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Caring For and Storing Herbs
by Elliot Essman
Ernest Hemingway once remarked that he could express the essence of a novel in a six-word want ad: "For Sale, Baby Shoes. Never Used." You can find drama anywhere. A few years ago when I was looking at houses in Santa Fe, I viewed a breathtaking hilltop property in which the sellers were busy as bees tagging everything for an estate sale. As a cook, the bargain neurons in my brain quickly sensitized as I scanned the kitchen items. Then, horror! They were actually sticking sale labels on the dozens of old supermarket spice and dried herb bottles.

Please allow me to go one up on Hemingway in the brevity Olympics by using just five words: "Trash Old Herbs and Spices!" Ground spices and flaked herbs dry up and lose their essential oils in, at most, a year. If you do end up using packaged dried herbs like parsley, oregano, and thyme, you may get some quality by grinding them using a mortar and pestle before adding them to your recipe. The grinding will release essential oils, if any remain, but you still won't get the flavor and bouquet of fresh herbs. Pre-packaged whole spices, like nutmeg and cloves, can be ground as needed, but still, the fresher the better.

Pepper is by far the most common spice we use. Even though whole peppercorns have keeping power, it's still best to go as fresh as possible. If your pepper grinder has been sitting unused for six months, throw out the old peppercorns and refill. If you have pre-ground pepper, unless very coarse, you may be able to use it in self defense, but don't expect it to add much flavor to food.

If you buy dried herbs whole, they may give you a few months good use. Look for vivid colors. Store in sealed containers in a cool, dark place. Drying tends to concentrate flavors, so figure that one measure of quality dried herbs should equal double the amount of fresh herbs, which contain all that moisture. You can dry your own whole herbs of course. Hang them in bunches upside down in a warm, dry area, away from direct sunlight. Cover the herbs with paper bags poked with ventilation holes to keep out dust. A week ought to do it.

Drying works best with robust herbs: bay leaves (which are almost always used dried), rosemary, sage, oregano, marjoram, and thyme. Parsley belongs to the fragile herb family, along with chervil, tarragon, basil and mint. You can safely assume that supermarket parsley, tarragon, or chervil flakes lost all their elan vital back in the warehouse, before they even got to the store.

Using fresh herbs doesn't have to be a European-style shop-every-day proposition, however. If home herb drying is not your cup of (herbal) tea, you can freeze. Even fragile parsley takes well to freezing. Keep the herbs whole. Rinse, pat dry, place in freezer bags and press out the air. A great advantage of frozen herbs is that you can take the herbs out of the freezer, grate or pick off what you need, then throw the still-frozen sprigs right back in for later use. Robust herbs like rosemary and sage are also well suited to preserving and infusing in oil, or making into visually attractive herbal vinegars.

In handling and cooking with fresh herbs, think in terms of opposites. You crush dried herbs to extract the oils and encourage the bouquet, you cut fresh herbs, remaining careful not to crush or bruise them. After removing the leaves from the stems, if you're using a food processor, pulse carefully, making sure not to over-chop. A full-size chef's knife, rather than a smaller paring knife, will give you the proper action to chop herbs, but the knife must be sharp, otherwise you'll bruise the herbs no matter what consistency you aim for. Hold the blade tip against your cutting board and rock back and forth until you get the consistency you want. The mezzaluna (half-moon), an Italian two-handed mincing knife, is ideally suited to chopping herbs; just rock back and forth gradually over the herbs.

In using fresh herbs, we return to the dichotomy between robust and fragile herbs. Robust herbs like rosemary and thyme are almost never eaten raw. They usually require significant cooking to reduce their harshness and bring out their essence in a dish. Fragile herbs like basil and parsley are frequently eaten raw. If they are used in hot dishes, they are best when coarsely chopped, since they bruise easily. Fragile herbs should generally be added toward the end of the cooking process, or used as a garnish, otherwise their volatile oils will dissipate completely. The song Scarborough Fair aside, fragile parsley has actually little to do with robust sage, rosemary, and thyme. What these herbs do have in common is that you can now find them fresh almost anywhere. If you do find yourself holding an inventory of old packaged herbs and spices, just get rid of the contents and save the bottles in a box until they become coveted collectors' items. Top -- Food Articles Home

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