs tend to keep about a week like this but the water is a task to monitor and there can be a sliminess that develops. I prefer method two.
Second you can wash the herbs, wrap in a dry paper towel, use multiple depending how many herbs you have. Place into a bag and leave the bag open in the vegetable drawer. The paper towels need to be slightly damp after absorbing some of the water from thee herbs. This allows the herbs to be in a more humid environment without direct water resting on the herbs which will cause the sliminess. This method I find lasts two weeks and sometimes longer for hardier herbs. The cold temp slows growth but the environment is similar to what they need to live. They get into a nice area of not dying but preserving as fresh. Make sure there is some moisture in the bag at all times. If you use the herbs and the paper towel is dry, damped part or spray water in the bag to create the humidity they need.
Cut Herbs in Hard Packaging:
These herbs are the second most common I see. They come in a hard plastic container that keep the herbs from being crushed and in a small green house like environment. I place these herbs in the vegetable drawer directly. Don't remove them unless to use. They have a nice secure green house to live in and they thrive in it. I have no issue with these lasting one to two weeks before I need to do something with them. Hardier herbs can last even longer. I've had thyme in one for three weeks before seeing any wilting and even got some small flowers on some stems that I used for garnishes!
Herbs with Roots:
These are those cute herbs that you can plant and keep going. As someone who has a lot of plant experience I never have great success when potting these. I will keep them on the counter in a mason with some water in the bottom. Pretty much growing them hydroponically. They will sometimes grow more if they get enough light in the kitchen. By the window is best. But they won't typically wilt or have many issues. Make sure to change the water and container every few days to prevent algae growth.
If you want to attempt planting the herbs I suggest do them as soon as you get them. That way they are strongest and ready for a move. Make sure to gently loosen the roots before potting. Plant in well-draining soil. Most herbs like a lot of light so make sure they get sun through most of the day. South facing windows work best if they are not covered by buildings or trees. Water a lot when it's warm. Don't let the top of the soil stay dry for multiple days, especially softer herbs like basil.
Drying Fresh Herbs
There are two main ways I've attempted drying herbs. I don't have a dehydrator at this point. I want one. If I had one, I would just use that because that's literally what it's for. If you do have one stick with a lower temp (~120°F). But until we all invest in using that in the everyday kitchen we can cheat the system and do a little trick.
Drying in the Oven
So rather than having a dehydrator, what if you use an oven to imitate one? This is probably the most common way I see people attempt to dry herbs. It can be difficult and it also depends on your oven. There can be a lot of factors into exactly how beneficial it can be to use your oven so let's look into each.
Oven drying requires low heat (~120°F) and dry air. First off you need to keep a low temp in your oven or mess with the temp a lot. I have a digital oven that allows me to go as low as 175°F, this can be super helpful with how low I need it to be. I have had some past ovens that are dial, the few I've come across went only to 225°F or 250°F. This can be a little high for drying and can damage the flavors of the herbs. If you have a high temp oven you will have to periodically turn on and off the oven while drying to keep the temp low. Sometimes I still do this with my oven, it mostly depends on the herb to be dried.
A big factor for how good you results will be using the oven is the way your oven heats. Gas or electric? Gas ovens are super dry, it's literally using fire to heat and that creates a lot drier air. Electric ovens can retain moisture a little more. The heating coils do dry the air but at a much slower rate than a gas oven. You may need a slightly higher heat for an electric oven and a lower heat for a gas oven.
When ready to dry, lay the herbs in a single layer on sheet pans. Turn on oven to lowest setting. If you can go to a low temp (150-175°F) place the herbs in the oven once the temp is reached and turn it off. Leave them in the oven and repeat the process every few hours until dried.
High temp ovens can't be fully heated. Place the herbs in the oven and turn it on. Use a wooden spoon or something to crack the oven slightly to allow air flow. After 5 minutes of heating turn the oven off and allow to cool as is. Repeat this once an hour until dried. This will take more time to watch and take care of but that's what you will have to deal with.
