Storing fresh herbs

I love fresh herbs. Ideally, I would have herbs growing on my deck so that it’s just a matter of walking out and snipping what I need for anything I cooking–well, excluding some that are best grown in some semblance of shade. In reality that’s not the case; work and hot weather have gotten in the way of my on-deck herb garden, sadly. So that leaves me foraging for herbs in the produce department of my local supermarket, usually pretty successfully for the basics.

There’s a problem with single-serving cooking and supermarket foraging for herbs: those expensive little plastic clam shells often end up languishing in the crisper until they turn to something disgusting.

I’ve seen the recommendations to keep them on your counter-top like a bouquet, and seen the ads for special containers for storing them in the refrigerator. Those packages, or even the bunches of parsley and cilantro, are still a lot of herbs if you’re cooking only for one. The on-the-counter method has some drawbacks–little short sprigs don’t fit well in to a container without some work–stripping leaves, changing the water, and being devoured or designated as toys by the cat. Even so the “leftovers” usually end up discarded from terminal wilt after I’ve let them run out of water, so I revert to the fridge.

Yes, I’m also cognizant of the ice-tray-water suggestion, or storing in oil, too. But if you’re still searching, here a list of some of the best sources I’ve found.

I’m glad I can get fresh herbs at the market, but you simply can’t beat having them growing close to the kitchen door–even if it’s just in pots on the deck to pick just what you need when cooking, or just to rustle around in them for the joy of smelling them and maybe changing your mind about how to season what’s cooking now. A son gôut!

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USDA hardiness zones

I’ve talked about growing your own herbs, and I’m sure I’ve mentioned that certain perennials are hardy in some zones and not in others.  If you are unfamiliar with these, here is a link  from the National Gardening Association which will answer some questions about hardiness zones, and will let you check out your zone.  Remember that drainage can affect hardiness, and it will make a difference if the plants are in pots, rather than in the ground.

It’s not only cold that affects your plants:  It’s thought that plants begin to suffer physiological damage at temperatures above 86 ° F.  From the American Horticultural Society, here is a link to a downloadable heat zone map; online this map may be viewed at the Southern Gardening website.  This gives the average number of days when the temperature is above 86 ° F

In using either of these (cold hardiness or heat zones) you have to consider where your plants are being grown–in the ground, in pots, the soil drainage, and water availability, among other things.

Bay, basil & oregano

Turkish (sweet) bay (Laurus nobilis)

New leaves on Laurus nobilis plant

Bay (Laurus nobilis)

This may be an herb that is associated more with winter cuisine because it is so frequently used in soups, stews, and braises which are typical of cool weather cooking.  Once you have used the fresh rather than dried leaves, it will be an all-season herb.

Culinary bay (Laurus nobilis) is often called bay laurel, sweet bay or Turkish bay.  The botanical name is important for this herb as there is another, California bay (Umbellularia californica), that is often found as “bay”.   The flavor of the California bay is more medicinal with a strong camphor smell that is much different from the complex flavors of  true bay laurel.   There is a whole new experience waiting when you use fresh bay laurel leaves in cooking.

This herb is “picky” to grow, but well worth the effort.  To grow bay laurel, you will need to buy a plant from a reputable source so that you can be sure that you are getting Laurus nobilis since the California bay lacks the “sweetness” of true bay.  True bay  is more expensive than most herbs because it’s difficult to propagate and is slow-growing.  You’ll likely (depending on climate where you live) want to grow your bay in a container in order to move it inside in the wintertime, at least until it is about 24 inches tall when the stems will be somewhat woody and better able to withstand cold.

Bay needs sun, but too intense sunlight will burn the leaves–so having it in a pot will let you move it around and discover the best site for it.   It also needs fertile soil, evenly moist but well-drained.  It should never be allowed to dry out completely or it’s likely to die. This is an herb that will need a container all to itself.  If you need to bring it indoors to winter over, you’ll need to put it where there is plenty of light and where it is well ventilated–best in a cooler area.  While indoors bay is susceptible to some pests like mealy bugs, scale, and aphids so you must watch it closely.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum)

Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum)

If there is a summer herb, as dried bay might be considered a winter herb,  it is most likely basil (Ocimum basilicum), especially the sweet, large-leaf, Italian basil.  Say tomato, and I’m sure a lot of  “foodies” would immediately say basil.  It is a tender annual that will not winter over–so it’s a spring event when you can plant basil and anxiously await that first harvest.   I suspect that basil would be at the top of a list of herbs grown by home gardeners–especially as it is so strongly associated with tomatoes.  There are many varieties of basil (purple, Thai, holy, cinnamon, lemon, and lime, globe for just a few) but we’ll start with the most common: sweet or Genovase basil.

To grow basil, you can start with seed or buy plants.  It is a heat-loving herb so you need to wait for warm weather to plant it outdoors (generally night-time temperatures need to stay above 50 ° F).  You can get a head start if you plant seeds indoors.  Once the weather is warm, you can gradually get your plants used to the outdoors, and finally plant them out. For your first time of growing basil, you should probably just buy plants.  Even so, if you plant your basil outdoors while the temperatures are too cool, you’re likely to have stunted plants that will never do really well.

