I love fresh herbs and I think the easy availability of them in supermarkets is one of the best changes that has happened to the food culture in this country over the past few years. Dried herbs have their place, but the dusty remains of dried basil from a jar may as well be from a different species compared to the aromatic leaves of fresh basil. Having said that, fresh herbs aren’t cheap, averaging about 80p for 28g. If you’re living on your own or as part of a couple, buying fresh basil for one meal means that you’re going to waste most of it as, even in the fridge, the packet will be heading towards sileage by the end of the week.
(Now, before anyone tells me to buy the growing herbs in pots or to grow my own from seed, I have black thumbs. I can kill houseplants just by sitting next to them. I killed ivy. Even my mother gave up buying me plants. I have not had any more success with herbs than I do with geraniums.)
Luckily you can freeze some herbs, and I’m not talking about the women’s magazines chop-them-and-put-them-in-ice-cube-trays trick. I keep my ice cube trays for ice cubes for my gin and tonic, thank you, but I still manage to freeze herbs.
Before you start freezing herbs, you need to think about what freezing does to a plant. When a plant is frozen, the water in its cells expands and breaks through the cell walls that give the plant its structure. This means that frozen plants will go limp and soggy when they’re defrosted. So herbs either need to be robust enough to survive this freezing onslaught or you were going to present them as limp and soggy anyway. Think about frozen spinach. If you defrost a block of it, you have a dark green, soggy mass. But that’s OK, because that’s how fresh spinach goes anyway when you cook it.
Good Freezing Herbs
Rosemary – this is so tough that freezing doesn’t seem to affect it
Thyme – the leaves are so small that freezing doesn’t change them and if you scrunch the stems you can then sprinkle the leaves out ofthe bag without having to pick them off the stem
Dill – this surprised me as well, but chopped fresh dill doesn’t retain its structure so you don’t notice it with the frozen
Tarragon – as dill – I always use this chopped finely so you don’t notice it’s been frozen
Bay leaves – leaving aside the fact that you take it out of anything you’re cooking before serving, I suspect you could dip this in liquid nitrogen and not notice any changes
Kaffir Lime Leaves – as bay leaves
Chillis – the smaller the better for this. Bird’s eye chillis don’t even need to be defrosted before using them – they’re thin enough to chop straight away
Lemon grass stalks – you will need to defrost them before using, but running under the hot tap will do this quickly if you forgot to take them out the night before
Ginger – either peel and cut into pieces the size you usually use and freeze separately, or break the whole root into the size of piece you can work through without it going mouldy
There are some herbs I don’t freeze. These are leafy herbs, where I need them to be fresh and leafy not limp and soggy when I serve them. I’m talking parsley, coriander, mint, chives and basil here. I rarely need to preserve coriander – it’s in nearly constant use in my kitchen. I tend to use parsley more as a salad leaf than as a traditional herb, so any sitting in the fridge at the end of the week tends to end up Friday’s take-to-work salad. Chives don’t freeze successfully. In addition to going unattractively soggy, freezing changes mint’s flavour rather like leaving it sitting in hot water too long does. I’ll assume that no one is even going to try freezing basil, it’s a complete non-starter.
So if you’ve got half a packet of mint left what do you do with it? I chop it finely, put it in a small sealable pot or box, cover it with oil, put the lid on and store it in the fridge. The herbs should last for three to four weeks in the fridge, depending on how often you open the container. The oil will set a little in the fridge, but will go back to liquid at room temperature. You can then add spoonfulls to soups, stews and dressings, or drizzle over salads and pasta before serving.