Harvesting & using herbs

Now that you have all those lovely herbs growing in your kitchen garden (or just in containers) you need to get them into the kitchen and use them.  There are some general things that apply to harvesting and using almost all herbs in order to get the best flavor in your dishes.

Even though there are “classic” combinations (e.g. basil and tomatoes) don’t be afraid to experiment…that’s the point of having this selection available at your kitchen door!  Smell and taste the leaves of your herbs.  Think about the dish you’re cooking, how you feel today….

Try something different–fresh oregano or marjoram with the pasta sauce today; or maybe even tarragon or fennel with tomatoes.  (Yes, the leaves of that Florence/bulb fennel can be used as seasoning too.)   Experiment!  Taste!  Smell!  That’s what herbs are all about.

In reading through cookbooks, you’ll find may different opinions about when to harvest, whether or not you want herbs to bloom.  Here are a few generalizations about growing, harvesting, and using those wonderful plants that come from my experience:

  • For best flavor you want to keep most of your herbs from blooming; once the plant starts blooming and making seed it is less flavorful.  (You can find all sorts of articles pro and con; this is my opinion.)  To do this you will want to pinch out forming flowers at the tips.  This is particularly true for basils.
  • You generally need to keep herbs trimmed or they can get very unruly, lanky and leggy and straggly.  If you’re not using enough to keep them bushy, and retard blooming, then give them a “butch” every once in a while to keep them bushy and full.
  • Rosemary is an exception it’s not “pinchable” as it blooms along the stems themselves.
  • If you have several plants or if you want to use the flowers (they are edible) then you may want to let part of them bloom–they are lovely, but you sacrifice flavor in exchange for the blooms.
  • Don’t harvest more than one-third of the plant at a time–the herb needs enough leaves to keep growing since it depends on the leaves for photosynthesis and growth.
  • Fresh herbs are best when harvested as needed–not to be stored in the refrigerator for days. That is the whole point of having those pots on the deck.  When I need to trim, I either find something to do with the trimmings (make an herb vinaigrette or put the leaves in salads), or give them to friends…I won’t store them in the fridge.
  •  You’ll be cutting springs rather than picking individual leaves for most herbs (e.g. thyme, tarragon, sage), and then stripping the leaves from the stems (if the stems are woody or tough).
  • Bay is an exception: harvest by picking individual leaves, not sprigs, and not the newest leaves on the plant.  To harvest bay leaves, take the individual leaf and pull downward sharply.
  • You may want to add herbs at several times during cooking:  early to allow flavors to “meld”, but also again near the end in order to have the fresh flavor as many herbs lose some flavor with heating; you can give you dish a “fresh” boost by adding a bit more of the fresh herbs at the end of cooking.
  • If your recipe calls for dried herbs and you are substituting fresh herbs, you’ll need to use about three or four times as much of the fresh as the dried:  e.g. one teaspoon of dried thyme = one tablespoon of fresh thyme.
  • The way that an herb is cut can affect the flavor of a dish.  The more finely it is cut, the more rapidly the essential oils will diffuse into your dish, and the faster the essential oils may dissipate with heating.  Coarsely chopped herbs will release flavor more slowly and “hang around” longer.
  • You can preserve herbs for off season use by freezing but just throwing them into the freezer in a bag doesn’t do well. You can freeze them in ice by coarsely chopping them, packing them in ice-cube trays, and then cover with cold water and freeze. Color may suffer, but flavor is preserved  though you have to consider the effect that the extra water will have on adding to a dish.
  • My favorite way of freezing is to make a “pesto”–an herb and oil purée–of the herbs and pack into zipper-lock freezer bags.  You can cut off what you need.  This has the advantage of not adding additional water, and I think that it keeps flavor better than water and is more versatile.  The approximate proportions for this would be 1/4 cup oil for each gently packed cup of fresh herbs.  This works with basil, tarragon, marjoram, oregano, dill and cilantro.

4 thoughts on “Harvesting & using herbs

    • I like arugula in pesto form too! It’s great stuff, but I can only get a spring and a late fall crop which does extend into the winter, since it’s mild here.


  1. I like to freeze my herbs in oil too. With basil, I make a “pesto” but without the cheese and pine nuts (so, oil, basil, garlic, s&p) and then freeze it in little jars topped with oil. It holds up beautifully then I can use it as an ingredient or add the cheese and pine nuts later for pasta.


    • I use those really small Mason/Ball jars to do the same for my “pesto”…they’re sturdy, and hold about 50 mL, so I don’t usually have to refreeze–it will get used.


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