Culinary herbs are among the hottest trends in gardening. They also are popular among families who preserve fresh foods for later use.
Nearly 70 percent of home canners are growing herbs, second only to tomatoes, said Lauren Devine-Hager, a product research and test-kitchen scientist with Jarden Home Brands, which manufactures the classic Ball home-canning Mason jars.
"At least a third of them dry and store their herbs," she said.
Jarden is paying more attention to that fast-emerging market by developing new recipes, new methods of preservation, and new products for short- and long-term storage, Devine-Hager said.
"When we ask people what herbs they're growing, they tell us No. 1 is basil, followed by chives, cilantro and dill," she said. "These are all great for adding flavor to meals without using much if any salt."
People also are using herbs in ways they haven't traditionally been used, said Daniel Gasteiger, author of "Yes You Can! And Freeze and Dry It, Too" (Cool Springs Press, 2011).
"We're seeing a lot of infusions and mixology," said Gasteiger, from Lewisburg, Pa. "People are getting into herb-mixed drinks. I use vodka infused with herbs and garlic to flavor things like Dijon mustard and creamed noodles. You put a flambé on it to burn off the alcohol and it leaves the essence of the herbs behind."
Herbal innovation also is becoming more noticeable at farmer's markets, he said. "I've seen lots of herb jellies being sold. Fennel, thyme, rosemary and lavender."
Moreover, there has been a surge in the sale of food dehydrators — electrical devices that remove moisture from foods to aid in preservation.
"Many people just want to know what's in their food," said Meagan Bradley, a vice president of marketing for The Legacy Companies, which markets the Excalibur line of dehydrators. "They're using their own herbs and dehydrating — making seasonings by grinding it up."
Food preservation is a great way to stock up on essentials, Bradley said from her Miami office. "Maybe they work long hours or they want something to tide them over during hurricanes," she said.
Other things to remember when preserving herbs:
— Herbs are among the easiest plants to grow, and can be planted inside, on window sills, or outside in gardens or containers.
— Herbs can be grown from seed, making them inexpensive.
— Shelf life varies depending upon the type of herb, the amount of moisture removed and storage conditions.
— The best time to harvest herbs for drying is just before the flowers first open, when they are in the "bursting bud stage," the University of Georgia's National Center for Home Food Preservation says. Gather herbs in the morning to minimize wilting.
— Many people dry or freeze fresh herbs, while others add them to vinegars, oils, butters, alcoholic drinks, sea salt, soaps and jellies. Preservation in those cases often involves short-term refrigeration or long-term freezing.
— Dry herbs are more concentrated and have a stronger flavor than fresh herbs. "A recipe calling for a tablespoon of fresh basil would call for a half-tablespoon of dried basil," said Angelica Asbury, a culinary analyst with The Legacy Companies.