Herbs – growing, preserving and storing

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With their wonderful flavours, scents, and colours, herbs can transform even the simpliest dish into something very special, accenting and enhancing other ingredients. Most savoury dishes benefit from the inclusion of one or more herbs to add the flavour during cooking, or as a garnish to be sprinkled over the top of a dish just before serving. Sweet dishes, too, can be perfumed with herb flowers such as mint and lemon balm, and decorate with delicate herb flowers such as borage. Herbs are also used to make drinks known as infusions or tisanes, to be served hot or cold.

Growing your own herbs

The range of fresh herbs, available in shops and supermarkets is extensive, but there are stil some, such as the more unusual varieties of mint, that are more difficult to find. Also, buying fresh herbs is much more expensive than using those you grow yourself, particularly if you use large amounts.

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The cultivation of herbs, indoors or out, is simple and satisfying. You can start from seed or from the small plant; the latter is the quicker and easier method. Herbs can be grown outdoors in the garden, in pots on a paved terrace or patio, in a rock garden, in a hanging basket, or simply in a window box. Inside the house, herbs will grow satisfactorily in a box or in pots on a window sill.

Most herbs need as much sunshine as possible durin the growing season, so they should be grown in a sunny spot that offers protection from cold winds. The only other requirement, for your own convenience, is to site them as near to the kitchen as possible.

Preserving herbs

You can preserve your own herbs by drying or freezing them. The best herbs for drying are bay, lovage, marjoram, oregano, mint, rosemary, spearmint, and thyme. When drying herbs, spread the sprigs out on trays or aracks, cover with muslin, and leave in the warm, airy place for about 24 hours. Alternatively, tie the stalks in bunches and hang them upside down in a warm, airy place. When dry, remove the leaves or sprigs from the stalks, crumble them if they are large, pack into small jars, and seal tightly.

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The seeds of coriander, dill, and fennel are ideal for drying. If you have herbs with the seedheads that are ripe (the seeds will have started to change from green to brown), pack the seedheads loosely in a paper bag. Leave to dry for 10 – 14 days, then shake out the seeds, and pack into a small jars.

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Herbs such as basil, chervil, dill, fennel, parsley, sorrel, and tarragon can be frozen successfully. Pck leaves or small sprigs in small plastic bags, or mix chopped herbs with water and freeze in ice-cube trays. Freezing is generally considered to be a better method of preserving than drying as a fresher flavour is retained.

Storing & using fresh herbs

Buy or gather fresh herbs only when they are needed. if you have to store them for a day or so, keep them in a cool place or in the refrigerator. If they have stalks, stand them in the jug of water, just as you would cut flowers. herb leaves can be spread on damp paper towels, rolled up, and put into a plastic bag.

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Most herbs, should be chopped before being added to a dish, and this is usually best at the last possible moment. The volatile oils in herbs are released by heat or oxidation, so unless fresh herbs are used as soon as they are prepared, they will quickly lose their favours, and colours.

Bay leaves are among the few herbs that are best used whole. They should always be added at the start of cooking, and removed just before serving. Whole sprigs are also used if flavour is needed in a dish but not colour – the herbs should be lifted out before serving. For easy removal, tie with string or wrap in muslin.

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Storing & using dried herbs

Whether they are shop-bought or prepared at home, dried herbs must be stored correctly or they will quickly lose their flavour. Dark glass jars or earthenware pots with airtight lids are excellent for storage; if you use clear glass jars keep them in a dark cupboard or drawer because light causes dried herbs to deteriorate. Make sure they are in a cool, dry place, away from kitchen heat and steam.

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Dried herbs will not keep forever, even if they are stored correctly. Home-dried herbs should stay flavourful for 1 year, but shop-bought ones will last only 6 months. it is best to buy dried herbs in small quantities from shops that have a rapid turnover.

Dried herbs can be substituted for fresh ones in most recipes. Dried herbs are more pungent than fresh, so a smaller quantity is required. Use ½ teaspoon finely powdered dried herb or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried herb to 1 tablespoon chopped fresh herb.