Time needed: 15-20 minutes
Tools: Pen/pencils, notebook
There are two common questions that I hear often when people are begin to purchase dried herbs to use at home. Besides where to find good herbs to buy, one question has to do with how much of an herb to buy, and the other is whether powdered herbs are ok.
Powdered herbs are great if you plan to use them quickly. If you want to store supplies in your plant pantry for a while, stay away from powder and buy cut and sifted instead. The reason for this has to do with longevity. A powder loses freshness more quickly because more of the herb is exposed to air, light, and moisture thanks to the small particle size.
There are three main options for sourcing herbs: purchasing from a brick and mortar store, ordering online, or growing your own. If you are very lucky, you might even have an herb farm nearby where you can source your herbs, but sadly that’s not the case for most of us.
Brick and Mortar Store
Although a brick and mortar store that you can visit when you need new supplies would be fantastic, in my experience it’s usually not a good choice for two reasons: clear jars and low turnover. Look for stores that keep their herbs protected from light and who place frequent, small orders. Otherwise their herbs are likely stale. This isn’t intentional, but most retailers aren’t herbalists and don’t know that light degrades herbs very quickly. If all of the herbs look the same color and have little to no fragrance, it’s best to say a polite “No, thanks” and buy your herbs someplace else.
I order most of my herbs online through specialty companies. This is a good way to get fresher material that has been stored properly - but only if you are buying from a dedicated herb company! Be careful about ordering from random sellers on Amazon, in other words. Like brick and mortar retailers, they may unintentionally store herbs improperly, or even mislabel or misidentify their plants. So always order from someone or a company that you know you can trust. The main drawback to online ordering is that you will need to plan ahead and learn to be flexible - herbs are harvested seasonally, so sometimes things will be out of stock for months on end.
Growing Your Own
Some herbs yield enough in small gardens to make them worth growing at home. Another day of the Challenge will be devoted to which herbs are the best for this, but calendula, nettle, lemon balm, valerian, and tulsi are some of my favorites here. Most people will need to focus on herbs that grow vigorously in small spaces, but if you have more room you can also consider including shrubs and small trees like hawthorn, witch hazel, and even eleuthero.
Storing Herbs to Maximize Freshness
When storing dried herbs to use later, it’s important to remember that it’s all about chemistry. Herbs are full of compounds like volatile oils and plant pigments that won’t last forever, so fresher is better. There are a few conditions that promote chemical reactions which degrade the quality of stored, dried herbs. These include:
I know they are pretty lined up on a shelf in your kitchen where you can admire them, but within a month or two they will lose all of those beautiful colors and start to go stale. Try to keep them in a cabinet, pantry, or behind a curtain on a shelf instead.
Store your herbs someplace that stays at a comfortable temperature. Especially for delicate leaves and flowers, heat will cause your herbs to lose color and fragrance.
Humidity counts! An airtight container is best to keep dampness and mold at bay, but make sure the surrounding environment isn't overly damp, either. Check for dampness and moldy smells in herbs that have been stored for a while.
Dust, airborne pollutants or household sprays/air fresheners/ cooking odors. . . ick. Put a lid on it and store those herbs in closed containers! Not to mention that your herb will lose its smell overtime - a big clue that useful properties are being lost.
A Quick Note on Shelf Life
I try to use all of my herbs within a year of purchase. I keep them in airtight containers in a cabinet away from light, and that seems to work well. Remember that your eyes and nose can help you tell if it’s still good. Herbs that look vibrant and have their own distinctive fragrance are likely good. Herbs that look drab and have little fragrance or a moldy smell should be added to the compost.
Read on below for Today's Mission!
As you do your grocery shopping this week, be on the lookout for fresh herbs that you can use next week. Check in the produce department for fresh, sage, thyme, rosemary, garlic, and ginger. You may need to investigate at a few groceries before you find one that carries them. We won’t be using these ingredients until next week, so wait until the end of the week to purchase.
If you’d like, you can also place an online order for a few herbs by choosing a bitter, an adaptogen, and a nervine. I’ve included a few suggestions for each category below. There will be some simple, flexible recipes to explore with them in Week 4, but these are not the only herbs that will work - just ideas to guide you if you would like a place to start.
Adaptogens: rhodiola, tulsi, eleuthero, schisandra
Bitters: dandelion, burdock, elecampane
Nervines - rose petals, catnip, chamomile
Also, I thought it would be great to show some love for the little herb farms and companies that you might know of and love. Have a favorite resource for purchasing your herbs? Leave a note in the comment below so that others can discover them, too!