Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavourful Herbs: Review & Giveaway

I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed when I first opened this book. This had everything to do with my expectations and nothing to do with the book itself. When I ordered it, I imagined a cookbook full of herb-based recipes, but when it arrived, I saw it wasn't that type of book at all.

But I put my original expectations aside, dived in and got reading. Any initial disappointment I felt quickly vanished. What I found was a lot of helpful information about how to grow, harvest and preserve herbs. And there were even a few of the recipes for herbal vinegars, butters, pastes and syrups I was originally looking for.

Summer salads are such a great way to use herbs! Chopped Salad with Parsley 
and a Tahini Dressing

Following a general introduction, The Culinary Herbal: Growing and Preserving 97 Flavourful Herbs offers profiles for a wide range of herbs. Each profiles begins with a description of the herb's smell, taste and its culinary uses. Then there are quick tips for its cultivation and propagation. The profiles end with pointers on harvesting and preserving the herb in question.

The profiles are followed by a big chapter with useful information on growing herbs.

My herb garden.

Harvesting Herbs:

Herbs can be harvested repeatedly during a growing season. Pruning them once a month will encourage new growth and the potential of a fresh yield.

Each of the book's herb profiles recommends a specific harvest time for that herb. Generally speaking, the authors advise that you harvest most types of herbs just before the plants form flower buds. Basil, for instance, becomes bitter when the essential oils are concentrated in the flowers. Exceptions would be herbs with woody stems, like oregano or thyme, that produce essential oils when in the midst of flowering.

Sage in my garden.

Choose a sunny day to pick your herbs. Herb oils are more concentrated in sunlit leaves. If you plan on drying your herbs, pick them after the morning dew has evaporated. Wet herbs will inhibit the drying process.

Drying Herbs:

Herbs can be dried in a number of ways. You can hang them in bunches or lay them flat on screens or in shallow baskets. When hanging them to dry, the book cautions you to keep the bunches small. Three to seven stems per bunch is ideal. Our old house is dusty, so I like to wrap my herbs in a piece of parchment paper and secure them with an elastic band.

The book counsels that you choose a well-ventilated place away from sunlight to hang your herbs. Depending on humidity and weather conditions, it may take from a few days to several weeks for bunches to dry. Herbs can mould if you pack them into jars when the aren't completely dried. Here's a good way the authors suggest you test for dryness: a dried herb should crumble when rubbed between your fingers.

To prepare your dried herbs for storage set out a bowl or lay down a piece of parchment paper and strip the leaves from the stems. Try not to crumble the leaves as this will release their essential oils to early (crumbling herbs into a dish you are preparing is the better time to release their oils).

You can find more tips on drying herbs in the book. When stored properly away from light and heat, dried herbs should easily see you through to the next growing season.

Thyme blooming a few weeks ago.

The Master Recipes:

The final chapter of the book offers some of master recipes for making syrups, vinegars, herbal pastes and butters.

It wouldn't be a proper review if I didn't try out a few of these master recipes. Most days it has been 30+ degrees, so to be honest, I was a little reluctant to stand over a hot stove even for the few minutes necessary to try out a few of these recipes. Once I got going however, I found I was having fun.

Freezing Herbs:

Have you seen the pins suggesting that fresh herbs be frozen in water using ice cube trays on Pinterest?

I was surprised to read the authors don't recommend this method for preserving herbs. Apparently freezing herbs in water breaks down the cellular structure turning the leaves mushy and watery. Freezing chopped fresh herbs in oil offers better results. Oil preserves the color and taste of herbs much better.  

Freezing herbs in oil is easy! Simply chop your herbs and fill each quadrant of an ice cube tray. Two-thirds herbs to one-third oil is the ratio you are going for.  Pour virgin oil oil over the herbs.

You can also use melted unsalted butter, if you prefer.  Cover the tray with plastic wrap and freeze. When the contents are frozen, remove the herbs from the tray and store them in a freezer bag.

The book made mention of parsley butter, so I decided to give making it a try. It will be great to pull it out these buttery herb cubes on a cold winter evening and dress up some otherwise ordinary mashed potatoes.

Flash freezing whole leaves is yet another way to great flavour. The thin leaves of annual herbs like parsley, cilantro and basil work best. Harvest and clean your herbs as if you were drying them. Place the leaves in a single layer on a cookie sheet and put them into the freezer for 20 minutes. When the leaves are stiffly frozen, remove them from the sheet and store them in an airtight container or freezer bag. Don't forget to label them. The authors recommend adding the leaves directly into recipes while still frozen. The bright green will become darker when thawed.

Capturing the Essence of a Herb by making a Simple Syrup:

Simple herb flavoured syrups can be used to make beverages, flavour fruit or can be drizzled on ice cream or baked goods. One day soon I'd love to try out the book's suggestion to use a herb syrup instead of water or milk in a cake. That might be interesting!

The syrups recipes in the book call for equal parts water and sugar. To make these herb syrups the authors prefer organic cane sugar. They advise that darker sugars, honey and maple syrup can overpower the delicate taste of the herbs.

Lavender at Dalhousie University's Agricultural College in Truro, N.S. They have a lovely ornamental herb garden on the campus.

The quantity of herbs or flowers needed to make a syrup varies, so I was glad to see a quick guide with recommendations as to quantities. A lavender syrup, for instance, only requires a tablespoon of flesh flowers.

I decided to try making a mint flavoured syrup to sweeten freshly squeezed lemon juice. 

The glass of lemonade didn't last much longer than the time it took me to take this photograph. It was wonderfully refreshing on a hot afternoon!

You can find the recipe and full instructions in the book.

