Herbal Harvest 2014

Every year I dry the herbs found in the herb garden for use during the winter months. You can see the technique used in the Drying Herbs post. I’m still using my American Harvest dehydrator to get the job done. However, since the time I wrote that original post, I’ve found a way to improve the potency of the resulting dried herbs. Each layer now has a solid sheet on the bottom. The solid sheet is supposedly designed for fruit leathers and for drying other liquids. The reduction in air flow means that the drying process takes longer, but it also means that fewer of the oils (and other useful elements) found in the herbs are wafted away by the air flow. As a compromise, you can always use the screens instead. The screens keep small particles from falling through, but they also reduce the air flow that robs your herbs of their flavor. The most important issue when drying herbs is to ensure you check their status often and keep the temperature at 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees C). A higher setting will cause the oils in the herbs to dry out and make your herbs less effective as a result.

I’m also finding that keeping the herbs as whole as possible for storage prolongs their life. You can’t store the herbs very well without crumbling them a little, but keeping the leaves as large as possible appears to help retain the oils. Crumble the leaves or even grind the herb to powder immediately before you use it to maximize the flavor. The less you process the herb, the longer it’ll store.

This year’s herb garden didn’t do well in some areas, but it did exceptionally well in others. The lime, orange, and chocolate mints were all quite potent this year. I tried a few cups of tea to see how they’d brew and I ended up using less than normal. My personal favorite is the lime mint. The chocolate mint is suitable for use in tea, cooking, and jellies—lime and orange mints are characteristically used for tea.

Herb potency varies from year-to-year based on environmental factors, so it’s essential to consider potency as part of using the herbs. I’m thinking about trying to come up with some sort of rating system that I can put right on the package before I store the herb so I have some idea of how much to use later. As a contrast to these three mints, the grapefruit mint hardly tasted like mint at all. Given that it has proven hard to grow, I’m thinking about using the space for another kind of herb.

Sage also had a wonderful year this year. The plants grew fairly large and are robust in flavor. I grew both golden pineapple and common sage. The golden pineapple sage has larger leaves and a stronger taste. It also takes a lot longer to dry than the common sage. In most years, it appears that the common sage actually produces more output, but this year the golden pineapple sage was the winner.

The thyme and rosemary were disappointing this year, but still usable. I actually have three kinds of thyme: lime, lemon, and common (also known as English thyme). Of the three kinds, the lime has the strongest taste when used fresh, but the common works best for cooking. I find that the lemon has a subtle flavor, but can be hard to grow. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any lemon thyme this year, but I did get enough of the other two to make up for it. The only kind of rosemary I can grow is common rosemary. I’m thinking about trying again with some other varieties next year, but the rosemary definitely doesn’t overwinter here in Wisconsin (as contrasted to thyme, which overwinters just fine).

I’ve talked about lovage before (see the Loving that Lovage! post for details). This year I ended up with a whole pint of seeds that I’ll use for canning and for dishes like cole slaw. It was also a decent year for leaves that will end up in soups and other kinds of cooking where a strong celery flavor is desirable.

Weather, soil, and overall care of your herb garden all determine what kind of crop you get each year. Working with herbs can be quite fussy, but also quite rewarding. The quality of herb you get from your own garden will always exceed anything you buy in the store, so the effort is worth it when you want the best results from cooking. Let me know about your herb experiences at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

The Glorious Benefits of Growing Your Own Herbs

You go to the store and pick up a jar of sage or a box of mint tea. In both cases, you’re buying an herb. The only problem is that you have no idea of how fresh that herb is or whether it’s actually pure. For that matter, you have no idea of how that herb was handled or whether it has pesticides applied. In fact, except for what the label tells you, you can’t even be completely sure that you’re getting the right kind of herb. A lot of people will tell you that the main reason to grow your own herbs is to avoid all the problems. They’re correct, of course. Nothing beats fresh herbs for taste, potency, and purity. However, this is only a small part of the story and if you grown your own herbs for just these reasons, you’re missing out on a much bigger picture.

Packaging is part of the problem when you buy an herb at the store. Sage makes a wonderful addition to tea, but the form it takes at the store makes it impossible to use in that manner. Mint makes a wonderful spice for pork, but you won’t be able to easily use it that way unless you’re willing to break a teabag apart to do it. When you grow your own herbs, you know that you’re getting just the best parts and you can prepare them precisely as you need them for whatever purpose you have in mind. The post entitled Drying Herbs tells you everything you need to know to prepare the herbs for use in whatever way you want.

