Harvesting aromatic herbs
Aromatic herbs should be harvested when the oils responsible for their flavour and aroma are at their highest level. The right time depends on the part of the plant you are harvesting and how you plan to use it. Aromatic herbs can be harvested when the foliage of the plant is sufficient to maintain its growth. With annual grasses, they can be reduced by 50 to 75% and then recover. With perennial aromatic herbs, remove about a third of the size. Use a sharp knife or pruning shear to make clean cuts.
Try to harvest early in the day after the dew has dried and before it gets hot. It is better to harvest the herbs before they start to flower, otherwise leaf production decreases. Heading or removing flowers as they appear will result in the continuous production of new leaves suitable for harvesting.
Drying of herbs
The traditional way to store herbs is by air or low temperature drying. Drying concentrates the flavour of the herbs.
After harvesting, gently wash the herbs and dry them carefully on absorbent paper. Remove any dead or damaged material. Attach the herbs in loose bouquets that allow good air circulation around each bouquet. Bunches can be placed in small paper bags, with the ends of the tails protruding from the top of the bag. Drill holes in the bag to allow ventilation. The bags help protect the herbs from dust and other contamination during drying. Hang the herbs in a warm, dry and well-ventilated place, out of direct sunlight. A well-ventilated garage, shed, barn or attic works well. It can take up to a month for the herbs to dry completely.
Wire mesh drying is another method that works well with short-stemmed herbs or for individual leaves. A simple frame with a fine mesh fixed to the bottom works well. Place the herbs in a single layer on the bottom and place the trays in a warm and well-ventilated place away from the sun. It may be necessary to turn the sheets to ensure uniform drying.
Heat drying may require the use of conventional ovens, microwave ovens or dehydration ovens.
Home food dehydrators do an excellent job of drying herbs. Refer to the owner’s manual for more details and settings.
Baking works well if temperatures can be closely monitored. Often, the oven temperature cannot be set low enough and this results in a loss of flavour and colour. However, if the oven temperature can be maintained between 30 and 40°C, this would be the ideal temperature for oven drying. Setting your oven to the lowest temperature and leaving the oven door slightly open often results in temperatures that can be maintained at that level. Check the drying progress often and turn the herbs over if necessary. This method can take 3 to 4 hours to dry the herbs.
Microwave ovens can also be used to quickly dry small amounts of aromatic herbs. Always follow safety instructions when drying herbs in a microwave oven and check the manufacturer’s recommendations for the use of its product when drying herbs, as there is a risk of burning the herbs and a risk of fire.
Prepare the herbs by washing and drying them very carefully. Any excess moisture on the herbs cooks them and does not dry them. Place the herbs between two sheets of paper towel and microwave on high for 1 to 3 minutes. Check the progress every 30 seconds and turn the herbs to ensure uniform drying. After removing from the microwave, place the herbs on a rack and allow them to cool before storing.
Once the herbs are dry, remove the leaves from the stems and pack them in sealed containers in a cool place, away from direct sunlight. To preserve the full flavour of the herbs, try to avoid crushing the leaves during packaging. Ideally, herbs should be crushed just before adding them to recipes.
With proper storage, most herbs retain their flavour for about a year.
To dry the grass seeds, cut the stems with the seed heads just as the heads begin to brown. Gather them into small bunches and hang the bunches upside down in paper bags with ventilation holes drilled on the sides of the bags. Hang the bags in a warm, well-ventilated place, out of direct sunlight to dry. Once dry, the seeds can be shaken from the seed heads. Carefully rub the seeds to separate the seeds from the capsules. By placing the seeds on a clean, level surface and blowing gently on the seeds, you will help remove debris and flakes. Collect the seeds and store them in sealed containers. Seeds may take longer to dry than leaves. Make sure the seeds are dry before storing them to prevent them from moulding.
Aromatic herbs preserved by freezing are used during cooking because frozen aromatic herbs are not suitable for garnish. Freezing changes the quality of appearance, but not the quality of taste.
Once washed, the herbs can be coarsely chopped and generous pinches of herbs can be placed in ice cube trays filled with water and frozen. The cubes can then be transferred into plastic bags and placed in the freezer. Individual cubes can be removed if necessary.
Herb leaves can also be blanched in boiling water for about a minute and then quickly cooled by dipping them in ice water. The sheets can then be placed in hermetically sealed plastic bags and frozen.