Spring and summer are resplendent with fresh herbs that are a joy in any kitchen. But sometimes they can seem like the shortest-lived flavors of the season, gone before you know it.
We’ve all been there—paying too much on fresh herbs at the supermarket for just one special recipe, or getting a beautiful little bouquet at the farmers market only to find that those little green leaves brown and spoil before you have a chance to fully enjoy them. I can’t count the number of times I’ve found once-green basil blackened and limp in the crisper drawer of my fridge, or once bright cilantro reduced to slimy mush.
Losing herbs is often feels more disappointing to me than when other food spoils because herbs can be so expensive at the store and their shelf life seems mysteriously short. If you’re as excited as I am about the parsley and oregano appearing at the market the past couple weeks, you won’t want to waste one flavorful sprig. Fortunately, there’s a few different ways you can enjoy your soft and hard herbs for as long as possible.
Soft herbs are any like parsley, mint, and cilantro, with a soft stem and leaves. Hard herbs are any with a more twig like structure, such as rosemary, thyme, and oregano. The key to keeping herbs fresh is knowing what type you’re dealing with and treating them accordingly.
There are several methods for preserving soft herbs. They’ll last for a few days in the bag they come in at the farmers market— but to keep them fresh longer than that you’ll ultimately you want to find the right balance of moisture, oxygen, and light. Soft herbs already hold a lot of moisture, so it’s easy for them to rot quickly. Too much light, and they’ll become limp and yellow. But unless you want to dry them purposefully, you don’t want to avoid moisture entirely.
One method, if you have room in the door of your fridge, is to put the herbs stem down and leaves up in a jar or glass with just enough water to cover the base of the stem, like you would for a bouquet of flowers. Put a plastic bag over the leaves of the herbs, careful not to crush them, and secure with a rubber band. This will help the herbs continue to “live” even though they’ve been harvested and absorb moisture as needed.
Another method for longer term storage is to freeze your herbs in water or oil. Some experts suggest oil better maintains the fresh flavor of soft herbs, but you’ll want to choose depending on the kinds of recipes you often cook and what you’ll be using the herbs for.
Oil preserved parsley or basil can quickly be thrown in with fresh, warm pasta or into the blender to be finished into pesto with some kale, radish tops, walnuts, cheese, etc. Or mint and cilantro frozen in oil can be thrown in at the end of fixing a quick weeknight curry, chimichuri, or marinade. Water preserved herbs might be better for something like spaghetti or pizza sauce.
To preserve your herbs in oil or water, simply wash them, gently dry them in a salad spinner or by blotting with paper towels, chop them, and fill the compartments of an ice cube tray with your herbs. Add just enough water or oil to surround the herbs. Freeze and pop a cube or two our when you need it for up to three months (though even frozen herbs are best used sooner rather than later).
For hard herbs like rosemary and oregano, you can store them in the short to mid-term by rolling them up in damp paper towels and putting them in an airtight container or plastic bag, being careful to squeeze the air out. For the longer term, you’ll want to dry your herbs to preserve them, rather than freezing them. Simply hang upside down with a string around their stems in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight.
Basil and mint can be tricky because they are soft herbs that are sensitive to the cold. These often do best left to dry on the countertop out of direct sunlight.