When it comes to convenience in cooking, herbs have a lot of things going for them, especially over spices. Short of a quick run-through with a knife, they require little advance preparation—no toasting or grinding required. Even lame supermarkets carry decent herbs (worlds better than their plastic-bound, pre-ground dusty counterparts in the spice section). And they make for an instant garnish on just about anything.
But there's nothing convenient about coming home with arms full of groceries, ready to cook your magnificent, herb-laden feast, only to find that your parsley and dill from three days ago have melted into a yellow-brown puddle of slime. It's happened to me, more times than I want to count, and you've likely been there too (right?). So here's how to kick out the creature from the black lagoon out so you can enjoy all that green, leafy goodness.
There are, roughly speaking, two broad categories of herbs. There are those that are leafy, like parsley, cilantro, and mint. And there are those that are not, like rosemary, dill, thyme, and chives.
As a general rule, leafy herbs don't keep as well as non-leafy ones. They lose moisture faster and are more prone to rotting. So plan to use these up as soon as you can; even under optimal conditions, you'll eke out a week at best. It's also a good plan to buy smaller bundles of herbs at the market. It may seem like a rip-off, especially if the bunches are sold at a fixed price, but you'll be more likely to use the herbs you have before they go off.
Beyond those general distinctions, most herbs should be cared for in much the same way. To get the most out of your herbs, treat them like flowers: they should be kept moist, but with lots of breathing room. They should be cool but not cold. And they can be preserved, if handled with care.
The first step in storing herbs is to dry off the leaves. Wet leaves lead to quick rotting, a problem as many herbs need a quick rinse before using. If you have a salad spinner, this is an easy task. Just spin your herbs dry, then lay them on paper towels to wick away any excess moisture. If you don't have a salad spinner, lay out a long strip of paper towel and roll the herb bundles until they feel mostly dry. Then let them sit on the unrolled towel for about half an hour.
To store, roll each bundle in its own length of paper towel, twice around. The towel will stall the refrigerator's drying effect, but won't trap moisture against the leaves like plastic. To sneak a few more days out of my herbs, I stick the stems in a glass of filtered water, which I change every couple days. As in the photo above, I fold the top of the paper towel roll over the herbs and tuck it into the glass (above the water line).
Lastly, keep your herbs in the front of your refrigerator, which is the warmest part. This isn't just because herbs do better at warmer temperatures, but because you're far more likely to remember them if they're in easy view. Most of the time, my herbs rot in the fridge when I forget I have them. The only herbs I don't treat this way are thyme and rosemary, which seem to stand up to common fridge abuse pretty well.
If you want to store herbs for weeks or months, I recommend freezing over drying, which tends to rob most herbs of their flavor. Pack minced herbs into an ice cube tray and cover with water before freezing. Your herb-sicles won't defrost into the crisp herbs they were, but will work fine in soups, sautés, and wet applications. This technique works best with delicate, leafy herbs.
These steps should help you sneak a few extra days out of your herbs, and keep the creature from the black lagoon out of your fridge. Next week I'll feature ways to use up all the leftovers.