3 ways to preserve garden herbs

We grow garden herbs for that healthy, guaranteed organic extra flavour kick to our cooking. And when we grow we need to learn to preserve garden herbs.

And of course, most of us, get a real kick from growing and creating something.

During growing season we are rewarded and revel in an abundance of herbs to harvest with minimum effort.

And often we find that our garden herb plants produce too much for us to be able to keep up with the fresh harvest.

And this is actually exactly the place you want to be in during every growing season. Now it is time to harvest and preserve our garden herbs for colder and less productive days.

We can choose from 3 different methods to preserve our garden herbs. And as we live in the northern part of Europe we need to use all 3 methods depending on the time of the year.

Air drying: requires natural sunlight, perfect for low-moisture herbs like marjoram, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, bay leaves and dill, natural, inexpensive

Freezing: quick and convenient, ideal for higher moisture herbs like basil, tarragon, lemon balm, chives, chervil, parsley and the mints, retains a lot of flavour

Oven dry: easy to perfect, works for all herbs, gives full control, uses electricity

Now, let’s look at the 3 different methods starting with our favourite, air drying.

Air-drying garden herbs – our Favorite

Air-drying is our go-to method for preserving herbs as it is easy, inexpensive and environmentally friendly. 

Harvesting thyme, oregano, parsley and basil
Harvesting thyme, parsley, oregano and basil.

Our preferred method of air-drying herbs involves the use of a brown paper bag. But needless to say you can also air-dry without using a bag. 

We start by harvesting anything from 3 to 10 branches and remove wilted leaves while brushing away dirt and insects. 

Now use a piece of string or a rubber band to tie the branches together to form a bunch.

Take your paper bag and insert the bunch of herbs stem-side up into the bag and make sure to leave enough room in the bag not to crush the herbs.

Next step is to gently close the bag around the stems while keeping the stems visible for hanging.

With the bag closed and taking extra care not to crush the herbs we gently make a few holes in the paper bag to allow for air to circulate.

Finally we hang the paper bag by the stems in a warm but well-ventilated room and let the drying start.

Depending on the size of your bunch of herbs it may take anything from 5-10 days for your herbs to dry.

We like to use a bag as it allows the herbs to dry in hot and dry darkness. All leaves that fall off end up in the bag so you do not lose anything and you also avoid dust and dirt. Did you leave the bag hanging for too long – no problem – any leaves or crumbs will automatically collect in the bag.

When your herbs are dry and the leaves literally crumble off the stem you simply collect and store them in an air-tight container. 

Summary and conclusion air drying herbs

You can air dry any herbs.

And air drying is and will always be my favorite method. However, it is not always an easy and practical year round method.

Consequently it does sometimes make more sense to freeze moisture rich herbs (thick leaves) or even to turn on the oven for ease of use.

And there is also a slight loss of flavour when we dry herbs. Flavours are not lost but they are less intense compared to then we for example freeze our herbs.

Drying herbs in the oven

Drying your garden herbs in the oven is easy and gives you full control of the end result. 

Unfortunately the process does cook the herbs slightly why we lose some of the herbs flavour and potency. 

Still the end result gives you herbs to cook with though you may have to use a bit more to achieve the desired flavour.

To dry your herbs in the oven you start by placing them on a baking or cookie sheet. If possible, leave the herbs on the stems. Make sure you spread the herbs out evenly.

Now place the sheet in an oven with a temperature of no more than 70 degrees Celsius (160 degrees Fahrenheit) and leave them to dry for approximately 2-4 hours. Do check on the progress every now and then and you know the herbs are done when the leaves crumble easy.

For the best result resist the temptation to crush the leaves. Store the leaves dry but whole and do not crush the herbs until it is time to use them in your cooking. 

Summary and conclusion drying herbs in the oven

I am not a big fan of drying my herbs in the oven. I like to tell myself it is because the herbs are partially cooked in the process resulting in loss of flavor. But maybe more to the point I do not like turning the oven on when not necessary.

Still, we can dry herbs in the oven year round and it is a very effective method. Use low temperatures (70 C / 160 F) and do leave the door to the oven slightly open if possible.

Freeze garden herbs to retain freshness and Flavor

If air-drying herbs is my favorite method, freezing garden herbs comes in as a close second.

Many herbs actually retain their flavour and character better when we preserve them through freezing. 

This is especially true for medium to high moisture herbs like basil, oregano, chives, chervil, dill, lemon balm, mints, parsley, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme and coriander.

Start by washing your herbs in cold water and then shake off the excess water followed by a gentle padding to dry them. 

Now place the herbs in a plastic bag and make sure you flatten the bag to remove trapped air. 

It is perfectly fine to freeze entire branches or individual leaves if you prefer.

You can also use a food mixer to puree your herbs or exciting combination of herbs with water or olive oil and then freeze the resulting paste. 

You can put the paste in a plastic bag or why not use ice cube trays for easy use and storage.

Summary and conclusion freezing garden herbs

I like to freeze my herbs for later use. And yes, the freezer much like the oven uses electricity. But my flawed logic is that the freezer is on anyway so I am only making better use of the resources. I know, a little bit of a stretch.

Anyway, the reason why I do like to freeze my garden herbs is that it is easy and versatile.

The herbs retain their freshness and flavor and I can choose to freeze the herbs whole, pureed or liquefied.

I freeze all types of herbs to preserve for use at a later date. However, freezing is the best method for garden herbs with medium to high moisture like for example basil, oregano, mints, parsley, rosemary, thyme and coriander.

Summary and bonus tip

Living in the northern part of Europe we grow a lot of herbs during the growing season. 

But as we want to use fresh herbs year round we make use of air-drying, freezing as well as oven drying to preserve our herbs.

It is easy to preserve garden herbs and it makes for a nice addition to the herbs we grow indoors winter time.

One method that is growing in popularity is to use a food dehydrator to preserve garden herbs. 

A food dehydrator works really well on high moisture type herbs that need to be dried quickly for the best result. Basil, oregano, tarragon, lemon balm, and mints are examples of herbs that are suitable for food dehydrators.

But if you do not want to spend the money on a dehydrator you can just as well use your oven or the freezer to preserve these herbs for year round use. 

Meet the author: Mattias is an experienced gardener spending most of his free time on his knees among herbs, plants and garden vegetables. For the past two years he has been sharing gardening projects and how-to tutorials on the NordicLavender website and YouTube channel.