Drying Herbs

A basket of dried herbs“Fresh is best.”

Armed with this maxim many chefs spurn dried herbs.  I’d like to go to bat for dried herbs.  Not the dried herbs that have been in your pantry since Harper took office, and certainly not the dried powdered herbs you buy in one pound bags from a bulk store, but the dried herbs that you make from the plethora of fresh herbs you have languishing in your autumn backyard.

I take for granted that you have a plethora of fresh herbs languishing in your autumn backyard.

You should, because it’s important to use lots of herbs in cooking, and paying $4 for a 28 g packet at the grocery store is crazy.  You can buy an entire plant for that amount, a plant that will grow to produce several times more herbs that are probably of a higher quality than what is available in stores.  And if buying fresh herbs from the grocery store is crazy, buying dried herbs at their inflated cost is sheer raving lunacy.

What herbs to dry. Chefs distinguish between fine herbs and resinous herbs.  Fine herbs are delicate and usually eaten raw.  Examples are basil, parsley, chervil, and tarragon.  Resinous herbs are more robust and are usually cooked.  Examples are rosemary, thyme, oregano, marjoram, sage, savoury, and bay.

Fine herbs are terrible for drying.  The flavour compounds in fresh fine herbs are extremely volatile, and the drying process drives them out with the water.

Most of our common resinous herbs, however, originate in the hot, dry Mediterranean, so their aromatics easily withstand the drying process.

How to dry herbs.  Online you can find all sorts of tricks for drying herbs using an oven or a microwave.

Using an oven is a bad idea.  Even at the lowest settings the heat will destroy the aromatics in the herbs.  Microwaves happen to work brilliantly for drying herbs, because they selectively heat water, leaving the plant cells and the oily aromatic compounds more or less in tact.  That being said, the truth is that you can make fantastic dried herbs without the help of any modern technology, because resinous herbs are already low in moisture, and they already have biochemical defences against micro-organisms, so they’re going to dry out fairly quickly as long as they are left exposed to air.  Some techniques:

  • A large pot of rosemary drying indoorsSmall quantities of herbs can simply be picked and left to dry in a basket or on a tray on the counter, as shown in the photo above.
  • Some herbs will dry naturally in the garden bed.  They can be cut as entire dried bushes and brought to the kitchen.
  • Potted herbs can be brought inside to dry out without being destroyed by frost.
  • Large quantities of herbs can be bunched together with twine and hung from a hook on the kitchen ceiling, or from the rafters in your garage.  If you plan to leave them hanging for a long while, it’s smart to hang them inside an inverted brown paper bag to keep dust off them.

Herbs with small leaves like thyme will dry in a matter of days.  Larger specimens like sage might take a couple weeks to become completely dry and brittle.

How to Use Dried Herbs.  As a rule resinous herbs, whether fresh or dried, should be cooked.  Raw resinous herbs are chewy and bitter.  Cooking removes some of that bitterness and draws the flavour of the herb into your dish.

While fresh herbs should always be added at the end of cooking, I usually add dried herbs at the beginning.  For instance, if I’m making a soup or stew I’ll add the dried herbs while I sauté the onions and garlic.  I don’t know if scientifically this is the best practice, but a part of me feels that the herbs need time to wake up and become sapid.

Dried herbs are very versatile and can be used with any type of meat, but to me their supreme companion is poultry.  Beef has horseradish and mushrooms, pork has mustard, poultry has herbs.

Here’s a simple poultry rub to use up your plethora of dried herbs.

 

Poultry Rub

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp dried thyme
  • 1 tbsp dried oregano
  • 1 tbsp dried savoury
  • 1/2 tbsp dried rosemary
  • 1 tbsp sweet paprika
  • 1 tbsp mustard powder
  • 1/2 tbsp onion powder
  • 1 tbsp ground black pepper
  • 2 tbsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 tbsp celery seed

Procedure

  1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly.  Transfer to a glass jar with a tight lid and store in a dark pantry.

On Cooking Resinous Herbs

Last night I ate out at an Italian restaurant, one of them new-fangled Italian joints that have hardly any tomato sauce on the menu, and nary a checkered table-cloth or plastic grape vine in sight.  I had a bowl of squash tortelloni with brown butter and sage, a classic dish from the hallowed kitchens of Emilia-Romagna.  The sage was raw.

People usually freak out over raw chicken, not raw herbs, but eating those fuzzy, grey, acrid sage leaves was at least as unpleasant as contracting salmonella.

Chefs distinguish between fine herbs and resinous herbs.  Fine herbs are delicate and usually eaten raw.  Examples are basil, parsley, chervil, and tarragon.  Resinous herbs are more robust and are usually cooked.  Examples are rosemary, thyme, oregano, marjoram, savoury, and most definitely sage.

