Holiday meals are perfect for using herbs and spices from the garden. There is nothing quite like the flavor of home-grown sage when added to Aunt Edna’s scrumptious turkey stuffing recipe.
Herbs, by definition, are the fresh and dried leaves of plants and are usually green in color. Spices are the flowers, fruit, seeds, bark, and roots, typically of tropical plants, ranging from brown, black to red in color. It is possible for one plant to provide an herb and a spice. For example, for the plant Coriandrum sativum, the leaves are used as the herb cilantro while the seed is used as the spice coriander.
The spice trade had a notorious past. The Ebers Papyrus (an Egyptian scroll dating to 1550 B.C.) serves as evidence that anise, mustard, saffron and cinnamon were traded at least 3,500 years ago. Early Romans expanded the use of spices in foods, medicines, and luxury items such as lotions and perfumes. During these times, large amounts of gold, silver and ransom to spare human lives were traded for spices.
The United States entered the spice trade in the 1800s and is the largest spice importer in the world. From 1990 to 1994, an average of 530 million pounds of spices, valued at $372 million, were imported here.
Herbal use has been important to all cultures since before history was recorded. Most herbs have a symbolic value. For example, borage (Borago officinalis) was given to those who needed courage, while rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) was given to others for remembrance.
To preserve herbs and spices from the garden, a food dehydrator, oven, microwave oven, air and freezer can be used for extending the life of these tasty treasures.
Drying is the traditional method for preserving herbs. For maximum flavor, gather herbs in the morning of a dry day. Rinse thoroughly and dry with paper towels.
Using a food dehydrator typically allows for better control of temperature. Arrange herbs on drying trays in single layers. Check the dehydrator booklet for instruction times and temperatures.
The oven light of an electric range or the pilot light of a gas range may provide enough heat for overnight drying. Place single layers of herbs on oven-safe trays.
Drying in a microwave oven is the best method for reducing microbial contamination of leaves. Make sure herbs are thoroughly dry before placing in the microwave oven so that residual water does not cause the herbs to cook instead of dry. Place a single layer of herbs between two paper towels. Avoid using paper towels made from recycled materials, as they may contain metal particles which could cause sparking. Place ½ cup of water in a cup next to plate of herbs. It is important to stop every 15 seconds to check the herbs and turn them over. Although some microwave drying instructions suggest a longer time, in Colorado’s dry climate it is necessary to check every 15 seconds to reduce the risk of fire and/or burning.
Air drying is inexpensive but offers the least amount of consistency and the greatest opportunity for contamination with bacteria or dust. Tie two to three sprigs of herbs at the base of stems with twine and hang away from direct sunlight. More tender leaf herbs — such as basil and mint — are higher in moisture and should be dried using one of the previous methods to prevent mold.
Dried herbs should be stored in a cool, dry place. Most will keep for up to a year. Store them whole or crushed (whole retains flavor longer) in airtight containers. Choose ceramic jars or darkened glass containers to protect against light deterioration. Don’t forget to label all containers with the herb’s name and date!
Frozen herbs will keep up to one year if well packaged. To freeze herbs, wash them, drain and pat dry. Strip leaves off stems, spread leaves in a single layer on a cookie sheet; place in freezer for 30 minutes. Place the frozen leaves in a freezer bag and return to freezer for later use. Cut leaves can also be frozen in ice cube trays half filled with water. Add 1T chopped leaves to each section of the ice cube tray. Press herbs under water. Freeze overnight. The next day, top off the ice cube trays so the herbs are completely under water and re-freeze. When frozen, pop out the cubes and store in a freezer bag. Frozen herbs are best used in cooked dishes, as they will become limp when thawed.
“Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.” — William Arthur Ward