One of the best ways to go zero waste is training an eagle eye on food waste. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that prior to last year, food waste wasn’t something I thought very much about, believing the compost bin absolved me of any food-waste-related-sins. Of course, that’s not the case. Even local foods require work and effort and energy: food has to be planted, watered, weeded, harvested, stored, packed, shipped, stored again. Reducing waste in the kitchen is not just about plastic wrap and paper towels; it’s about eating what we buy, too.
Wasting less food is one strategy that lends itself nicely to making do with the tools we already have on hand; it can be done with nothing more than a grocery list and a daily peek into each corner of the refrigerator. During my own refrigerator peeks last summer, I noticed that the foods that we most consistently allowed to go bad prior to eating were fresh herbs, and resolved to do better.
There are a few strategies that have helped us reduce the number of slimy parsley stems (etc.) that find their way to the compost. The most efficacious has been growing a few of our herbs ourselves: right now we have thyme, oregano, and mint still alive despite the paltry winter sunlight, and this summer I hope to add other favorites like parsley and cilantro to the mix. Because we pick only what we need for that meal, we never have to store the herbs we grow and they never go bad.
Of course, that leaves many other herbs we don’t grow ourselves, which we instead buy and store. My experience has been that herbs can last for weeks or can go bad in what feels like seconds, and taking time to store them properly means the difference between the two. Here’s what I’ve learned:
-Remove bad herbs immediately: Whether you notice a few right when you get home from the grocery or later as you pull them out to cook, each time you see a yellowing or blackening leaf, pull it out and discard it. Sorting through a pile of some-slimy and some-fresh herbs is no fun; removing offenders immediately makes them less likely to adversely affect the others.
-Storing parsley and cilantro: These like to live in the refrigerator with a little, but not too much, moisture. We pick the leaves off the stems (laborious, but worth it - the stems are chopped and added to soups or beans), then layer them in a glass container with a piece of dry paper towel on the very bottom and a piece of slightly damp paper towel on the top. (We still have some paper towels leftover from older days since we basically only use them for this, but when we run out I’ll probably designate a few small cloths specifically for the purpose). The slight humidity keeps them from wilting. We also sometimes store parsley upright in a glass of water on the counter, which makes for a pretty tableau. If you do the same, change the water daily and make sure that no leaves are below the water line.
-Storing chives, sage, thyme, and rosemary: Unlike parsley and cilantro, these do best stored dry, wrapped in a dry cloth or paper towel in an airtight container in the fridge.
-When in doubt: Decide whether the herb is “soft” or “hard” and store accordingly. Soft: parsley, cilantro, mint, dill, and basil. Hard: chives, sage, thyme, rosemary, and oregano.
-Extra credit: Washing (and drying) herbs prior to storing them helps them last even longer. I’d like to say our lack of a salad spinner is what’s preventing us from doing this, but I think it’s more likely that sometimes even just getting them in their proper container seems like almost too much to manage on a weeknight evening.
Perhaps the best way to store herbs is not to at all: to use them in everything until they’re gone. When we have some big bundles around, I make a concerted effort to use them at every possible turn. If I bought parsley for one recipe, there’s no reason it can’t go in another, or a salad, or a pasta sauce. Simply remembering they’re there is helpful. (And in an herb explosion, there’s always pesto or chimichurri).
Lastly, herbs that are fast escaping your ability to use them can be air-dried and stored in a jar or container for later use.
I’d love to hear: what storage techniques work best for you? Other tips for using bunches up?