Parsley — the herb I use most, week in and out — is almost never on my shopping list these days. And the last time I bought canned tomatoes was probably 20 years ago.
It is no coincidence that it has been about that long since a precious portion of my garlic harvest began sprouting in storage, deteriorating before I could use it all.
What do all of these things have in common? The food-preservation power of the freezer, which enables me to store homegrown ingredients for a year-round supply, minimizing food waste.
Maybe this sounds familiar. You find yourself craving a bit of cilantro to simmer with the black beans, or some parsley or chives for a frittata or omelet, but there is none — especially outside of garden season. My experiments in freezing started there, with the desire to have green herbs on hand to enliven such dishes, or just to take tonight’s salad dressing up a notch.
Now you’ll find various herbal packets and potions in freezer bags and jars in the dark, zero-degree space above my refrigerator. A gallon bag of vegetable trimmings, including onion ends and peels and carrot tops, is always in the works in there, too, destined to become vegetable stock. That’s also where I keep my secret ingredient: the mostly scooped-out skin of the latest roasted Butternut squash, which makes the broth sweeter, richer and more golden.
Waste not, want not — taken to the extreme.
Three Ways to Freeze Green Herbs
Frozen herbs are not an ideal substitute in every situation. Defrosted pieces of flat-leaf Italian parsley — Gigante D’Italia is my preferred variety — won’t play a role among the greens in my salad the way the fresh ones do.
But as an ingredient in many recipes, they’re very good. So I freeze chives, dill, parsley, basil, oregano, cilantro, sage and mint.
Whatever the herb, be sure to rinse it first. Then dry it in a salad spinner or on dish towels. Remove the desired portions — usually the leaflets — from the stems, as you would for any other use. I have had good results simply tucking many kinds of herb foliage in double-layered freezer bags, with all of the air expressed; I chop and stash chives in four-ounce canning jars.
An easy, versatile method is to purée virtually any herb in a food processor with a little olive oil, and then freeze as you would an ice cube. These cubes can be knocked out for storage in double bags. A dollop of defrosted cilantro garnishing a bowl of winter squash garam masala soup is a treat.
Or make a pesto, with garlic and grated cheese added. Some cooks worry that herbs frozen with extra ingredients won’t taste as fresh after a month or two, but as someone who has defrosted and spread many a pesto cube on toast to brighten a winter day — or slathered a pizza crust in the making with one when no fresh basil is on hand — I disagree.
Water-based cubes are another variation. Add a little liquid when puréeing, or just press the chopped leaves into ice-cube trays and cover them with water, topping each compartment up with more after it freezes, to cover the inevitable green bits that emerge.
Let the herb and its intended end use dictate which method and ingredients you choose. Basil, for one, seems to hold up better in an olive-oil base (and is traditionally combined with it in cooking). But using olive oil with mints, including lemon balm, seems a mismatch.
I freeze some herbs, including parsley, in more than one form: as pesto cubes and also in my go-to concoction that I call parsley logs.
To make your own, stuff whole leaflets that have been washed and dried into the bottom of a sandwich-size bag — enough to form a dense, log-shaped mass that is between a quarter and half-dollar size in diameter. Then roll the bag around it, seal it tightly and reinforce it with rubber bands.
After it’s frozen, slice a disk or two from the end of the log as needed, and then wrap it back up and return it to the freezer. Compressed herbs that are frozen this way — I’ve done cilantro, chives and dill foliage, too — are easy to chop later, if desired.
Other possibilities: June’s hardneck garlic scapes can become pesto. And so can arugula or sorrel.
Ever have leftover ginger that could wither before the next time you need it? Peel, slice and bag it, and put it in the freezer, too.
Store-bought or homegrown lemongrass, trimmed and cut up, can also be frozen — as can extra scallions.
Freezing Garlic (and the Occasional Onion)
Multiple factors figure into how long garlic will last, including the plants’ condition at harvest. But softneck garlic varieties can generally be stored for longer than hardneck garlic, so use the hardneck first or plan to preserve some.