We cook resinous herbs because they are chewy and harsh when raw.  If you would like to use a large piece of resinous herb like sage as a garnish, it absolutely needs to be cooked in oil or butter, after which it will be delicate, crisp, and vibrant in colour.

The herbs should be cooked rapidly and thoroughly.  The oil should jump to a lively sizzle as soon as the herbs are added.  Rapid cooking will preserve colour, and thorough cooking will eliminate all moisture and ensure the herbs are crisp and not at all chewy.  The frying is complete when the oil no longer bubbles vigorously around the herbs.

When you fry herbs you are not only crisping the herb, you are also flavouring the oil or butter.  Not to the extent of a concentrated herb oil, but enough to make a great sauce.  Squash tortelloni with brown butter and sage being a classic example.

Fried sage and rosemary

Herb Oil

Tarragon oil floating on pear and parsnip soupHerb oil is a powerful tool to have in your culinary belt.

It is a fantastic way to preserve a glut of herbs, especially a glut of herbs that are past their prime, for instance basil that is starting to get moist and speckled.  This less-than-attractive basil still has loads of flavour.  And parts of the herb that are usually discarded, say the thick, woody stem of a basil plant, are also full of flavour, and make great herb oil.  Herb oil keeps for weeks in the fridge and months in the freezer, and if made properly it is a stunning, concentrated, lustrous, fluid version of the plant it is made from.

My herb oil process is ripped directly from The French Laundry Cookbook.  There are a few pages devoted to herb oils in that influential tome.

You can make oil from almost any herb, but to me fine aromatic herbs (have I mentioned basil yet?) make the best oils.  Resinous herbs like thyme and rosemary will make flavourful oil, but not with the striking, vibrant green of their more delicate relatives.  I usually add a bit of parsley or carrot tops when making oils with resinous herbs; it will dilute the flavour slightly, but brighten the green colour.

Basil that has been blanched to improve the colour.Blanching.  We always blanche herbs before making oil.  Blanching means cooking quickly in boiling water.  In this case it is entirely aesthetic.  For a detailed description of how blanching improves the colour of green plants, please see this post.

While green vegetables like broccoli might be blanched for a few minutes, herbs only need about thirty seconds.

After blanching, the herbs should be dunked in ice water to arrest the cooking process.  After chilling, press the herbs with a dish towel to remove as much water as possible.

Blitzing.  Put the blanched herbs into a blender, and add just enough oil so that the blender can cycle the mixture and cut the herbs fine.  The higher your ratio of herbs to oil, the better the colour and flavour of your finished herb oil will be.

I use neutral canola oil, as I want the finished product to taste purely of the herb.  Depending on the final application, you can certainly use other, more flavourful oils like olive or flax.

Blitz the herbs for at least a few minutes.  The more you destroy the herbs cells walls, the better your extraction will be, and the more flavourful your oil.

Infusion Period.  If you’re hardcore you’ll leave your herb slurry in the fridge overnight to extract as much flavour from the herbs into the oil as possible.

Straining.  Pour the herb slurry into a chinois, a fine mesh strainer, and let it drip filter.  Don’t press the slurry to force the oil through, as this will let small particles through that will cloud your oil.

Storage.  Best stored in the fridge or even the freezer to preserve the fresh aroma and flavour of the herbs.  These oils can also be sensitive to light.  One afternoon I left a beautiful verdant basil oil on the kitchen counter in direct sunlight.  By dinner time it was brown.

Use.  I don’t know if serious chefs still do this, but I love floating oil on top of soups: pumpkinseed oil on squash soup, tarragon oil on parsnip pear soup (pictured above), basil oil on tomato soup.  It’s a great way to feature the oil, which can get lost in, say, a salad.

 

Chives

Chives emerging in early spring.Chives are prized for their pure allium flavour, blessedly devoid of the harsh burn of raw onion.

Here are some other awesome things about chives.

They are hearty perennials, which means they re-appear every spring and require very little attention.  In fact, they grow as weeds in many parts of Edmonton, including downtown parking lots.  I don’t mean that you should harvest them from downtown parking lots; I just offer that as evidence of their gumption.

They are one of the first edibles to appear in spring.  This year the spring thaw came early, and my chives were a few inches tall by the end of March.  It was seeing this enterprising green growth that inspired me to write this post.

Chive blossomsTheir flowers are both beautiful and delicious. Most flowers with that light purple colour, like lilacs and violas, have very little flavour and are nowhere near as versatile as chive blossoms.

