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Fresh herbs: science, art and adventure

Now is the time to make the most of your fresh herbs. As cooks and chefs, many of you are using more fresh herbs. Many gardeners raise herbs but are not sure how to pick, use and store them properly to maximize their fresh scent and flavor.

I think growing, harvesting, preserving and cooking with herbs is a science, an art and often an adventure. I encourage you to try it out, experiment and make note of what works and what doesn’t.

Know your lingo

Begin by knowing the nomenclature. Tender annuals like basil, cilantro and summer savory are so called because they will not survive a frost and are planted new from seed or small plants every year. Woody perennials like sage and winter savory, called that because of their branching habit and woody stems, can survive much colder temperatures and return year after year.

Harvesting herbs

Whether for immediate use or preservation at the end of the season, there are right and wrong ways to harvest specific herbs. And once they are out of the ground, it’s important to handle them properly.

During the summer months, the more you harvest herbs the more they’re encouraged to grow. Remember that once a plant’s energy goes into the flower, the flavor in the leaves can diminish and become bitter. 

Annuals such as basil, summer savory and cilantro will live longer if their flowers are pinched back. The young, flavorful leaves of tender annuals should be harvested above the leaf buds where the plant branches out. 

Wait to harvest parsley and similar herbs, including summer savory, until roots have developed and the plant is strong enough for regrowth. You can use a scissors or a knife to cut the herbs, or you may twist and pull off with your hand — either way, be gentle.

When it comes to perennials that have flowered, such as thyme, they should not be harvested back to their branching growth. Instead, you want to harvest the fresh young leaves directly below the flowery tops. Woody perennials such as rosemary should be harvested at the point at which new branches grow off a central stem rather than a central stem, harvesting a central stem slows down the new growth.

Cleaning and preserving herbs

To clean fresh herbs, submerge them in a sink or large bowl filled with cool salt water — use about 2 tablespoons of salt per sink-full. The salt water will drive away insects without damaging the plant itself. Remove the herbs from the standing water and drain in a colander. To dry herbs completely, blot with clean kitchen towels or paper towels.

Perennials such as sage and thyme are able to tolerate cold outdoor temperatures and thus can be stored in the refrigerator. Try a plastic container with tight lid. Stack the clean, dry herbs in loose layers separated by paper towels or parchment paper, to allow the maximum air to flow between them, and seal tightly. Small amounts of herbs can be placed in food storage bags.

Use your fresh herbs next time you’re cooking, or if nothing else, make some garden tea and enjoy!

For more information on how to grow herbs, Purdue University’s horticulture program has lots of great information on when to plant varieties that are suited to Indiana’s climate, and how to care for and harvest each. 

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