Another problem with herbs you get from the store is cost. Some herbs are horribly expensive, which makes people avoid something that could make them healthier. The herbs provide some health benefits, but the main health benefit is that you can use herbs in place of salt and sugar to make food taste significantly better with fewer side effects. When you grow your own herbs you obtain a product that has higher potency because it’s always going to be fresher and it costs you almost nothing to grow.

The best reason to grown your own herbs are the varieties you can’t get in the store. This year I’m growing common thyme (the product you get in the store), along with both lemon thyme and lime thyme. Neither alternative variety is available in stores, yet each has a unique characteristic taste. The difference is subtle, but noticeable. I personally prefer using lime thyme when baking chicken because it brings out the flavor of chicken better. Of course, unless you grow your own lime thyme, you’ll just have to take my word for it.

An herb with a huge number of varieties is mint. My herb garden currently has the common mints: peppermint and spearmint. In addition, it has chocolate, lime, orange, and even grapefruit mint. There are many other varieties, many of which I probably don’t even know about. Every kind of mint has a unique taste, yet when you go to the store you have to settle for one or two of them. Only when you grow your own mint can you experience the broad range of possibilities that this plan has to offer.

The best part about herbs is that they take little space to grow and many of them are quite forgiving of growing conditions. All you really need is a window and a pot. If your window doesn’t have a shelf, you can always grow the herb in a hanging basket. There are a lot of ways to grow herbs with in your own home, on a patio, or just about any other place you can think of. I actually knew one person who had a pot of herbs in her car. I’m not entirely sure how well that worked, but she always had the pot there and the plant always looked healthy. Let me know your thoughts about growing your own herbs at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Delicious Queen Anne’s Lace Jelly

It wasn’t long ago that I wrote The Wonders of Queen Anne’s Lace. In that particular post, I provide a recipe for making a delicious jelly from the flower. This year’s jelly is the best Rebecca has ever made. The flowers were plentiful and extremely fragrant this year. In fact, the wildflowers as a whole were amazing this year. Something about the cool wet spring and odd summer weather caused the wildflowers to grow in such profusion that every trip to town was a joy (I just wish I had thought to stop along they way and take some pictures—such is the problem with missed opportunity). The difference was so incredible that the road department actually held off mowing the shoulders just so people would be able to enjoy the flowers longer (the shoulders have since been mowed in the interest of public safety). Wisconsin’s rustic roads received quite a workout as people enjoyed the splendor.

In thinking about my post earlier this week about every year being a good and a bad year at the same time, the profusion of wildflowers this year is definitely a good thing. However, it also brings to mind an issue that everyone needs to consider when using herbs of any sort (including Queen Anne’s Lace). The difference in potency this year is striking. Just sticking my nose into the bag I used to collect the flowers this year was overwhelming and you can definitely taste the difference in the resulting jelly. Herbal potency varies year-by-year and also location-by-location (it also varies according to the age of the plant, the part of the plant used, and a number of other factors). It’s important to consider the strength of the herbs you collect when you use whole herbs as we do. We don’t use herbs for medicinal purposes (an exception is comfrey, which I do use for foot baths and on sore muscles), but we do use them in cooking where a difference in potency can be quite noticeable and sometimes unwelcome when the result is unbalanced. In short, you need to take potency into consideration when picking and using herbs.

Some people try to overcome these differences by using a standardized herbal extract. A standardized extract contains a specific amount of the active ingredients in a particular herb. You can depend on the herb extract acting in a certain way. However, the equipment needed to create a standardized herbal extract is well beyond the means of most enthusiasts working in smaller herb gardens. In addition, there is some discussion that standardized herbal extracts leave out valuable, but less researched, components that are also useful and helpful. In short, when you buy a standardized herbal extract, you might not get everything the plant has to offer.

In looking at the beautiful jars of Queen Anne’s Lace jelly now adorning our larder shelves, I know I’ll enjoy a bit of summer this winter every time I have a bit of it on my toast. Sometimes the wonder of herbs comes from enjoying them just as they are. Even so, the smart gardener does keep potency in mind. Marking jars with perceived strength is a good idea, especially when cooking with a particular herb could lead to a resulting imbalance in the taste your food. Let me know your thoughts on herbal potency at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.