Basil can be grown in the vegetable garden, herb garden, or in containers.  It needs average soil (so it will do well in that potting soil that you got from the garden center) but needs plenty of water (even moisture, not allowed to dry out between waterings) but must be well-drained.  It needs lots of  sun, but it does not like the drier, poorer soil conditions that some of the Mediterranean herbs will tolerate; however, basil will not do well in soil that is too rich either (don’t fertilize too much)–that will make it less fragrant since it will contain less of the essential oils.  This means that you should not plant basil in the same container as other Mediterranean herbs like sage.

As you start your basil plants, you want to pinch the growing tips so that the plants will branch sideways and be full and bushy.  Basil flowers readily, but after flowering the flavor declines so be rigorous in pinching the flowering tips.

There is one serious fungus disease (fusarium wilt) that can affect basil–it turns the leaves black and will kill plants in a short time.  This is a disease that is carried by seeds–so if you are starting your basil from seed, buy seeds that have been tested and are known to be disease free.  Should you get this disease in your plants, the only thing you can do is (literally) trash them–don’t throw the diseased plants in the compost or that will be contaminated too, and the disease can be transmitted to tomatoes and basil plants on which that compost is used.

Oregano (Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum

Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare, subsp. hirtum)

There are many types of oregano which vary markedly in the intensity of flavor.  Likely the one most commonly found in the supermarket or in the garden center is common or wild oregano (Origanum vulgare subsp. vulgare).  I like to grow the true Greek oregano (subspecies hirtum) for my use as it is very spicy and has an intense flavor.  It is a less vigorous growing plant than the common, but still easy to grow.   While you can start oregano from seed, it takes a long time to germinate and is slow-growing so unless you have lots of patience, buy a plant to start your herb garden.   The best way to tell what you’re getting it to smell and/or taste a leaf from the plant that you’re going to buy.  If you have never tasted Greek oregano, you are in for a wonderful treat–it’s much more flavorful and more peppery than the common oregano (which is what is most likely in those supermarket packs and in the garden center).

The two basics for growing oregano are sun and well-drained soil; given these it is a vigorous grower.  It is a perennial so once you get it started, it will stay with you for quite some time and generally be quite carefree to grow.   As with most herbs, it benefits from being used frequently or having the growing tips pinched occasionally to encourage it to branch and be a bushy, rather than a leggy, lanky plant.

A word of warning:  if you are also growing common oregano (see also Marjoram), don’t put it near your other species of oregano–it spreads by underground off-shoots (stolons) and by seeding itself, and it can (and likely will) replace your prized Greek (or other) oregano.   You might plant your Greek oregano in a container with sage, but not with other species of oregano or with marjoram.

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These three herbs would have to be part of absolute bare necessities, along with parsley, sage, thyme, and rosemary, for my cooking.  The longer I cook, the more herbs I want to have available for spontaneous use:  I’ve added tarragon, epazote and shiso (perilla), and lavender to what I’ve come to consider the “necessities”.  Every growing season is likely to find me adding another herb–this year it’s lime basil.  I’m waiting rather impatiently for the plant to be large enough to harvest some leaves and do something more than nibble on a leaf and contemplate where I’ll use it!

Your own fresh herbs.

Yes, I digress from actual in-the-kitchen cooking, but it’s the time of the year when the seed catalogs have started to appear in my mailbox, and the birds are beginning to suggest springtime, too.  It’s time for wishful thinking–and ordering seeds and/or plants.  There are so many herbs available that you won’t necessarily find in your local garden center–they will have the basics, and probably lemon thyme, and other flavored thymes.  Fresh herbs are one of the easiest ways to keep your cooking (even if it’s for more than one) exciting and healthy.  I’m not going to suggest that you replace salt with herbs (more on salt a bit later)–just use it judiciously with the fresh herbs.

Even though I purchase fresh herbs from the market during the winter and use some dried herbs, there’s nothing like being able to walk into the garden our even just out onto the deck and snip what herbs you want right now.  You are not in the frustrating position of not having the herbs that you need whenever you want them.  Having them readily available frees you to experiment depending on your mood, or whims as you cook.  Sometimes I don’t know what I want to use until I’m actually smelling the herbs as I brush against the plants.

Herbs are easy and fun to grow.  If you don’t have garden space, you can grow them in containers.  One fairly large pot can be used to grow several herbs, and has the advantage that you need to water less often than if you put your herbs in smaller containers.   I like larger containers with several herbs grouped together for several reasons:  I need to water less often, and I don’t have to be so concerned about them blowing over.  When you plant herbs together, you  do need to consider the moisture and light requirements of the herbs planted together.  Basil and oregano are not likely to be happy pot-mates as they require different moisture levels to be happy.  Most herbs like lots of sun, but there are a few that you may need to have in partial shade or shade so you’ll need to consider that as well.

