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September 01, 1998|By TERI JOHNSON

Grab a big bunch of basil, crumble it between your fingers and take a deep breath of summer.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to experience that again when the bitter winds are howling in January?

Herbs, which boost flavor and make the simplest dishes special, are easy to preserve.

Common culinary types include basil, oregano, chives, dill, tarragon, thyme, mint, rosemary, fennel and parsley.

The best time to harvest herbs is in the morning, just after the dew has dried, says Robin Siktberg, horticulturist at The Herb Society of America, based in Kirtland, Ohio. That's when the essential oils that make the herbs flavorful are strongest, she says.

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Herbs can be frozen, air-dried or dried in a food dehydrator, microwave or oven.

Diana Kaye, an herbalist and co-owner of TerrEssentials near Middletown, Md., says the best thing to do is experiment.

She says she likes low-maintenance methods that save time.


Kaye recommends soaking herbs in water for an hour or two, swishing them around to remove bugs and dirt. Rinse the herbs and let them air dry by spreading them on paper towels or brown paper bags. Let them dry for a day or two.

Kaye then loosely packs the herbs in brown paper bags, rolling the ends closed so bugs and dust don't get in. The herbs are ready when they crumble easily.

She packs the herbs in gallon-size jars and stores them in a dark cupboard.

Basil is the most popular herb, and there are at least 25 different varieties, says Nona Koivula, executive director of National Garden Bureau in Downers Grove, Ill.

To air dry, cut the stems and tie the ends together, then hang them in a warm place such as a garage. Depending on the heat and humidity, the process could take one to four weeks, Koivula says.

Most herbs can be cut and dried in the same way, she says. After drying, place herbs in an airtight glass or plastic container. Herbs stored in the dark keep their potency longer.

To dry herbs in an oven, Siktberg recommends preheating it to the lowest setting. Spread herbs on a cookie sheet and place in oven. Turn oven off and leave the oven door open a crack. Let herbs dry. Repeat the process if necessary.

To freeze herbs, rinse and pat dry. Place herbs on paper towels and layer them in a flat, plastic container, Kaye says. After the herbs have frozen, the paper towels can be removed.

Preserving your own herbs saves money, you get the satisfaction of doing them yourself, and you know they are free of pesticides, Siktberg says.

Kaye says she uses herbs every time she cooks.

"I don't use teaspoons, I use handfuls or cupfuls," Kaye says.

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