Preserving Herbs and Spices

Note: These articles are not meant as a substitute for proper medical advice. Please consult with your medical practitioner before using any type of remedy, herbal or otherwise.

Yerba Mate

By Anna Wiens, Wellness Buyer

Dear Health Genie,

I am sad to see summer slipping away!  The morning dew and cool autumn breeze has me concerned about the end of my garden.  I have most of my veggies preserved via canning and freezing, but I am less versed in how to save my medicinal herbs and spices. Help!

Gratefully,
Karen B.

Dear Karen,

Not to worry.  There are plenty of ways to preserve your harvest of both medicinal and culinary herbs.  Let’s start with the basics:

Drying:

Drying herbs is easy, convenient, and can be done and used in multiple ways.  When harvesting, try and cut each stalk at approximately the same length or separate the varying lengths into different organized piles. Then, once your harvest is complete, bunch similar lengths together and band with twine or thin rope.  The bundle shouldn’t be too thick so as to avoid moisture in the middle (a good rule of thumb is if you can’t grip all the way around the bundle at its base with one closed hand, it’s too thick).  Make sure you tie the bundle tightly, because as it dries, the stocks will loosen and your herbs can fall out of the bundle.  Then, simply tie the bundle to a drying rack, clothes hanger, etc, to hang and dry.  It’s best to keep the drying herbs out of the sunlight and in a cool dry place.  The herbs are done drying when there is no trace of moisture, the stems easily break, and the leaves crinkle when touched.  Remove leaves and flowers from the stem and store in an airtight container.  In a few days, double check to make sure there is no moisture in the container.

Another method is to just lay the flowers or leaves on a cheesecloth or permeable base.  This is best for plants that do not have a defined stalk and flowers and petals.  The cheesecloth should be fashioned over wood blocks or something similar to make sure that air can circulate underneath, through, and around the herbs (putting the cheesecloth over an air vent can also work).  Again, try and keep this out of the sunlight and store the same way as above.

And for the super easy method: simply put the herbs into a paper bag, close the top, and shake every few days until dry.  Follow the same storage advice as above.

Once dried and stored in an airtight container, most herbs will retain their color, scent, and flavor profile for six months to a year, although their medicinal quality will last much longer.  Use for teas, soups, and cooking.

Roasting:

Roasting is great for thick roots that would take too long to air dry, such as dandelion root.  It can be done in an oven, in a dehydrator, or on the stovetop.  First, cut the root into small slices (or use the food processor) and spread out over an oven pan.  Cook at approximately 350 degrees, although each herb may call for slightly different temperatures. Check every 10-15 minutes until roots do not bend and they become brittle or visibly dry.  You can also cook at lower temperatures (200 degrees or less) to gently dry the root (versus roasting it).  Let the root pieces cool completely, double check that they are thoroughly dry, and store in an airtight container.

Note: If using for teas, roots need to be steeped longer than leaves and flowers.  To use, boil water, turn heat to low, add roots, and simmer for 10-20 minutes before adding in leaves and flowers (this is called a decoction).

Ice Cubes:

This is a fun, crafty way to use your herbs throughout the year.  The simplest way to freeze herbs is to chop them finely, put into ice cube trays, and cover with water.  This works very well for culinary herbs that you can add to soups or stir fries like basil, parsley, and oregano. 

A method that works well for herbs that are for drinking is to first brew a strong tea.  Basically, boil water, turn off the heat, and add as much herb as possible while being fully submerged in water.  Cover and let sit for 10-15 minutes, strain, let cool to room temperature, and pour into an ice cube tray. This is delightful for peppermint, lemon balm, and tulsi.

Simple Tincturing:

Tincturing can be as simple or complex as you want to make it.  Here are the very basics to get you started.  A tincture is basically a water or alcohol extraction.  The water (polar) or alcohol (nonpolar) will pull out either water soluble or fat soluble compounds respectively from the plant and into the menstruum (or liquid part of the tincture).  Most herbalists agree that the tincture versus the powdered encapsulated form is more effective in delivering bioactive compounds to the body. 

The method:

  1. Harvest the particular plant at its peak time; roots in the spring or fall, leaves before the plant sends up flower stocks, flowers in late morning, and seeds when mature.
  2. Chop plant material finely.
  3. Put into a Mason jar or glass container.
  4. Cover with 40 proof vodka until all plant material is covered.
  5. Put the lid on and label with the date, harvest location, plant material & any other information you’d like.
  6. Let steep in a cool, dark place and shake vigorously every few days.
  7. Let steep 3-6 weeks, longer for roots and barks, shorter for aromatic herbs like lemon balm.
  8. Strain and put into dropper bottles.

Whether it’s tincturing, drying, freezing, or roasting the harvest, it’s always a pleasure to have these herbs mid-winter when the snow is blanketing the garden and the ground is frozen solid.  I hope these ideas get you started with your herbal preservation, but I encourage you to play around with these techniques and create your own recipes!

Cheers to a great end to the summer,
The Health Genie

 

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