Salt and sugar get a bad rap for their effects on our bodies when consumed in large quantities, but their ability to act as a preservative is often underappreciated. Salt and sugar prevent spoilage and make it difficult or impossible for undesirable bacteria to grow. The rule of thumb for salt curing is that 20% salt keeps most undesirable bacteria at bay.
Although dehydrating and freezing are the most common ways to preserve herbs, the rising popularity of artesian salts and infusions has brought attention to herbs preserved in salt or sugar. The preservative pulls moisture from the herbs while keeping their flavor intact. Leaves plucked from the jar can be used as though they were fresh. The remaining herbed salt works best as the finishing touch, but infused sugar can also work within a recipe. A little of the flavored salt or sugar goes a long way, and the herbs keep a long time.
1/2–1 cup flaky sea salt
Harvest herbs midmorning when no longer dewy. If needed, rinse them under cool water to remove any soil, spread them in a single layer, and let them sit until completely free of the water. If using store-bought herbs, check to ensure they are dry, crisp, and unbruised.
Strip tiny leaves, like thyme, from their woody stems. Pluck larger herbaceous leaves, like basil, from their stems. Herbs that are woody near the base but have softer stems near their tips, like rosemary, can either be stripped entirely from the stems or snapped off where the soft and hard stems meet.
Evenly coat the bottom of a 4- or 8-ounce glass jar with 1 tablespoon of salt. Add a thin layer of herbs, top with another 1/2–1 tablespoon of salt, and then continue layering in this manner until the herbs are entirely covered. Top with a 1/4-inch-thick layer of salt that completely covers all leaves. Seal the jar with an airtight lid and store in a cool, dark place.
Check the jar the next day, shaking or tapping it gently so that the salt settles to fill any gaps and adding more salt as needed to ensure a thick top layer. Let the herbs infuse for at least 2 weeks before using.
To use just the herbs, remove a leaf from the jar, shake it free of salt, and use it in your recipe. To use just the salt, scoop just the salt from the jar with a clean spoon, ensuring the remaining herbs are still completely covered with 1/4 inch of salt. The flavor is best in the first 2 months, but the herbs and salt will keep a year or more. Makes 1/2–1 cup.
Tips & Tricks
- Flaky sea salt gives a lovely texture to herb salts used as toppings, but any neutral salt can be used. I always stay away from table salt and salts with other additives, but avoid iodized salt in particular when preserving herbs; it will darken the leaves.
- With the layering method, you can use the herbs and infused salt separately as needed. For a blend, pull out 1 part herbs to 2 parts salt and mix them with a mortar and pestle until they are well combined. Sprinkle over fish, freshly picked tomatoes, Grilled Asparagus, or even cookies, perhaps along with infused sugar (see below).
- Herbs are just the beginning for flavored salts. Swap in citrus zest, reserving the juice for another use. Or flavor the salt with spices, such as peppercorns or nutmeg, or edible flowers, such as English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). Flavorings can also be combined—consider parsley, garlic, and lemon zest; cilantro and lime zest; or rosemary and thyme.
- When dipping into the jar, always use a clean spoon to avoid introducing bacteria and shortening shelf life.
Twice as Tasty
My first sugar infusions were with vanilla beans. Although Grandma Tiny’s Vanilla Bean Cookies use the entire bean, many other recipes require just the seeds, leaving an expensive, flavorful, yet tough bean pod behind. Loathe to toss such pods, I started burying them in sugar. Not only did they produce a delicious, flavoring to sprinkle over just about anything, but the infusion could replace the sugar and vanilla extract in baked goods.
From there, it was only a small leap to herb sugars. Want a hint of green on St. Patty’s Day cupcakes? Forget sprinkles or food coloring and reach for basil sugar instead. Need a tray of cookies for a party? Use vanilla-infused caster sugar in a sugar cookie recipe, and then top each cookie with a dusting of cane sugar blended with different edible flowers for a rainbow of colors and flavors from one batch of dough. You get the idea.
1/2–1 cup sugar
Harvest your herbs and ensure they are clean and thoroughly dry before stripping the leaves from the stems. For edible blossoms, cut full flowers, like roses, or blossom clusters, like lilacs, from the plant and shake them gently. Float them in cold water for a few minutes to draw out any small insects; they’ll either drown and sink or climb to the nonsubmerged blossoms, where you can pick them off. Shake the flowers or clusters gently to remove excess water, and then dry on a tea towel for at least 30 minutes, until the water has evaporated. Gently tug the petals or blossoms from their green sepals; with small blossoms like lilacs, don’t worry if the centers stay on the stem or with the blossom. Spread the blossoms on tea towel or mesh screen until completely free of water.
If you’re mainly trying to preserve the herbs or blossoms, layer as you would for Salt-Preserved Herbs, substituting sugar for salt: Start with a layer of sugar; add a thin layer of botanicals, and then alternate between sugar and herbs, finishing with a thick, full-coverage sugar layer.
If you primarily intend to use the infused sugar, grind a small portion of wood-stemmed herbs or dry blossoms with a mortar and pestle or mince a few leafy herbs or soft petals until quite fine. Add some of the sugar to a 4- or 8-ounce glass jar, sprinkle in the bruised botanicals, and then bury them with the remaining sugar, ensuring a top thick layer of sugar that protects the herbs.
Screw on an airtight lid and store the jar in a cool, dark place. Let the botanicals infuse for 2–4 weeks. To use the preserved botanicals, lift them gently from the jar; to use the infused sugar, scoop it from the jar with a clean spoon. Make sure the remaining herbs or flowers are still completely buried. The flavor is best in the first 2 months, but the botanicals and sugar will keep up to a year. Makes 1/2–1 cup.
Tips & Tricks
- Almost any sugar works for an infusion, but light-colored sugars show off herbs most effectively. I tend to avoid brown, molasses-based sugars whose strong flavor competes with the herbs. Choose a coarser grind, like turbinado, for toppings and a finer grind, like caster sugar, for beverages and inside baked goods.
- As with Salt-Preserved Herbs, many herbs work in sugars. Although sweet herbs and aromatics like basil, mint, and English lavender readily come to mind, others such as rosemary and sage are surprisingly tasty. Edible flowers such as chamomile, rose, and violet create delicious scents and flavors. Lilacs are particularly delicious whipped into cream and served with strawberry shortcake.
- A sprinkled topping of herb-flavored sugar adds a new twist to baked goods. It can also alter your breakfast oatmeal or sweeten morning toast spread with goat cheese. To put the flavor right inside a cookie, muffin, or tart crust, replace some or all of the recipe’s sugar with your infused one.
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