My chives usually bloom in June.  The tiny, bell-shaped flowers are easy to harvest because they grow on round umbels.  Just pick the entire flower head from the stalk, pinch the hub where all the stems meet, and you can remove all the blossoms in one motion. They are much more robust than most culinary flowers and can be kept in the fridge for days.  The green stalks that hold the flower heads are woody and should be reserved for stock.

They can be super-fly elegant.  When cut properly chives are like happy green confetti.

How to cut chives for fine dining applications: a photo essay.

Harvest the chives by cutting the stalks close to the ground with sharp scissors.  Gently bundle the stalks together and lay them on a cutting board.

Whole chive stalksCut the bundle in half.

Chive stalks cut in half

Flip one half onto the other so that the cut ends are all on the same side.  Use the side of your knife to line up all of the cut ends.

Chive stalks with cut ends flush

Cut the chives so that their length exactly equals their diameter.

Chopped chives: happy green confetti

That’s just a fancy technique to keep in your back pocket.  Chives don’t need to be precious.

Chives are usually added to dishes fresh, shortly before consumption, as lengthy cooking destroys their delicate flavour.  They are extremely versatile.  I like them best on eggs, potatoes, and marinated vegetables.

A bowl of potato salad, with lots of chives

 

Chives are borderline invasive because after the flowers mature and dry they each release dozens of little black seeds.  These are edible, delicious, and easily harvested.  Simply pick the dried flowers and shake out the seeds into a jar or paper bag.  They have the same onion flavour as the stems, and a bit of a chewy texture.

Dried chive flower heads with seeds

Herb Vinegar

Resinous herbs can easily handle lights frosts, so this time of year we still have a good deal of thyme, rosemary, and other robust herbs in the garden.  Thankfully there is an entire repertoire of methods to preserve them before the snow falls.  You can collect them in large bouquets and hang them in your kitchen to dry, for instance.  Or make salted herbs.  Or pack them into a jar and pour vinegar over them.  This past week I racked a couple gallons of cider vinegar from a healthy vinegar crock, so herb vinegar seemed the best way to save our thyme.

The aromatic components of herbs are called essential oils.  They more closely resemble fats, ethanol, and acetic acid than they do water, and they therefore dissolve readily in oil, booze, and vinegar.  Over the coming weeks and months sprigs of thyme will infuse my cider vinegar with their volatile essential oils, and the resulting liquid will then be used in vinaigrettes and marinades.

There are two ways to maximize the extraction of essential oils when making herb vinegar.  One is to lightly bruise the herbs before submerging in vinegar, which damages some of the plant cells and allows the vinegar to better penetrate and dissolve the oils.  Another is to heat the vinegar before you pour it over the herbs.

I elected to lightly bruise the thyme, but not to heat the vinegar.  I’m hoping this will better preserve the flavour of the fresh thyme.

Now we wait.

A jar of thyme vinegar.

Herbes Salées – Salted Herbs

Sprinkling kosher salt onto the chopped herbsThis is a very old-school Québécois way to preserve herbs, onions, carrots… really any manner of aromatic vegetable.  They are chopped finely, mixed with salt, left in the fridge for a week, then transferred to a jar.  That’s it.


Ingredients
.  It would be silly to offer a “recipe” as such for herbes salées.  You shouldn’t go to a grocery store and buy a set of ingredients; you should use whatever you have in abundance in your herb garden in the late season.  There are, however, some useful ratios to keep in mind.

1 part salt for every 3 parts aromatics, by weight.  In other words 33 g of salt for every 100 g of herb mix.

In terms of balancing the flavours of the onions, carrots, and herbs, I offer this as a general guideline:

4 parts allium : 2 parts parsley : 1 part carrot : 2 parts other aromatic herbs

For allium, I use tender varieties like green onions, leeks, and chives, chopped finely.

We got an overwhelming crop of curly-leaf parsley this year.  Since it doesn’t dry particularly well, we used lots in our salted herbs.

I grate the carrots finely with a box-grater.

As far as aromatic herbs go, you can use everything under the sun.  Fines herbes are the most common (chervil, parsley, tarragon…).  I took my salted herbs in more of a “poultry mix” direction, using sage, parsley, thyme, and rosemary.

Procedure.  Lay alternating layers of the chopped herbs and salt in a casserole.  Refrigerate.  Depending on what types of allium and herbs you use, a brine might form.

After one week, pour the mix into jars and store in the fridge for use throughout the winter.

Applications.  The first way we used the salted herbs was in the mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving.  Other traditional applications include soup and pâté, just remember that when you add salted herbs, you are adding salt (ahem) as well as herbs.  Adjust salt content accordingly.