When I say a “fairly large” container I am think about a three- to five-gallon container.   Pot sizes are usually given as the diameter at the top–so a 4-inch pot would be that wide at the top, possibly tapering to smaller diameter at the bottom.  The larger the diameter of the pot, usually the deeper the pot, so by the time you have a wide surface, say 14 to 16 inches, at the top, you may have a pot that is deeper than you really need for herbs, so don’t waste the extra potting soil!  Use some inert filler in the bottom of that huge pot so that you are using only the amount of soil needed.  Many herbs really need only about  8 inches of depth.   The old Styrofoam peanuts, for example, can be used (newer ones are biodegradable and will not last in the pot).  In order to avoid having to collect them when I need to change soil, I put them into old panty-hose (which take years to break down).  You could also use soft-drink cans, turned on-end, and upside down in the bottom of the pot–just be sure not to interfere with the drainage of your pot.  Because my deck is elevated and I don’t want to have to worry about pots blowing around, I will sometimes use bricks or rock to fill the bottom–just making sure that I can move it if needed.

A good place to start your herb gardening (container or otherwise) is with the basics that you use most often.  For me that is rosemary,  marjoram, Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare hirtum), Syrian oregano (Origanum maru), sage (Salvia officinalis, ‘Extrakta’ or ‘Berggarten‘), French or summer thyme (Thymus vulgaris ‘narrow-leaf French”, summer savory, and French tarragon (Artemisa dracunculus sativa), Thai basil, globe basil, bay (Laurus nobilis), chives, flat-leaf parsley, mint, and cutting celery.   Since you want only one plant of each, it’s probably best to buy plants rather than start from seed.  You can find herb plants at your farmers’ market in the spring, or at the garden center.

I will admit to being a bit of a snob about my herbs–I do want to know exactly what I’m getting, as you can see from the botanical names included with the list above–at least for some herbs, really as many as possible, but especially for bay and for French tarragon.  I don’t plant lemon thyme, et cetera, because I feel that the “citrus” part of the thyme cooks off quickly, so I prefer to add the citrus by using juice or zest of the citrus.   I don’t want Russian tarragon because, to me, the flavor is harsh–just not what I want from tarragon.  The same principle holds with bay–the California bay (Umbellularia californica) is strongly flavored, but  lacks the complexity of the Lauris nobilis or true bay.

Tarragon is another herb were it pays to be particular–it must be from cuttings, as true French tarragon does not produce viable seeds.  The seed packets of “tarragon” are a relative, but lack the finesse of French tarragon.   Other herbs that I’ve listed I like because of particularly high essential oil content, so more flavor.   Once you’ve got the basics, you’ll probably find others that you want to try:  I’ve added shiso, epazote, Spanish tarragon (Tagetes lucida), and given a catalog, I’m sure I can find many others I would love to try.

I generally do NOT combine annuals and perennials–I don’t want to disturb well-established roots of the perennials to remove or add an annual.  one of my containers is likely to contain sage for a nice tall plant with lovely grey-green foliage, oregano, thyme, and perhaps some chives in a 12- to 14-inch pot.   Rosemary can become quite bushy and makes a good tall plant for another container.  My bay gets its own pot, as I want it to be large and tree-like.

Cutting celery is an herb of which I’ve grown particularly fond–it does not head, and yet can give me fresh celery flavor for salads, soups, and the stems even add a bit of crispness.  It can grow with dill, chives, Vietnamese coriander, or stevia, for example.  Parsley usually get a pot to itself.  Cilantro, which bolts easily, gets a 6-inch pot or an area in a planter which gets sequential plantings all summer.   Most dill is not suited to containers as it tends to get huge, and develop a tap root; however, there are a few “dwarf” varieties (Fernleaf being one of those) which can be grown in a container.

Mint must have more moisture than these other herbs, so it gets its own separate pot, perhaps sharing with lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) usually placed out of the blazing summer sun.  My wish list for this summer’s herbs is not complete yet…there are more seed catalogs to go through yet.

It does take a bit of effort to grow herbs: you’ll need to water them, and do some mid-season fertilizing, but it is well worth the effort.  The other thing that you need to do is to keep herbs pinched and trimmed in order to have them bushy and productive.  You’ll not want them to bloom as the flavor is not as good after blooming, so pinch and trim.  To a large extent that happens as you harvest for use.  There are times when I just go out and give them a “butch”.  That’s when you make an herb vinaigrette, share with friends or purée to use under the skin of a roast chicken!  You can also include the leaves in a salad of mesclun or your favorite greens.

Having your own herb garden keeps you supplied without the expense and (even as manyas I used) waste with the packaged supermarket herbs. It also provides a sensual pleasure just to smell them as you walk by, or to deliberately brush through them, just for the heavenly aromas they give off.  Nothing is much more exciting than seeing those first leaves as they come back in the spring, announcing a whole season of wonderful tastes and smells–time to have things just a son goût even if it is single-serving cooking for one.