Reader question… “I’m just starting to use herbs more in my cooking and I’m realizing that I don’t know very much about this subject. Are herbs something I should buy in bulk, how should I store them, how do I know how much to use? Any hints or information you could share would be very appreciated. Thank you.” –Sheryl

Probably the most important thing to remember is that dried herbs are much stronger than fresh herbs because the chemicals responsible for the flavor have been concentrated by the drying process. As a rough estimate, one teaspoon of dried, crushed herbs… or 1/4 teaspoon of an herb that has been dried and powdered… are about equivalent to two to three teaspoons of fresh herbs.

For the most flavor when using fresh herbs, chop the leaves very finely. Since every cut in the leaf releases the flavor chemicals, more cuts mean more flavor. I usually use a sharp knife to chop the herbs, but when I am in a hurry I reach for the kitchen shears, hold the herb leaves in a bunch, and cut off tiny pieces. Both methods work well, so use whichever one you are most comfortable with.


One of our old stone walls on a cloudy, misty day

The decorative spice rack or the cabinet above the kitchen stove are NOT the best places to store your herbs. Heat, light, and exposure to the air will make the aromatic oils in the herbs evaporate, which will cause their flavors to fade. Herbs will last much longer if they are stored in a cool, dry, dark place in airtight containers (NOT in cardboard boxes)… and even longer if they are stored in the freezer. The refrigerator is not a good storage choice, though, because the humidity in a refrigerator is too high.

It’s easy to freeze fresh herbs. Most just need a thorough rinsing to make sure they are clean… then blot the sprigs dry with a paper towel and freeze them in an airtight container or a plastic freezer bag. Basil will turn black when it is frozen, but if you use a food processor and pulse the basil with olive oil, the resulting mixture will freeze without losing its bright green color. (See instructions here for freezing basil.)

Drying herbs is even easier. A dehydrator works well, but I usually just put the washed and dried herb (stems and all) in a lunch-type small paper bag. The herbs will dry without further attention in an upper cabinet or other dry place. Once the leaves have dried completely (check if they will crumble easily), I strip them off the stem and store the dried leaves in airtight containers. (I use commercial herb containers I have washed and saved for this purpose.) I do not crush the leaves any more than I have to to get them into the container because the flavor will be stronger if I wait to crush the leaves just before I use them.

Not all commercially-sold herbs and spices are equally flavorful. Sometimes herbs sold in bulk may not be as good a choice as smaller quantities because of the freshness factor, or for anyone with an allergy concerned about cross contamination. Stored properly, whole herbs and spices can last for three to five years, ground herbs and spices for up to a year. If you are in doubt about the herb’s freshness, take a pinch and crush it between your fingers. The aroma should be strong.

I am currently moving away from the brand of spices and herbs that I have cooked and baked with for years because whatever is now in some of them is suddenly causing me to have severe soy allergic reactions. As I have mentioned before, although some manufacturers reluctantly admit to using binders (obviously the soy source)… the binders are not stated on their ingredient lists. Luckily, none of the herbs and spices I have purchased recently have caused me to have any allergic reactions at all. What a relief, because I was getting rather desperate thinking we were in for some bland food! An additional pleasant surprise is that the new products have been far superior in flavor and strength to the more famous brand I was buying previously. I prefer the small metal containers that many herbs and spices come in, and I’m finding the prices of the small containers are low enough to be competitive with the larger containers I used to buy.


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Comments

ChristyACB

Great post!

And as a second part to that: Growing most herbs is so easy it is almost criminal! Basil will take a licking and keep on ticking, thyme grows even in the hottest and dryest of pots, tarragon will come back year after year in most places and parsley will do the same if the seeds are allowed to fall.

One sure way of knowing if an herb is pure is to grow it yourself.

Diane

what a timely post! i was just wondering about this issue this very morning. we are fortunate recipients of sometimes relatively large quantities of fresh herbs… and i hadn’t a clue how to preserve them.

now i have a clue;)

Melody

I didn’t realize 1/4 teaspoon of dried herbs is equal to about 1 teaspoon of fresh, it’s good to know as I mostly used dried but some of my recipes call for fresh. Glad to hear that you are happy with your spices and herbs and that you haven’t had any allergic reactions.

I’ve been reading your blog for awhile now, really enjoying your articles as I’m interested in living with simplicity too.

Vicky

We grow, dry, store our own herbs, I love the idea of making my own seasoning mixes, thanks!!!! Do you make your own herbal teas?

Amanda

What brand of spices do you use now? I also have food allergies including soy and would LOVE to find some spices that I could feel safe eating. Also, this website is great btw :)

Shirley (Choosing Voluntary Simplicity)

Amanda, I’m all over the place with brands, but I have found that some of the smaller brands have some very clearly labeled spices. Some are soy-free, some are not, but the ingredients ARE on the label.

I have gotten in the habit of calling the companies and really pressing them to tell me if a certain herb or spice has any possible soy. It takes time but saves a lot of problems.