A line of jars aglow with colorful herbal vinegars greeted us as we arrived at our third Master Food Preserver training session. The evening’s focus was on drying and herbs, and the flavored vinegars were samples of just one of the ways to preserve the taste of summer. Left to right: raspberry, tarragon, parsley-thyme, and lemon-dill-pepper vinegars.
Several stations were set up to take us through various procedures and techniques. Strawberries leftover from the last session were pureed, combined with applesauce for added structure, slicked onto trays made for this purpose, and dehydrated into fruit leather. Mary Bell’s Complete Dehydrator Cookbook dedicates an entire chapter on making food leathers, with inspiring recipes going far beyond fruit, with unusual leathers made of rhubarb, pumpkin, tomato or beet.
Drying herbs is the easiest way of preserving them. Tender-leaf herbs such as basil, oregano, tarragon, and mint can be dried quickly by hanging them inside paper bags to dry. I hadn’t thought of this before, but using a hole puncher to puncture the paper bags is far more effective and less dangerous than using an ice pick or skewer (who, me?). Simply close the top of the bag with a rubber band, and place where air currents will circulate through the bag, until the herbs are sufficiently dried.
Flavoring vinegar with herbs is another preservation technique that can be done at home. We made separate batches of sage and rosemary vinegar, with white vinegar as a base. As with any preservation technique, it’s important to wash the fresh herbs thoroughly. After the herbs are washed and dried, it’s recommended that they be dipped in a sanitizing bleach solution of 1 teaspoon household chlorine bleach in 6 cups of water, particularly if they’re to be packed in a liquid. To test the efficacy of this step, the herbs were rinsed twice and appeared to be clean before dipping in the sanitizing solution. Afterwards, they’re rinsed once again under cold water and pat dry.
For home use, most will want to choose a agitated wash over using a sanitizing solution. Still, the amount of residue and organic matter (re: insects) that settled to the bottom of the sanitizing solution after dipping the already twice-cleaned herbs was notable.
A sprig of herbs was placed in each sterilized jar. White vinegar, heated to just below the boiling point (at least 190°–195°F), was then poured over the herbs, leaving a 1/4 inch headspace. The jars were sealed, then let to sit and cool undisturbed. To extract the greatest flavor, the vinegar should be left for 3 to 4 weeks in a cool, dark place. Once the desired strength of flavor is reached, the vinegar is strained or filtered, and rebottled in sterilized jars.
The next method we explored in class was making a savory herb jelly, in this case using sage. Mint jelly is the one most are familiar with, however, the basic recipe lends itself to endless variation, dependent only on the availability of particular herbs.
Lastly, herbs may be preserved in the form of a pesto. While this uncooked mixture of basil, garlic, pine nuts, cheese and oil is best enjoyed freshly made, it may be frozen for long term storage. Since garlic turns bitter when frozen, it’s recommended that it be omitted, and added back in just prior to use.
Fresh basil has a tendency to oxidize, and one way to help retain its bright color is through the addition of lemon juice. Two test batches of pesto were made as a comparison — the one on the left with lemon juice, the one on the right without. The difference was noticeable right away, and the batch without lemon juice began to blacken quickly.