Recipes for survival!
Beetle faeces anyone?
Seed herbs can be dried and stored whole. Generally
when seeds are ripe,they are almost fully dry. Spread them out on a tray in a warm dry place for a few days then
store in a jar. It doesn't matter if the jar is not airtight. They usually have an airtight protective outer husk.
If you store them this way and grind them just before use, the flavour is much stronger. Seeds tend to produce a
stronger flavour when used dried, than leaves. The exception is cardamom, which derives much of the aroma from the
sticky outer coating on the seeds inside the seed pod. These are best kept (or bought) as whole pods rather than seeds
Some herbs and spices like ground cardamom and coriander leaves, have already lost their flavour by the time you get them home. We'll look at how to overcome this, so they keep their flavour and aroma.Leaf herbs should be dried thoroughly and stored in an airtight container. They should be kept for one year only. After this time their aromatic oils have all but vanished and you are effectively flavouring your food with sawdust.
If you think you have seen good herbs at the supermarket, try growing your own. I did and the coriander aroma hung around the chopping board for the next two washes! Most herbs grow in poor soils so they are very hardy and easy to grow.
You don't need lots of land to grow herbs. Here's a selection of herbs we grow on our small residential block. The oil and vinegar have been flavoured with our herbs to make balsamic oil and vinegar as well.
Most herbs you find in the supermarkets are grown hydroponically and lack that little extra zing that makes food taste like we remember. Herbs have developed their aromatic oils for a reason. It may be to discourage vegetarian feeders (like basil and fennel), cope with cold frosts (like sage and thyme which are alpine plants) or reduce moisture loss (like Bay Leaves and Tarragon). The tiny amounts of trace elements in natural soils and the interaction of certain soil bacteria, boost the potency of these oils in the plant, giving us a stronger flavour than hydroponically grown varieties.
When summer is here, garden herbs are kicking into high gear, producing lots of pleasing, aromatic, foliage that is great for cooking and potpourris. Freshly harvested leaves are wonderful for cooking, but you might want to preserve some to use later in the year or to create sachets that will fill your home with wonderful scents.
For those herbs that lose a lot of flavour when drying, like coriander leaf, parsley, chives and lemon grass, you can place them on plastic in the freezer and once frozen, they'll easily peel off the plastic. Store them in your freezer in an airtight container. As long as they don't thaw, they will be free flow, allowing you to take out just as much as you need for the job. This is perfect for herbs like fresh Coriander leaves, which rapidly lose their aroma when dried but this method will keep the aroma and give you fresh coriander all year round.
Thus if you want to dry herbs, dry those grown yourself rather than supermarket herbs. If that's not possible but you can buy them fresh, don't just chop them up. Strip the leaves from the stems, trying not to bruise them, this is where the aromatic oils are strongest. The stems have very little aromatic oil compared to the leaves.
For less volatile leaves . . .
Alternatively, with less volatile leaves (like basil, sage, bay leaves, thyme, rosemary, oregano and marjoram) leave your tray of leaves out to dry, not in direct sunlight. If your layer of leaves is more than two leaves deep, turn them over regularly to help the moisture escape. The drier the weather, the better those leaves will dry out, so the bathroom is not the best drying room. You want somewhere with low humidity but not too hot because the essential oils are volatile
Hanging bunches of fresh grown herbs to dry - from left to right: Sweet Basil, Sage, Marjoram, Rosemary and Dill.
There are two ways to air-dry your crop. The first is to hang it up. With large-leafed herbs such as basil, rosemary, and sage, snip off the leafy stems, then tie the cut ends together with string and hang the bundle upside down in a warm, dry place (out of direct sunlight) with good air circulation. The herbs should be dry and crisp in two to three weeks. You can then strip the leaves off the stems and store them in airtight container for later use. This method is also a great way to dry lavender.
The second way to dry herbs is to spread them out to dry. With fine leafed herbs such as oregano and thyme, simply remove the foliage from stems and spread the leaves on a cookie sheet or piece of clean window screen mesh and set in a warm, dry, airy place away from direct sun. Stir them up every few days to turn them over. Once the leaves feel crisp, you can store them in an airtight container for later use.
Remember you want them really dry to prevent mould forming later.
Cardamom seeds and Coriander Leaves are two special cases, when it comes to storing herbs and spices. Both require special treatment. They lose their flavour or aroma quickly at room temperature. Cardamom should be bought only in pods, not seeds, unless you intend to use it all within a month. In Pod form, the pods prevent the essential oils from evaporating off for much longer.
It always amazes me to see people buying coriander leaves in little jars at the supermarket. They are virtually tasteless by now.
Coriander leaves have a very strong aroma when fresh but it is lost quickly during drying. This herb also grows like a weed and a little fresh coriander goes a long way, so why not grow your own? Simply cut off the thickest stems with a pair of scissors and put the rest in a plastic container in the freezer. As more leaves grow, repeat the process, adding the new leaves on top of the old frozen ones.
By the end of the growing season you'll have a mat of frozen coriander leaves as aromatic as the day you picked them. When you
want to use some, simply break a few flakes off and add to the cooking. The essential oils will not evaporate at freezing temperatures
and they will be as strong in aroma as the day you picked them. If you are used to the dried leaves from the supermarket, beware to only
use an eighth of what you used to.
A helpful trick I use is to get a silica gel bag (often packed with electronic products) and heat it in the oven for 10 minutes so that it is really dry. Now add that to the herbs in your airtight jar, while the bag is still warm to the touch. It will scavenge any moisture in the jar when it is sealed, keeping your herbs desiccated.