The first time I froze whole, peeled garlic cloves, it was attempted triage — a panicky rescue operation. One February, some of the previous summer’s harvest was showing signs of sprouting. I knew the current year’s crop would not be ready until late July, meaning a monthslong supply gap.
With nothing to lose, I peeled the individual cloves and tossed them in the tiniest amount of olive oil, to barely coat them. My instinct — that this would minimize freezer burn — wasn’t based on any expert research, but it proved sound. I packed them in glass canning jars, and have frozen a portion of my harvest that way every year since.
When I’m preparing to freeze whole cloves, I don’t smash them to loosen the skin, the way I might if I were going to use them right away. Instead, I break apart the heads and employ the noisy but fairly effective method that Saveur magazine popularized a dozen or so years ago: Placing them in a metal bowl, I cover it with a second, inverted bowl and shake madly. This works best if the garlic isn’t fresh from the garden; waiting a couple of months means the cloves will have shrunk a little, loosening the skins.
Another freezing option: Mince the garlic or make a paste in the food processor, adding a little olive oil, and then freeze the mixture as cubes or dollops dropped on a baking sheet, transferring it later to bags.
But I love the whole cloves the most — and not just as an ingredient. Miraculously, they can go straight from the freezer into an oiled pan, and they roast beautifully, each a mouthful of sweetness with that Allium twist.
My triage adventure also taught me to store net bags of harvested garlic at a cooler temperature than I had before. Garlic won’t last in the pantry more than a couple of months. The ideal spot is dark, dry and cold — somewhere between just above freezing and about 38 degrees, with humidity at 60 percent or lower. That’s a tricky environment to simulate at home, so I make use of a room above my barn that’s kept at about 40 degrees all winter.
A final Allium lesson: Any onions that look as if they intend to sprout are immediately chopped and frozen — or cut into chunks, with the skins on, and tossed into that soup-stock ingredient bag.
Bags of Whole Tomatoes, Jars of Tomato Junk
From the start, using the freezer yielded impressive results with little effort. Soon I stopped canning a year’s worth of applesauce and tomato sauce, my two mainstay recipes. The same jars that once held apples and tomatoes for processing in a hot-water bath now do the job in suspended frozen animation, inside one of two three-cubic-foot freezers that support my freezer obsession.
And then there is what I call Tomato Junk, a sort of mad-stash last haul, transformed within freezer tubs into colorful bricks of frozen goodness. Each vintage is a little different, depending on what is around for the picking before the first frost warning. All are useful.
Tomato Junk can be used to start soups, stews or chili — or most recipes that call for canned fruits. I gather tomatoes, of course, and herbs, zucchini and whatever else I can find. I have made batches with added peppers (labeled “for chili”) or with celery and carrots, broccoli or green beans and kale (“for vegetable soup”).
To make your own variety, sauté some onion and garlic in olive oil. Once they soften, add tomato wedges. After those soften, too, and are simmering, add pieces of the other vegetables in the order of their required cooking times, harder ones first.
Add water if needed, but remember: Freezer space is likely at a premium, and you can always dilute the mixture later.
By now, all of last fall’s Tomato Junk is gone. The final freezer bag of 2022’s whole tomatoes — the easiest preservation method of all, and how I weaned myself off the supermarket canned version — just became a weeknight pasta sauce.
Other tomatoes get the deluxe (but still easy) treatment, making their way into the freezer in the roasted, herbed form that an old friend, Alana Chernila, taught me, from her cookbook “The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making.”
Cut the tomatoes into wedges (or leave them whole, if you’re using cherry types). Arrange them flesh side up on a parchment-lined, rimmed baking sheet garnished with garlic cloves, oil, salt and herbs, and roast them in a 275-degree oven for several hours. Once cooled, they go straight into a freezer bag.
The exhumed frozen bag will become pasta sauce or (with the addition of cream) tomato soup — the ultimate endpoint for the previous summer’s garden bounty, with a supporting role played by the ever-talented freezer.
Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden, and a book of the same name.