If you’re lucky enough to have the space and green thumb required to keep herb plants growing from spring to fall, congratulations. The rest of us suffer the indignity of buying those plastic-shell, $4-a-piece herb snippets at the grocery store, and then pray they’ll stay good for more than 12 hours in our kitchens. Ditto with farmer’s-market herbs. So what’s the best method for keeping these precious greens fresher longer?
Using herbs right away is always preferable, of course, says Lynn Alley, author of Cooking With Herbs, who says their delicate flavors begin to deteriorate “pretty quickly” after they’re picked. She recommends, if you must save herbs, standing them up in a glass of water, optionally with a plastic bag loosely covering the top.
I get similar advice from chef Jamie Simpson, executive liaison to The Chef’s Garden and The Culinary Vegetable Institute. He follows what he calls “the Vestinos method,” named for renowned bartender and spirits consultant Peter Vestinos. The Vestinos method involves making a fresh cut at the bottom of the stem of herbs like basil, mint, cilantro, parsley, etc., then standing them up in a glass of water filled just to cover the base of the stem. Store it on the counter, Simpson advises; change the water daily; and make a fresh cut at the base every few days. Hardier herbs like rosemary can be placed in a single layer on a damp cloth, then rolled into a bundle and wrapped in plastic wrap or a zip-top plastic bag in the refrigerator.
That’s two endorsements for the store-in-water-in-a-jar method. Seeking a final opinion, I turn to my handy copy of The Vegetable Gardner’s Bible by Edward C. Smith, a book that—in my foray into backyard gardening—I have come to regard as, indeed, a bible. He endorses the Vestinos method for basil storage, and mostly suggests you dry and store all the other herbs for longterm use.
The drying-and-storing method seems like the only option for those who can’t use all their herbs right away, but it might make more sense to process those herbs and freeze them, Lynn Alley tells me. She likes to mix chopped herbs with olive oil, then freeze them in ice cube trays. Those cubes can later be dropped into pasta sauce, onto chicken dishes, into soups, etc. (The ice-cube trick works with classic basil pesto, too.)
“In the wintertime, when you don’t have fresh herbs, I love nothing more than cooking some pasta and the only thing I need on it is one of those herb ice cubes from the freezer,” she says.
Making and freezing an herb butter works, too, Alley says. Just make the compound herb butter—you can follow this New York Times recipe, or just mash together butter and herbs and wrap it with parchment paper (no recipe required)—and freeze it. Alley likes to freeze hers in cylinder/log shapes: “Then you can just slice them off like sausage.”