Fresh herbs are one of those tricky ingredients to buy since the standard quantity they sell at the supermarket is almost always far more than you need for any given recipe. What's worse, they also go bad quickly in the fridge, so anytime you buy fresh herbs, there's a good chance you're going to end up throwing at least some of it away.
Even a single day in the fridge can cause fresh herbs to turn limp, wilted, discolored, even slimy.
You can certainly grow your own herbs and simply snip off what you need, but short of that, the best way to avoid waste is to store your fresh herbs properly so that they last as long as possible.
To do this, we need to divide fresh herbs into two broad categories and look into the optimal storage method that suits each type.
Are They Soft Herbs or Hard Herbs?
We distinguish the two types by their texture. Leafy versus woody is one way you could describe it, but to make it simpler, we'll just say soft and hard. Rosemary is an example of a "hard" herb, whereas parsley we'll classify as "soft." You can decide for yourself by looking at the stems. A green, tender stem puts it in the "soft" category, while a brown, woody or thick one makes it "hard."
- Basil (see note below)
We've classified chives as "hard" even though they don't actually have stems. The entire herb is the green shoot itself, but the best way to store fresh chives is by using the hard method.
The Best Way to Wash Fresh Herbs
It's generally recommended to wash your produce, fresh herbs included. It's good for food safety purposes, especially if your herbs won't be cooked, like in a salad, a dressing, or as a garnish. Fresh herbs don't carry illness-causing bacteria, but they can become tainted via cross-contamination.
In any case, you certainly don't want dirt, insect parts or other physical contaminants in your herbs, so a quick rinse is a good idea.
But rather holding your fresh herbs under the tap, which can damage leaves and break off delicate stems, fill a large bowl (or the sink) with cool water, dunk your herbs in and gently swish them around.
The Best Way to Dry Fresh Herbs
Which brings us to drying your herbs—this step is important since storing wet, dripping herbs in your refrigerator is not a way to keep them fresh.
Herbs are at least somewhat similar to lettuce, so you might be tempted to dry them in a salad spinner. Unfortunately, a salad spinner can bruise and break them, even the hardy ones. And because the leaves are so small, they can fall through the openings in the salad spinner basket.
Instead, lay out some paper towels on your counter. Lift the wet herbs from the water, allowing excess water to drip off, then lay them on the towel. Cover with a second towel and gently pat the herbs dry.
You won't get them 100 percent dry, but that's exactly what you want. Your fresh herbs should be slightly damp, but not still soaking wet.
How to Store Fresh Herbs
And now we come to the two storage methods, one for soft herbs and one for hard ones.
For soft herbs, store them standing up in jars of water in the fridge. An ordinary glass jar will do, although you might want to split a bunch of herbs across two jars to avoid crowding them.
Fill your jars about halfway with water. Gather up the herbs in a bunch and stand them stems-down in the jar. If the stems are very soft, the herbs might droop a bit rather than standing straight up, which is fine, as long as the ends of the stems are in the water. Next, grab a plastic produce bag and cover the whole top of the jar so that the herbs are completely enclosed. Secure the bag with a rubber band and transfer the jar to the fridge where your herbs will keep for two to three weeks.
Note that basil is too delicate for the fridge, so store it in the jar as described, but keep it on the counter (but out of direct sunlight).
For hard herbs, it's even easier. That's because the best way to store hard herbs is rolled-up in a damp paper towel inside a resealable plastic bag in the fridge. And since they're already on a damp paper towel, all you have to do is gently roll them up. If the paper towels are saturated, either squeeze out the excess or use new ones. But if you use new ones, spritz them with water to dampen them first, as dry paper towels won't work as well.
Now place the rolled-up herbs in the bag and, without sealing it, transfer it to the fridge. Stored this way, your hard herbs will last two to three weeks. Note that you can store more than one roll in a gallon-sized bag.
To Seal or Keep Open
The air in the refrigerator is quite dry, which is why it comes equipped with crisper drawers, whose purpose is to create a small humid storage area within the fridge. As the moisture from fresh vegetables evaporates, it remains in the drawer, slowing the rate at which those veggies dry out.
And while some air circulation is good for fresh herbs, in practice it is difficult to achieve this without them drying out. Which is why loosely covering the jars is the best way to store tender herbs, while wrapping in damp paper towels and storing them in plastic bags, but not sealing the bags, is the best method for hardy herbs.