One of the best things about cooking in the summer is having an herb garden right outside the door. Dash out – rain or shine – with a pair of scissors and snip off a little basil, rosemary, parsley or thyme to make the flavour of any dish pop. Herb plants definitely offer a great bang for the buck but it can be hard to sustain them indoors once cooler weather arrives. In winter, herbs are typically a lot more expensive to purchase and I find it frustrating to have to buy a whole bunch of mint when I just want a few leaves to flavour a cocktail or soup, for example. As a result, I’ve been playing around with herb storage techniques and I’ve come up with a few tips I’m happy to share.
I love using fresh basil in soups, sauces and more. To preserve its fresh, bright flavour, I chop up the leaves, put them in a bowl and add a bit of olive oil (about 1 tablespoon of oil for every 4 tablespoons of chopped basil). Pour the mixture into a small ziplock bag; seal and freeze flat. Freezing protects the aromatic oil in the basil leaves and because they are insulated by the oil, they retain their colour too. Whenever you need basil for a recipe, pull the ziplock bag out of the freezer, open it up and snap off a little piece of the frozen mixture; you can store it for up to a year. You can also use this method for other tender herbs such as parsley, cilantro, tarragon or finely-chopped rosemary.
I find the dried thyme available in stores doesn’t smell or taste anything like fresh. As a result, I prefer to dry my own. Cut sprigs of thyme off your plant (or a purchased bunch of thyme) and lay them out on a cooling rack. Put the rack on a baking sheet and cook in a low oven (170F) for 1 – 1.5 hours until the thyme leaves are thoroughly dry. Run your hands along the stems to pull the leaves off and store in an airtight container. This method also works well for oregano, but you will likely have to increase the drying time in the oven. Herbs dried in this fashion are at their best for about 6 months.
Of course you can make mint sauce or even mint jelly to enjoy throughout the winter, but the quickest method of all is to strip the leaves off the stems and lay them flat, not touching each other, on a cookie sheet. Freeze for a couple of hours and transfer to an airtight storage container. The advantage of freezing mint leaves rather than drying them is that it preserves more of the essential oil on the leaves that gives mint its appealing aroma and flavour. Store in the freezer for up to 6 months and pull out a few leaves whenever you need them.