Take a look at those herbs above. The ones on the left look like they were probably picked fresh just before I photographed them, while the ones on the right were hanging out in my refrigerator for weeks in a forgotten plastic bag, right? Wrong. All of those stems of cilantro are the exact same age. They've all spent 51 days in my refrigerator, to be exact. The only difference is in how they were stored.
I've already shown you how you can freeze herbs in thin sheets to use for cooked applications, and how to dry them in the microwave for intensely flavored dusts and rubs. But what's the best way to store fresh herbs if you want them to stay fresh? I tested out every method I could think of, isolating every variable—light, air, moisture, and temperature—and pushing my herbs to the limit to figure it out.
Here's what I found.
The Quick Version
Here's the quick rundown on how to store your herbs for maximum potential shelf life:
Wash them. Wash your herbs by filling your salad spinner with cold water. Swirl the herbs gently around in the water to loosen any debris. Drain the water, spin the herbs dry, set them on a layer of paper towels, and pat gently with more paper towels to blot away any excess moisture.
Store hardy herbs by arranging them lengthwise in a single layer on a slightly damp paper towel, rolling them up like a jelly roll, then transferring the bundle to a plastic zipper-lock bag or wrapping it in plastic wrap. Store in the refrigerator.
Store tender herbs by snipping off the bases of the stems and removing any discolored or wilted leaves. Transfer them to a large Mason jar with an inch of water in the bottom. Seal the jar with the lid (if it fits), or cover the top of the jar with an overturned plastic bag sealed with a rubber band. Store in the refrigerator.
Store basil by snipping off the bases of the stems and placing the bunch in a vase or a Mason jar with an inch or two of water at the bottom, just like a bouquet of flowers. Store at room temperature in a light area, but out of direct sunlight.
|Herb||Herb Type||Average Lifespan|
|Chervil||Tender||1 1/2 weeks|
The Long Version
Now let's get to the nitty-gritty of the testing to show why these are the best ways to store herbs.
To Wash or Not to Wash?
First things first: When you get the herbs home from the supermarket, can you store them as they are, or should you give 'em a quick wash first? Many sites recommend against washing, as it adds moisture to the herbs. But most supermarkets mist their herbs on the shelves these days, so those herbs are pretty darn wet to begin with.
To test whether washing makes a difference, I split a bunch of parsley and a bunch of cilantro in half, washing one half in a salad spinner filled with cold water and spinning it dry. The other half I left unwashed, though I did spin it dry to remove any excess moisture. I stored both in partially closed zipper-lock bags in the refrigerator.
Guess what? The unwashed herbs started showing signs of decay days before the washed herbs did. Why is this? Surface debris and bacteria on the herbs can cause more rapid decay. Washing the herbs doesn't sterilize them, but it does remove a good number of the baddies. (It's also an indication that it's a very good idea to wash your herbs and greens before eating them.)
The Enemies of Freshness
To test out the effects of various elements on my herbs, I bought single bunches of herbs (parsley, cilantro, basil, tarragon, chives, mint, and oregano) and divided them into multiple smaller bunches, storing each in a different part of my fridge or countertop, exposed to different levels of light, humidity, and temperature. My testing showed that a number of factors are likely to cause fresh herbs to decay or lose flavor.
- Excessive exposure to light can damage chlorophyll, causing herbs to turn yellow. This is especially true for thin, delicate herbs, like parsley, chervil, or cilantro. Stored in a sunny spot, delicate herbs will start to yellow within days.
- Excessive exposure to oxygen can turn tender herbs like basil or mint brown, particularly if the leaves are in any way damaged or bruised. In my tests, herbs that were wrapped or covered lasted several times longer than those that were left completely exposed to the air in the fridge.
- Excess moisture promotes decay, turning leaves and stems slimy or moldy. You've probably seen this if you've left your herbs inside the plastic bag from the supermarket; they quickly turn slimy that way.
- Not enough moisture can cause herbs to dry out, and as moisture leaves the herbs and takes to the air, it brings along some of the herbs' flavor for the ride, reducing their potency.
- The wrong temperature will cause herbs to decay or lose flavor faster than they should. Almost all herbs are best stored in the refrigerator, with the exception of basil and very thin-leafed mint, which can both be damaged by the cold, causing them to brown and bruise faster. In my fridge, storing the herbs at the back of the top shelf caused them to actually freeze in some parts. Ice crystals will cause cell damage, turning herbs mushy.
With that information, I had a basic guide for what I wanted: some exposure to air to allow moisture to escape, but not too much; minimal exposure to light; and a temperature that is cold but not too cold.
I narrowed the field down to five common storage methods that seemed to be the most promising. As a control, I also stored herbs by throwing them straight into the fridge in their original bag from the supermarket. I stored each set of herbs until it showed signs of rotting or losing freshness.
Here's what I tried:
- Straight from the supermarket, in a plastic vegetable bag in the fridge.
- Stored inside a zipper-lock bag left slightly open.
- Wrapped in a dry paper towel and stored inside a plastic zipper-lock bag.
- Wrapped in a damp paper towel and stored inside a plastic zipper-lock bag.
- Stem bases trimmed, stored upright in a glass of water, uncovered.
- Stem bases trimmed, stored upright in a glass of water, with an overturned zipper-lock bag covering the tops.
Straight from the supermarket was by far the worst method. Within a few days the herbs had started to show signs of rotting, and after a couple weeks, they were reduced to a slimy, unidentifiable mess at the bottom of the bag.
Wrapped in a dry paper towel in a zipper-lock bag proved the most effective method for hardy herbs, like rosemary, thyme, and sage. Surprisingly, it was also the best method for tender chives.
Stored upright with water, like flowers, was by far the best for tender herbs like cilantro and parsley. It's important to note that keeping the tops of those herbs tightly covered by placing an overturned zipper-lock bag over them and sealing it against the base of the jar was also an essential step in keeping them fresh.
The only downside of the method? It takes up a lot of vertical space, and, more importantly, there's a real risk of accidentally knocking the container of herbs over as you fish around in the fridge. More than once, I had to clean up accidental water spills after knocking over herbs while reaching behind them.
The solution? I use one-quart plastic deli containers with lids, or quart-size glass jars. By putting an inch of water at the bottom, placing the stem ends of your herbs down into the water, then folding the leaves over, you can seal up the jar and store your herbs for weeks (or even months, if you're lucky!).
And the best part is, there's no chance of a spill.
Alternative Storage Methods: Drying and Freezing
Sometimes you end up with more herbs than you know what to do with. In these cases, the herbs can be dried or frozen for future use. Dried herbs can be used just like the dried herbs you buy at the supermarket; they're best reserved for applications like spice rubs or long-cooked stews and sauces. You can dry herbs in the microwave following our guide to drying herbs.
Frozen herbs can be used in most fresh-herb applications in which the herbs are even slightly cooked. Frozen herbs are particularly good for stirring into pasta sauces or pan sauces at the last minute, or for making herb-heavy sauces like pesto and chimichurri. You can freeze herbs following our guide to freezing herbs.