Salt Like an Egyptian

I love learning new things, especially when they pertain to gardening or cooking. Even better when the new info covers both. And I recently discovered something that rocked my world.

Fresh herbs can be dried and preserved in salt or sugar, and this method maintains nearly all of the flavor and aroma of fresh herbs. How could I not know this? I know salt is used to preserve meat and fish, but herbs?!? This is huge!  

Think about how different, bland, and downright wrong some store-bought dried herbs taste. Dried rosemary, for instance, is reminiscent of school yard dirt. Dried basil–sawdust. And they cost a fortune for a tiny little jar, especially if you buy organic.

The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all used salt to store their herbs, which is weird, because I watched HBO’s Rome religiously (and repeatedly), and I don’t remember anything about herbs in salt. Incredibly buff men in togas, yes; herbs in salt–not so much. But I digress. These advanced civilizations enjoyed almost-as-tasty-as-fresh herbs whenever they wanted. And so can we!

Salt-preserving couldn’t be simpler. Just  rinse your herbs, then blot them dry with paper towels, or lay them out to dry for at least a half hour. If you’re a serious foodie, you can use that salad spinner you bought yourself for Christmas. However you do it, make sure there is no water left on the herbs before you start preserving them. If you like, you can strip the leaves from the stems at this point, or you can wait until you are ready to cook with the herbs to de-leaf them. Totally up to you.

Next, grab a clean canning jar, cookie tin, plastic tub, or pretty much anything that has an airtight lid. Pour about a half-inch layer of coarse sea salt, kosher salt, or non-iodized salt into the bottom of the container. Add a layer of herbs, then a thin layer of salt–just enough to cover the herbs–and press down firmly. Keep alternating layers, pressing down firmly after each salt layer, until your container is full. The top layer should be another thick, half-inch layer of salt.

Cover the container, and store it in a cool, dark place. Your herbs should be dry in about a week, and they will keep practically indefinitely. When you need herbs for that culinary masterpiece you’re creating, simply grab some leaves, shake the salt off, chop, and add to your dish. Bonus: although the herb will absorb little if any of the taste of the salt, the salt will absorb the flavor of the herb, giving you herbed salt, which you can also use to enhance foods and impress your friends. Imagine serving tarragon salt with poached eggs, rosemary salt with roasted potatoes, or lemon thyme salt with asparagus. Your friends will think you’re Martha Stewart!

The best herbs for salt-preserving are basil, chives, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, thyme, savory, and tarragon. For sweeter herbs like mint and lavender, use the above method, substituting sugar for salt. You can then add the herbs to baked goods or sorbet, sprinkle them over fruit salads, and stir a spoonful of mint- or lavender-laced sugar into your tea.

I am positively giddy. Never again will I be forced to buy a whole bag of fresh marjoram when I only need a teaspoon, then watch in despair as the once-lovely leaves turn to slime or grow fur in my (poorly named) crisper drawer. Nor will I let my lush basil plant just die at the first frost because I know it will turn black or puke green if I freeze- or oven-dry it. No, fellow gardeners, I will salt like an Egyptian and enjoy inexpensive, delicious, healthy herbs on demand–starting in about a week.

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  1. Elaine
    Posted March 3, 2011 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    That’s brilliant!! I’m totally going to try this at home. I might just go get a rosemary plant specifically for this purpose, in fact. And lavender sugar… mmm!

    • admin
      Posted March 7, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

      Elaine, it’s so easy–and tasty. I’ve got rosemary ready, and my chives and thyme should be good to go in a few days. I’ve started thinking about preserving some blends too–Herbes de Provence, poultry seasoning, Fines Herbes…the possibilities are endless!

  2. Posted March 4, 2011 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    this is fantastic….i too am giddy about this information. i have some potted rosemary and basil that i will be preserving today. and as the egyptians used to say HALLELUJAH!

    • admin
      Posted March 7, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      Sharon, isn’t it awesome? Last night I used some rosemary I preserved a couple of weeks ago on a four-cheese pizza. Yum!!!

  3. Posted June 23, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    doing this today with my oregano

    • admin
      Posted July 1, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      Great! Let us know how it goes.