Culinary herbs, unlike most crops that ripen and are harvested once, will continue to produce all throughout the growing season. In fact, they actually do much better with regular trimmings. So you’ll want to snip and trim your herb plants during the summer and early fall, and then before the first frost for some of the less cold-tolerant herbs such as basil and pineapple sage, or shortly thereafter for the more cold-hardy such as thyme, rosemary, etc. you should harvest anything remaining on the plant. Follow these tips in order to harvest herbs successfully.
Tips to Harvest Herbs
There are a few general harvesting tips that will garner the best-tasting, longest-lasting leaves:
1. Always prune plants in the early morning, after the leaves have dried of any dew, but before the sun heats them up. This ensures that the essential oils are at their peak in the plants and mold won’t grow. The water-based herbs with soft, thin stems like basil, cilantro, dill, and parsley can be pinched off using your fingers, while the ‘woodier’ herbs like lavender, rosemary, and thyme are easier to snip using a small pair of scissors.
2. Remove just the tips of the branches, cutting right above a set of leaves. This will help your plants grow out nice and full instead of leggy.
3. As a general rule, take only ⅓ of the entire plant to allow it to continue to thrive. Once the growing season has ended, you can cut the plants back right to the ground if you wish. Annuals will need to be replanted in the spring, but perennials like mint, thyme, and lavender will reappear the following spring.
At the end of the season, you’ll end up with more herbs than you can use fresh, so you’ll want to dry them to use through the winter. First, carefully brush off any dirt. You don’t want to rinse the leaves in the sink because they can mold instead of drying. Remove the leaves from the stems and discard the stems.
Air Drying Herbs
Most herbs air dry quite rapidly when spread out on a screen, kitchen towel or paper towels laid over a wire rack in a cool, dry spot. If you’re in a hurry, you can oven dry the herbs. You can also dry them by hanging them in bunches. Simply spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet and heat them in the oven on the lowest setting until they are crumbly and dry – or use a dehydrator.
Once the leaves are completely dry, store them in a sealed container in a cool, dark spot. They should be used within about a year for maximum flavor. If you have space, leave the leaves whole and crush them just before using. They’ll retain more flavor and last longer, otherwise crush them between your fingers to minimize the space they will require to store.
Freezing herbs also work well, either freezing the leaves alone in plastic baggies or in ice cube trays of olive oil which can then be defrosted and used to sauté vegetables or added to cooked pasta. You can also extend the life of the sprigs of fresh herbs by putting them in small jars or pitchers of water on your kitchen windowsill and pinching off leaves as needed through the fall and winter for your cooking. Freezer tip: A helpful tip for maximizing freezer space for liquid recipes, such as soups, sauces, or juices, is to take a cardboard milk or juice container, clean it out, and then place a filled freezer bag inside. Fill the freezer bag and place it in the freezer. Your bags will then freeze in cubes that are easy to stack.