Making a Herb Paste:

As well as freezing or drying herbs, the authors suggest you can make a herbal paste. The paste will keep for 10-14 days in the fridge or can be frozen to brighten winter sauces, soups and baked goods.

As long as you leave an inch of head space for the paste to expand in the freezing process, you can use pint or quart canning jars to store your herb paste.

Pots of flowers and herbs in a private garden.

Basil loses its distinctive flavour when dried. The authors prefer the simplicity of a paste over a basil pesto for the freezer. Garlic, pine nuts and parmesan cheese don't freeze well. It's better to add these ingredients as you prepare the dish.

Not all herbs make a good paste. The book recommends drying woody-stemmed herbs like rosemary and sage for best texture and flavour.

Herbs like tarragon, which loses its flavour when dried, are better used to make herb flavoured vinegar. Herb vinegars are another master recipe you can find in the last chapter.

Making a Herb Butter:

Savoury herb butters can used in so many ways including adding flavour to vegetables, breads, and sauces. Before reading this book I hadn't considered using sweeter herbs to add interest to pancakes, muffins and biscuits. I'd like to try that sometime.

When it comes to making herb butters, the authors caution that less is more. Don't mix more than one to three or as many as four different herbs, if you absolutely must. With too many herbs mixed together, individual flavours becomes muddled. The authors often add a clove of garlic, a little lemon or lime zest and a finely minced shallot to their herb butters. Herb butters can be refrigerated or they can be rolled into a log for the freezer. They freeze really well.

I have to warn you that making a herb butter is a bit messy process (the ice cube tray was easier in my estimation). I made dill flavoured butter, which will be nice to pull out of the freezer when I am cooking a fresh salmon fillet.

As well as herb leaves, edible flowers can be used for an interesting bit of color. You can find the full recipe for herb butters in the book.

Tomatoes with chopped chives and salad cream

Using herbs to add flavour to dishes was not something I grew up knowing. I don't think my mother, who was never particularly interested in cooking, ever used herbs. Discovering how to grow and use herbs is therefore, something I've had to learn as an adult.

Slowly I have been expanding my herb garden and experimenting with the different herbs in my cooking. The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavourful Herbs is going to be a helpful reference. I think you might enjoy the book as well.

Timber Press has kindly given me a review copy of the book, which I am going to give away. If you would like to enter, please leave a comment below. It's a heavy book to mail out, so for this draw I will have to limit a winner to North America. The draw will remain open for the next seven days.

More Information and Links:

About the Authors:

Susan Belsinger is a culinary herbalist, food writer and photographer. She is also the co-author of several best-selling, award-wining cookbooks. Her latest book, co-authored with Dr. Arthur O. Tucker, The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavourful Herbs was published in January of this year.

Arthur O. Tucker is a botanist specializing in the identification and chemistry of plants of flavour, fragrance and medicine. He is the research professor and director of the Claude E. Phillips Herbarium and an emeritus professor at Delaware State University.


  1. This looks like a wonderful book, Jennifer (love that parsley butter!).
    Thank you for sharing it here.

  2. Looks like a great book resource to have. I have been wanting to know more about preserving herbs from my garden.

  3. Would love to win this book! Going to try the parsley butter…Thanks for the chance to win.

  4. Sounds like a great read! I also have had to learn on my own about growing and using different herbs.l
    Love the blog :)

  5. This looks like a very beneficial guide....would love it!

  6. My mouth was watering as I read this post. Lemonade with mint! What a wonderful idea!

  7. In my edible garden, herbs are definitely among my "favourites" list. Will have to try some of these tips! Really appreciate your sharing them, thanks!

  8. What a great posting, Jennifer. You have captured all that is great about this book and I would love a copy. I want to know how to make the mint flavored syrup. I would use my chocolate mint. I make dill butter for my cucumber sandwiches when I serve a tea party. Your own herb garden looks lovely. P. x

  9. Oh I would love to read through this one, thanks!

  10. Inspiring post! I really need to pay more attention to my herbs!

  11. This book sounds great! I would like to enter the drawing. :)

  12. I love the book so much from what you've written and please enter me into the drawing...the tomato picture looks so real I wanted to take a slice and eat it!

  13. Sounds like an excellent book but I'll pass on the drawing. I love pesto and make it several times in the summer. :o)

  14. I love the idea of freezing herb butter cubes--what a great way to have a fresh burst of summer flavor in things mid winter.
    Please pass me in the drawing--I am scaling back on my library. Looks like a great book-I'll check it out at the library.

  15. What a fascinating book, I did enjoy the recipes, I will certainly give the oil and herb leaves in ice cubes a go.xxx

  16. I would love to have a copy of this book!

  17. The herb butters - wouldn't they make lovely Christmas gifts - if I could get my act together :).

  18. Wow ... the chopped Salad with Parsley and Tahini Dressing looks delicious, so too the variety of herb butters.

    All the best Jan

  19. This is a beautiful post with wonderful photographs. I especially like the recommendation of making an oil- (or butter-) based herb paste, particularly of basil, since it is true that the other ingredients of pesto don't freeze well. My mother used to do this, as a matter of fact, and I wish the article had included explicit directions as well.

    On the other hand, I don't agree that basil and tarragon lose their flavor when dried. On the contrary I can state categorically that high quality dried herbs really do have good flavor (except for dill, chervil, chives, and parsley). Of course tarragon and basil are both much nicer when fresh and basil especially has to be fresh for pesto (not because of the flavor but rather for the texture and color). But both herbs dry perfectly well. Aside from this minor point, anything that gets people acquainted with and using fresh culinary herbs (and preferably growing them) is a great addition to our cookbook literature in my book.

    1. Thanks for sharing your views on dried basil and tarragon. I still have lots to learn about using herbs in my cooking.


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