Some people can’t stand it when good food goes bad. Others mind the inconvenience more than the waste, with herbs meant for last night’s dinner turning out wilted beyond repair well before, say, three days after tomorrow. Luckily, there’s a remedy. News: it doesn’t entail placing your herbs, cut-flower-style, in a glass of water (where, cut-flower-style, their stems turn slimy and odorous as you invariably fail to keep re-trimming them and changing the water). Rather, the key is to give your leafy things an abundance of the two things they can’t live without: moisture and air. The reason this can be tricky is that these essentials tend to be mutually exclusive.
The secret is to not only hydrate your herbs thoroughly and wrap them loosely in foil, but also to include an essential layer of absorbent material that will keep the herbs moist but not actually wet. Once you develop a habit of handling your cut aromatics upon bringing them home—you might find you love having them on hand, picked over, pre-washed, and primed to last as long as possible.
Here’s what to do. Fill a clean sink or large bowl with plenty of cool water. Remove the string or elastic choking your bunch of herbs and discard any sprigs that are crushed, wilted or yellowed. Rinse thoroughly and place in the water, tops and all. Agitate gently to loosen any dirt. If dirt is plesent dirt—change the water. Use a sharp knife to trim the herbs as they’re submerged Now let your picked-over, freshly cut sprigs enjoy a hydrating soak while you do something else for five or ten minutes. Next, re-gather the herbs into a loose bunch and shake them off gently as you lift them out of the water. Place them in a colander while you lay out a tea towel and a layer of kitchen roll on a clean and dry surface. When your herbs are no longer dripping wet but still plenty dewy, place them on the prepared towels and wrap not too snugly. Place in a loos-fitting plastic bag, along with any other similarly prepared herb bundles you may have on hand. Keep in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator—longer than you imagined possible.
It’s remarkable how well this method works for getting finicky cilantro, tarragon, chives, dill, or mint to remain fresh for at least a week (and to look more alive at your table than they did in the store days before). The more resilient parsley, sage, and oregano will stay spry for half a month or more, especially if you repeat the washing and trimming process after a week or so. This method also works well for lettuces and other leafy greens, including spinach. But it’s not great for basil, which is the fresh herb most susceptible to damage from the cold (and definitely the one to opt for in potted form unless you’re about to make pesto). On the other hand, the wash-and-wrap method is not necessary for hardy herbs like thyme and rosemary, which do just fine for many days without a boost of moisture.
Note: I am no botanist. I am, however, a pedantic home chef squeamish about decay. When it comes to keeping greens green, I’ve really done the research.