Once you decide what herbs you want, determine where and how to plant them, and are now watching them grow an flourish – you ask the question: how do I go about using them? It takes a little work. Let’s go over some of the basics.
Before using your herbs, you must harvest them. Timing is crucial. The heat and wind in many environments can tend to disperse the essential oils of the herbs. Pick a calm, dry morning in the middle of summer to pick your herbs. Interestingly enough, herbs tend to produce fewer herbs on wetter days. So, wait until any dew as dried from the leaves, but don’t wait until the flowers open up. As you would expect, harvesting the herb does not mean uprooting the entire plant. You should harvest gradually, using only a certain part of the foliage at a time. The fact of the matter is, you need not use picked herbs on the same day that you pick them. Preserve them in a collection for later use. A key number to remember is 1/3: you only want to pick a third of the plant’s foliage at one time. This allows the plant to re-grow quite well. As you harvest, keep an eye out for damaged leaves and insect damage, too.
There are three methods by which most people preserve their herbs: freezing, drying, or preserving them in something like vinegar or salt. Let’s start with freezing your herbs. This is a fairly simple approach. Start by cutting the herbs into quarter inch pieces and placing them on some sort of backing sheet lined with a wax paper. Put them in the freezer, and when they are frozen, you can aggregate them into a bag and store them in the freezer for later.
The second approach is to dry your herbs. The best way to do this is to bundle the herbs together after removing any foliage near the base of the stalks. Securing them with a bundling string, hang the herbs in a cool place away from sunlight. Individual leaves should be dried on a rack or screen. A key to remember is to turn them frequently in order for them to dry correctly. If you are rather impatient and want a faster – but in my opinion less quality approach – you could turn to a dehydrator or oven.
The third and final way to preserve your herbs for use down the road is to store them in some sort of medium. For example, you can submerge herbs like tarragon, mint, or basil in vinegar to preserve them for several months. Another option is salt: place your herbs in alternating layers separated by salt. You can then separate the browned herbs from the now flavored salt and store each in an airtight container.
However, many folks just use their herbs right out of their garden. It is important to clean the herbs before putting them fresh into recipes. The best approach for this is to place the herbs in a bowl filled with cool water. A larger quantity of herbs would justify using the sink instead. Add about 2 tablespoons of salt to the water (the salt water will drive away insects that may be on the plant without damaging it). Once you move them around a little and are convinced they are clean, put them in a salad spinner to dry them.
Different herbs have different uses. However, your home herb garden is only as good as the uses to which you apply the herbs it produces. It is also important that you research the specific herb you wish to use to insure that you are using it correctly!