Either way your oven heats you will need to crack the door if you have electric. The moisture needs to leave to let it escape through the door. You may need to reheat the oven often since the door is open but it will go faster than keeping it shut.
Drying Open Air
Instead of trying to imitate a dehydrator with a home oven and risking burning or ruining the herbs, you can always go old school. Lay the herbs out and let them dry. This process can take some time and is harder on some herbs than others. Soft herbs like basil do better in an oven to quickly dry and save the flavors. Hardier herbs like thyme and rosemary can more easily be dried on the counter.
You want to make sure the herbs are in an area with a lot of air flow. Sun can help warm them to dry faster but can also burn and damage the herbs. If it's partial sun it would be better but full sun, especially in the summer, can be really hot. Try west and east facing windows to help with this and avoid south facing windows.
The important thing here is being dry. The goal is to dry the herbs and if they aren't in a dry area they won't dehydrate. If you live in a humid environment, don't attempt this, you'll be upset with the results. Go back to the oven route or invest in a dehydrator. A fan can help this method if you have one on hand. Make sure it doesn't blow the herbs away. It doesn't need to go on the herbs directly but in the area. I use a fan near my indoor cacti to help keep them dry. Doesn't blow on them, but against the wall to circulate the moisture and decrease humidity.
Freezing Fresh Herbs
Now instead of drying herbs to store for awhile you can also freeze them! Some of the hardier herbs can be frozen directly. I've done this with thai basil, rosemary, and dill before. Make sure to store them for individual use. Sometimes the few moments to take the bag out of the freezer and get what I want the rest thaw and get slimy over time. Small containers work best and multiple if you have them. But I prefer this second way to freeze them that is a lot safer and easier for use.
The other way to freeze is one that you may have seen before, oil freezing. I have seen many videos of people freezing oil and herbs mixed together in an ice cube tray. The one thing that kills me in many videos in the little herb mixed with a ton of oil. Rather than freeze ice cubes and store in a bag, I prefer the mix the herbs with a little oil into the thick paste, almost like a pesto. Then I place into small jars, label, and freeze. The small jars are resealable to use only what you want and since there's fat and a lot of fine herbs it breaks easily with a spoon. You may need to give a little elbow grease but it can easily be scooped out when you need some. Just take a spoon to it and take what you need.
If you decide to go this route your herbs can last quite a long time. I've kept herbs in oil for 6 months before finishing it and never had an issue. Make sure the herbs are ground well with the oil though. I like to use my mini food processor and only do it with a lot of herbs so that I won't struggle with getting it all mixed. Sometimes when there isn't a lot to mix up it doesn't fully grind the herbs and there are bigger pieces. This isn't so much bad but personally I don't like to find pieces of herbs in my teeth after eating a delicious meal.
Storing Dried Herbs
Okay, so you have some nice dried herbs. How do you store them now? Or maybe you splurged a little at a spice shop and have a bunch of little baggies of fresh dried herbs. Airtight container, cool and dry place. Spice cabinet is a common spot in a kitchen and works well. I like to use small mason jars for my spices and if I do buy something that comes in a small glass jar I'll keep it, wash it, and reuse it. I don't mind the look of mismatch jars in my cabinet. I find it soothing as a chef because it means it's customized and fresher instead of the store bought plastic bottles that have been sitting for who knows how long.
Depending on the herbs they can last for a long time. I'm sure a lot of people have an opinion on this but I'm of the mindset let it be. I have had herbs in my cabinet for years before getting through the last bit with no issue. I'm sure over time on a microscopic level, flavors start the break down and it will be weakened and need more than a recipe originally calls for, but that won't happen for a year or two at least. The big thing is to start throwing them into things. You have them so you might as well use them. Plus flavors can be combine and create such amazing dishes. I use the Flavor Bible often to see what works together and get ideas for what to make for dinner.
When it comes to your kitchen, play with what you find works best for you. There can be so many factors that will change the outcomes sightly. Each time you get some herbs try a new method and once you find your preferred path stick to it. But don't feel like you have to do it one way or another. Make your cooking experience your own and have fun working with fresh and amazing ingredients for every meal of the day!