Herbs the whole year round
Your joyful balcony herb oasis won't last forever. When the summer draws to an end, your herbs wilt and you have to resort to buying (usually less aromatic) varieties from the supermarket. Or step in at the right time and dry your herbs. If you do it right, you can capture the full intense flavour of the herbs. Because through the slow drying process, the heat-sensitive essential oils, to which we owe the unique aroma of laurel, oregano, dill and so on, are preserved in the best way possible. You can also preserve your herbs in oil or put them in salt. But more on that later.
Harvesting herbs — the right time
Of course before you can dry your herbs, you have to pick them first. The right timing is crucial here. Timing varies depending on the herb. It is best to harvest the bulk of herbs before the flowering stage, because that's when the ingredients and flavours are particularly valuable. This is the case for sage, rosemary and hyssop, for example. But there are some exceptions. Savory and oregano remain aromatic even after they have bloomed.
Always harvest your Mediterranean herbs on sunny days. Cold and damp really diminish the aroma of the plants. The best time to get to work is after the morning dew, when the leaves are dry once more and the midday heat is yet to come. Cut the stems with a sharp knife or scissors and remove yellowed leaves. Sometimes insects hide between the branches so you should give the branches a good shake before continuing to work with the herbs. If there is dust or dirt stuck to the plant, carefully rinse it away then pat the plant dry. Alternatively you can carefully clean the herbs with water the day before picking; try using the fine spray of a garden hose. The leaves will have dried again by harvesting day and it won't be necessary to clean them again.
There's still work to be done. You should store the herbs accordingly so that you can enjoy of the intense aroma of your herbs for a long time. If you want to use the herbs for seasoning or for herbal teas, it's best to wrap them in paper and stow them in a dark drawer or a dry, dark pantry. Or keep the dried herbs in air-tight and opaque glass or porcelain containers. Plastic containers are usually less suitable because they have a distinctive odour which can affect the aroma of the herbs.
Freezing herbs instead of drying them
Not all aromatic plants lend themselves to being dried. Basil, chives, dill, coriander leaf, parsley, tarragon and chervil, for example, lose a great deal of their inimitable fragrance when dried. No need to despair, because you can freeze the plants as well. Here's a quick run-through of the process: wash the herbs, pat them dry and chop them up finely. Then spread them out on a tray before putting the tray in the freezer. Later, when the herbs are frozen, place them in practical freezer bags or containers.
If you would like to use the herbs for sauces, stews and soups, it's worth preparing herb ice cubes. To do this, place the chopped herbs in ice cube trays, pour in water and store the trays in the freezer. When the cubes are frozen, pop them into appropriate storage containers. Now you can simply stir the practical cube into warm dishes when cooking.