There’s something romantic about being able to say you grow your own herbs, and most of us start our home herb gardens with dreamy-eyed thoughts of bygone times and country cottage gardens or stately potagers.
But when it comes to using them, we often limit our repertoire to a pinch of fresh herbs here and there added to cooking, and a few old favourites we keep coming back to. Or, they end up becoming garnish: a sprig of something green on the plate that gets scraped to one side and discarded. It looks pretty, but we can do so much more! So, let’s get started!
1. Make Herb Teas
Herbal teas make for a relaxing, caffeine-free alternative to regular tea and coffee. I love a cup of herbal tea before bedtime, and I often mix and match herbs depending on what flavours I feel like on any given day. One can also look at the purported health benefits of herbs, but since many of these aren’t really backed by scientific evidence, it’s most often a case of “maybe this helps” rather than trying to cure things. For me, it’s about relaxation, flavour, and maybe just a touch of “it works for me.”
Making your own herbal tea mixes is surprisingly easy. You can use fresh or dried ingredients, and the water should be very hot, but not boiling. Steep the mix for a while, maybe add a little honey, and it’s ready to drink.
If you’re using up a harvest, you’ll be looking at making dried mixtures and storing them in airtight bottles, carefully labelled according to the blend that’s inside. Mix and match! Fragrant herb leaves and flowers give you plenty of scope.
Top candidates could include rosemary, mint, bergamot, lemon balm, scented pelargoniums, chamomile flowers, lavender, ginger, chicory root, basil, marjoram or oregano, either on on their own or blended with complementary flavours.
2. Make Flavoured Vinegar
Flavoured vinegars are great on salads, but you can also use them to add flavour to roasted veggies and as an addition to marinades. The vinegar really draws the flavour out of the herbs, so you get all the taste concentrated into the vinegar.
Making it is super-easy. The hardest part is probably choosing the right bottle. You don’t want a metal closure. Plastic is fine, but I actually prefer corked bottles even though they’re harder to find. If you use a metal closure, it will be OK if it’s lined with plastic. Alternatively, put a piece of wax paper over the top of the bottle before screwing on a metal cap.
You can use all kinds of vinegar, and just about any fragrant, flavorful herb. Or you can combine herbs to blend their flavours into the vinegar. Think of garlic and oregano combined. Or citrus and mint. Or the simplicity and flavour of rosemary vinegar. There are plenty of possibilities. Leave your vinegar to stand for about two weeks, and it should be ready to use: simple!
3. Make a Bouquet Garni
It’s an old technique for adding herbal flavours to food, and once again, it gives lots of room for creativity. The advantage of bouquet garnis is that you can use whole sprigs of herb (no fine chopping) without having your dinner guests discreetly fishing bits of leaves and stems from between their teeth.
The traditional French way of making a bouquet garni involves wrapping the various herbs from which you want flavour and nothing more in big leek leaves tied with twine, but most people go with cheesecloth. If you want complete authenticity, you’ll use fresh herbs, but you can use dried ones too. Like a teabag, the bag of herbs goes into the pot and gets fished out before the dish is consumed.
Parsley, thyme, and bay leaf are classic ingredients, but you can use any culinary herbs that take your fancy. Choose Italian herbs for Italian-style dishes, or try Asian herbs for Asian cuisine.
4. Make your own Dried Herbs and Herb Mixes
Most of us will confess to shelling out money for bottled herbs from the supermarket. Frankly, you needn’t! Clean and dry your herbs, being careful to bottle them while they still have plenty of delicious aroma. You can crumble them up a bit and remove any hard stems if you plan to shake them into dishes, or you can store whole sprigs if you’re planning to use them for your bouquet garni.
If you’re in a hurry, you can oven-dry them, but my preference is the old-fashioned method of tying them into small bunches and hanging them upside down to dry. They need warm, dry air out of direct sun and good ventilation. That’s all!
5. Make a Tincture
If you’re keen to try herbs for their health claims, a tincture would extract more than just the water-soluble alkaloids. I’m not overly keen on using herbs medicinally without consulting my doctor, who is surprisingly keen on some of them at any rate. If you do decide to try this, I’d suggest getting advice, but unless you’re on chronic medications that could interact with herbs, or have allergies, some tinctures should be relatively safe to use. You might, for example, decide to try making an echinacea tincture.
You can also use tinctures for cosmetic reasons, adding them to distilled water to make skin spritzers or mixing with aqueous cream.
The process is reasonably simple. Use dry or fresh material and steep it in alcohol. Most folks use a white spirit like vodka or gin, but you can also use brandy. The process takes four to six weeks, after which you strain the mixture, bottle it, and use it sparingly. For fresh material, go with a 1:1 ratio of plant material to alcohol, and for dried, increase the ratio to 4:1.
There are plenty of other ways to use herbs, ranging from simple ones like adding a bundle of herbs to your bath water for fragrance and a spa-like experience to making hair rinses or skin washes – just add hot water and steep. There’s potpourri, too, or those lavender sachets that keep out moths while adding fragrance to your linen or clothing drawers.
Using herbs is fun, and they can be surprisingly versatile too. A single herb can have culinary, cosmetic, and health uses, and the only one of these I’d be careful of is medicinal use. Having said that, the “everything in moderation” maxim generally holds true, and is usually safe enough provided you know your plants and which parts of them to use. You can always ask your doctor for advice if you’d like to try using herbs medicinally.
Whatever you do with herbs, enjoy those fragrances and the feeling of timelessness that only your home garden, with its flowers, herbs, and vegetables can bring. Slow down and smell the flowers – or, in this case, the herbal aromas.