Starting Out: Herbalism

Herbal remedies for sale in Patzcuaro, Michoacan by Thelemadatter via Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, I put this information on Ezine articles and also on my blog at fannyfae.com.   Since starting this blog, I felt it important to update a bit of the information – and tailor to fit this blog’s specific focus.  Herbalism was probably the biggest influencer for me to get into the whole mindset of sustainability and embracing the ideas that surround homesteading and self-sufficiency.

I later ended up working for a major herb and natural product wholesaler, whose products you will find in just about every natural grocer and food co-op in the U.S. and Canada.    What I gained while I was there was a invaluable experience, knowledge, and access to some of the greatest herbal minds of our time.  Some of these living treasures have become herbal mentors for me on an ongoing basis.   Eventually, I decided to set out on my own.  I hope that some of the information I pass along is of use to readers.  Please feel free to contact me via this blog, on Facebook or Twitter with any questions or comments.

Today’s world, there is an undeniable increased focus toward more natural ways of both eating and healing. This is especially true of using more natural herbs, spices and other natural ingredients for cooking, making your own medicines and other herbal products or by capsulating and taking them as supplements for wellness.  Many of us who are herbally inclined, whether we are cooks, herbalists, or homesteaders, are asked about  how to use these natural ingredients.  We also are often asked the best way to store them and what their estimated shelf life is.  Dried herbs, much like the plants they are derived from while they are still growing, can suffer from too much dryness or damp or suffer from an infestation by pests such as insects or other animals.

The there are severa keys toward maintaining freshness of herbs and spices. Amont these are  air, light, dryness, moisture  and heat.  Each factor can adversely affect your herbs and spices and  can shorten their overall shelf life.

Ideally, herbs and spices are best stored in glass, air tight containers  which are kept in a cool, dark place. This does not mean that they should necessarily be stored in a refrigerator. However, It is a good idea to keep them in places that keep these factors in mind.  Herbs and spices do best when they are stored in a place that is kept below 70°F.  It is also best to store them in a space that is away from the furnace or areas that tend toward dampness.  This would include a root cellar or a basement where there is no dehumidifier.  A basement or other space that is also equipped with a dehumidifier is fine. This small, hard working appliance can do much to remove excess moisture from the air.  Excess moisture will initially cause the herb’s taste to deteriorate and eventually, this can also cause mold.  Light will cause fading and break down the volatile oils to the  point where it has little or no medicinal value, color or taste.

Herbs at a local natural food co-op  (photo by the author)

Whenever possible, try to store your herbs and spices in dark amber or cobalt blue glass.  If these options are not available, storing them in a cupboard or a drawer that is dark most of the time is fine.  If you have nothing but sunlight penetrating every bit of space in your home, you can reduce light from penetrating the storage containers and damaging the herb by hanging up a curtain over your spice rack or herb cabinet.

Whenever purchasing any dried herb or spice, be sure to check for freshness. Reputable suppliers and manufacturers will have some sort of system that gives a date that indicates when it was packaged or when is the optimal time for it to be used by.  If you purchase your herbs in bulk, there is a trick to reading the UPC code. If the information you are looking for about freshness isn’t obvious, be sure to call customer service for the company you purchased it from.  They can walk you through how to read their particular system.   Armed with this information, look to see if it is well within the freshness date.  Of course, you certainly don’t want to buy a pound of something that’s going to go out of date quickly. If you can, check the aroma.  Does it smell “sharp” and fresh?  Or does the aroma seem really dull or nearly non-existent?  Also take a look at the color of the herb.  Does it look faded?  Or is it the color that it should be?  Lastly, be particularly on the lookout for  any signs of webs, eggs, dirt or damage to the herb. These things could be an indication of an infestation of insects or other pests. If the quality of your herb or spice isn’t satisfactory,  call them and ask for a replacement and/or a refund.

Again, if you buy your spices and herbs in bulk at the natural food cooperative,   you want to be sure to store them in clean airtight containers once you get them home or when you open the package.  Do not use plastic containers to store your herbs if at all possible. The most important reason for this is that plastic is porous.  The herb mater will allow the volatile and essential oils which are in the plant, even after it is dried, to lodge themselves within the plastic.  The same goes for whenever you buy herbs and spices in the grocery store.  Try not to buy anything if it is in plastic.  Go with glass. I promise that yu will be happier in the long run.  Even though it might be nice to have a plastic container that smells of herbs and spices,  it can be nearly impossible to remove. Make sure that the size of the container fits the amount of herb or spice that you have. Too much air left in a container will cause deterioration to colour, aroma and most importantly, flavour and efficacy.

The shelf life of an herb or spice is different for each type of herb, spice, tea or even for coffee. Most of the flavour of any of these plant materials comes from the volatile or essential oils that are contained within the plant matter. Volatile oils do have a tendency to oxidize or evaporate over time or when exposed to factors such as air, heat and light. When this happens, they lose their flavour than when they are in their whole form. When an herb is ground, the surface area of the herb or spice has been increased.  Once this happens, the chances of the volatile oils evaporating much more quickly is increased. If you do find that an herb or spice has deteriorated in any of these areas, be sure to compost the old herb material, purchase fresher herb, and replace it. The benefits to your cooking and enjoyment that you experience will be worth the cost.

Below is a guide for the estimated shelf life of various herbs, spices and teas.

Whole Spices and Herbs –  1 year
Roots –  3+ years
Seeds and Barks –  2+ years

Ground Spices or Herbs
Leaves – 6 months
Seeds & Barks –  6 months
Roots –  1 year

Teas
Black & Green Tea –  1 year
White Tea, or Herbal / Blended Teas – 6 – 9 months

Coffee

Whole Bean – 3 months
Ground (not vacuum sealed) – 2 weeks

The latter section is why I want to scream at shoppers who insist on pre-grinding their coffee.  It is not a good idea for you to ever pre-grind your coffee at the grocers ahead of time unless you go through a great deal of coffee very quickly. By very quickly, I mean within a week or two, three at the most.   While storing  ground coffee it in a freezer may slow some of the deterioration on taste of ground coffee, you will be far ahead of the game if you get yourself a small electric or hand cranked coffee grinder.  Grind   only what you need as you use it.  Doing it this way  insures that you get the best taste. Just as it is with ground herbs, you are not increasing the surface area so the volatile oils evaporate.  You will definitely notice the difference in the taste.

Whenever you are ready to use your herbs and spices, make certain to always use clean, dry measuring utensils.  Taking these precautions ensures that you avoid introducing any contaminants or moisture into your herbs and spices.  Use them to taste and enjoy your herbs, spices, teas and coffee as often as you like.

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