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 we get around to using them, say, three days after tomorrow. Luckily there’s a remedy. And no, it doesn’t entail placing your herbs, cut-flower-style, in a glass of water (where, cut-flower-style, their stems become 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 (often mutually exclusive) things they can’t live without—moisture and air.
The trick 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 plant itself moist but not actually wet. Once you get over the hassle of having to devote a little time to your cut aromatics right after bringing them home—you might find you love having them on hand, picked over and 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. Submerge the remainder and agitate gently to loosen any dirt. If the stems appear damaged, use a sharp knife to trim them under water. Now let your picked-over and freshly cut herbs enjoy a hydrating soak while you do something else for five or ten minutes. Next, lay out a tea towel and a layer of kitchen roll on a clean and dry surface. Re-gather the herbs into a loose bunch and shake them off gently as you lift them out of the water, so they’re still dewy but no longer dripping wet. Place them on the prepared towels and wrap snugly. Cover loosely with plastic (or place in an open sturdy plastic bag that you use for keeping all of your pre-washed leafy packages). 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 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 spring onion, in turn, can stay spry for half a month or more, especially if you repeat the washing process after a week or so. This method also works well for lettuces and foods like 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. (It’s probably also a great way to keep dill in the fridge, though given how well chopped dill performs when it’s frozen, the freezer is actually where I choose to keep all my dill.)
Note: I am no botanist. I am, however, a pedantic epicure squeamish about decay. When it comes to keeping greens green, I’m pretty sure I know what I’m talking about.