Herbin’ It Up

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We’ve had a freakishly mild fall here in Wisconsin — can’t say if that’s good or bad. Despite my climate change concerns, I enjoyed taking advantage of a longer than usual growing season, and it wasn’t until yesterday that I rescued the last of my herbs from an upcoming cold front that by now has blasted its way through the Great Lakes region.

I’ll have fresh sage just in time for Thanksgiving cooking. I’ll also dry some out to use throughout winter. I rarely buy basic dried herbs from grocery store spice department anymore, since they’re so easy-peasy to grow and use, fresh or dried.

Except for basil. That’s one herb that when I try to grow from seed, has stymied me for years. Pre-purchased plants seem to do okay, but my basil starts from seeds grow so ridiculously slow that my husband and I coined the term “basil-ing it” to describe anything that takes a long time. But more on basil later.

Since early October, I’ve dried dill, rosemary, sage, lavender, parsley and thyme, as well as Thai chili peppers to crush into pepper flakes to sprinkle on pizza. For the herbs, just pick a cluster, tie the end of the stalks with baker’s twine, and hang upside down from just about anywhere there’s room. I’ve already dried herbs from the ends of kitchen curtain rods, plant hangers, and hallway coat hooks.

Once the herbs are hanging to dry, you can forget them for a few days, but don’t let them stray too far off the radar because it’s possible for herbs to get too dry (too brown, they lose flavor and become compost). It’s best if the herbs retain a slight green tone, but still crumble when rubbed between your fingers.

Now about that basil. When my outdoor and indoor basil plants are spent, I buy living basil grown by a local aquaponics/hydroponics business. The live basil plant is rooted in water and is usually good for two to three cuttings. Someday I might try growing basil the aquaponics way and I’ll be sure to share the story if I’m successful.

Back to herb drying. For small hot peppers, I just leave them in a bowl until they’re shriveled. At this point, they’ll usually break into pieces. If not, use kitchen shears to cut them into smaller pieces. Use a mortar and pestle and smash away the pieces until they’re reduced to flakes.

To bring out the oils in herbs, I crush most of them with the trusty mortar and pestle. To store the herbs, I reuse jars from previous spice purchases, small sampler-sized jam jars, or even baby food jars. A friend recently gave me some baby food jars, and they’re the perfect size for storing in a spice cabinet. You can also poke holes in the lid if you want a shaker-style jar. To protect the herbs when not in use, cut a small circle from a piece of cardboard (approximately the size of the jar lid) and pop it underneath the lid to block the holes.

Herbs can go bad. They can lose their punch, or even smell mildewy if there’s still a bit of moisture in the leaves if they were crushed too soon. I usually make sure the jars are dry and just crush a small amount at a time—no more than one-third cup of each—which usually gets me through winter cooking and baking. Placing a single penne or rigatoni pasta noodle in each jar can help absorb moisture.

As for the lavender, I use that precious plant primarily for steeping in herbal tea varieties, or for one of my winter hot toddies: stayed tuned for my upcoming post about those.

And if anyone has any indoor winter basil growing tips, please share!