9 Things to Do With Leftover Herbs

Bowl of butter with herbs and a loaf of brown sunflower bread

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How many times have you used a few sprigs from a bunch, only to watch the rest wither up and die?

In a perfect world, we would all step out the back door to our kitchen garden and pick a few sprigs of fresh herbs to season a meal. Or we'd head over to our windowsill herb pots and pluck off a few leaves for said same purpose. At the very least, we would be able to buy fresh herbs from the market in single serving quantities. But alas. If you are beholden to buying a huge bouquet of fresh herbs, you best have plans for the lot of it because otherwise a whole withered mess of it will end up in the trash. So with that in mind, here's some sage advice on how to battle the bounty.

1. Make wonderful delicious compound butter (with vegan option)

This magical concoction is way more than the sum of its parts – and it's a breeze to make, and having it on hand in the freezer is a game-changer for weekday cooking. It is basically little more than a mash of softened butter with minced herbs, formed into a log to be sliced and allowed to melt on everything from steamed vegetables, rice, and mashed potatoes to pasta, bread or fish. There are many recipes out there in Google-land, but you don't need one. Start with softened butter (coconut oil works for vegans); I use sweet butter and add sea salt to taste. Add a load of minced herbs and whatever else you have on hand (I like a touch of fresh garlic and lemon zest), plop it onto a piece of parchment paper and roll it into a log. Store parchment-wrapped log in an airtight container in the freezer. Cut into slices straight from the freezer and allow to melt directly on top of hot food. (Plus: If you have some extra dried seaweed snacks looking for a purpose, you can make seaweed butter in the same way. It's so good.)

2. Make pesto

Traditional pesto made from basil is a thing of classic deliciousness, so if you are blessed with an abundance of basil, lucky you. But it need not end there. Pesto with any tender herb is lovely – cilantro, mint, parsley all make for a knockout pesto and you can match and mix as you like. Don't be afraid of experimenting with other green things as well; arugula, fennel fronds even vegetables and winter greens. Once you've made your pesto, spoon it into ice-cube trays or muffin tins and freeze it, decant them once frozen and store in an airtight container in the freezer. See how to make pesto with crazy greens for more.

3. Simmer some homemade stock

I like to refrigerate all my vegetable scraps throughout the week and make stock as soon as I have enough – everything from carrot tops to onion ends to tomato bits goes in a pot and simmers for a while, then is strained, cooled and used for soup, risotto, etcetera, or goes into the freezer. Adding fresh herbs to this – stems and all – is a bonus gift.

4. Freeze them

For basil only, water or steam blanch 1 minute. For other herbs, blanching is not necessary. Freeze in a single layer on cookie sheet. Pack into an airtight freezer storage container; bring out as needed.

5. Infuse vinegar

Herb vinegars do special things to salads and are a snap to make. Wash and dry herbs – the sky's the limit on which herbs you want to use. Put 1/2 cup of herbs in a clean jar or bottle, pour two cups of vinegar on top. Apple cider vinegar is the darling of the vinegar world but may overpower delicate flavors; I like champagne or red wine vinegar. Shake a few times and store in a cool, dark place for 10 days or more. Check for flavors, remove herbs, and store in refrigerator for up to six months.

6. Channel your inner hipster bartender

Most bars in Brooklyn look like old-timey apothecaries with their rows of spirits taking on the flavor of various additions. I love this use for herbs because you can even use the stems which otherwise often go to waste. Keep a jar or bottle of vodka in the fridge and add (clean) herbs and stems as you have them, keeping in mind that stronger ones like rosemary may be overpowering. Add some lemon zest or orange zest if you want to give it an extra layer of interest. Taste every few days so that it doesn't get too strong; when it's to your liking, remove the herbs. (And you can continue to add more vodka and more herbs, adjusting as you go along.)

7. Dry them

This may be obvious, but there are good ways and bad ways to approach drying herbs. Here is what the National Center for Home Food Preservation recommends:

Less Tender Herbs – The more sturdy herbs such as rosemary, sage, thyme, summer savory and parsley are the easiest to dry without a dehydrator. Tie them into small bundles and hang them to air dry. Air drying outdoors is often possible; however, better color and flavor retention usually results from drying indoors.
Tender-Leaf Herbs – Basil, oregano, tarragon, lemon balm and the mints have a high moisture content and will mold if not dried quickly. Try hanging the tender-leaf herbs or those with seeds inside paper bags to dry. Tear or punch holes in the sides of the bag. Suspend a small bunch (large amounts will mold) of herbs in a bag and close the top with a rubber band. Place where air currents will circulate through the bag. Any leaves and seeds that fall off will be caught in the bottom of the bag.
Another method, especially nice for mint, sage or bay leaf, is to dry the leaves separately. In areas of high humidity, it will work better than air drying whole stems. Remove the best leaves from the stems. Lay the leaves on a paper towel, without allowing leaves to touch. Cover with another towel and layer of leaves. Five layers may be dried at one time using this method. Dry in a very cool oven. The oven light of an electric range or the pilot light of a gas range furnishes enough heat for overnight drying. Leaves dry flat and retain a good color.

Once dry and crumbly, store in an airtight container in a cool, dry and dark area. To substitute dried herbs for fresh in a recipe, use 1/4 to 1/3 of the amount called for.

8. Infuse sugar

Herb-tinged sugar gives a nice little surprise to desserts, cocktail glass rims, tea, fresh fruit, etcetera. Start with a quarter cup of fresh herbs that are sweet-friendly like lemon verbena, rose geranium, lavender, mint – or if feeling more adventurous, shiso leaf, basil, or cilantro. You can crush them a little with your fingers to release some of their goodness before covering them with about two cups of (organic, fair-trade!) sugar. Shake the jar every few days and after about two weeks, remove the herbs. In a well-sealed jar, this should last up to a year – though you will likely use it all before its time is up.

9. Make salad

Once at a dinner party way back when given by a friend, who happens to be a very talented local chef, she served a tossed green salad made of parsley. An early proponent of farm-to-table, she had the herbs and put them to use, and the result was as surprising as it was delicious. You may not want to make an entire salad out of leftover herbs, but taking whatever stray strands you may have and adding them to a mix of greens is a wonderful way to use them up and enliven a salad at the same time.