March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Whether it's rosemary, basil, tarragon or cilantro, fresh and dried herbs are one of the quickest, easiest ways to punch up the flavor of foods. Do you know how to store them for optimal safety and taste?
"Proper food safety and storage for herbs is just as critical as it is for any other ingredient, especially fresh herbs," says Robin Plotkin, RDN. "These are grown, transported and sold in the same way as many vegetables and therefore have the same opportunities for exposure to bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes."
Here's how to keep your herbs fresh, safe and tasting their very best.
- Be picky. When shopping for fresh herbs, choose those that are completely clean and free of soil, which may harbor pathogens that can lead to food poisoning. At home, cut off and discard any bruised stems or leaves.
- Keep them cold. Fresh herbs should always be refrigerated, starting in the grocery story and again when you bring them home. Just like other perishable foods, refrigerate fresh herbs as soon as you get home from the store.
- Store them right. Most herbs will keep unwashed in a plastic bag for up to five days in your refrigerator. However, those with leaves that brown or wilt easily such as basil or cilantro will fare better stored, stems down, in a glass of water with a plastic bag placed loosely over the leaves.
- Cleanliness is key. Before using fresh herbs, wash your hands well in warm, soapy water. Then, make sure your herbs are clean by washing them under cold, running water and drying them carefully with a clean paper towel. When cutting or chopping, use a separate cutting board designated only for fruits and vegetables to ensure that they don't become contaminated with bacteria from raw meat, poultry or seafood. Soap up a second time. "Tossing herbs into a dish at the end of cooking is very common," says Plotkin. "That allows for lots of opportunities for cross-contamination from foods you may have touched earlier while cooking, so be sure to take a few minutes to wash hands with soap and warm water again before garnishing."
- Don't forget dried herbs. These can be a tasty alternative to fresh, but they also require proper care. "Many people store their dried herbs and spices right above the oven or on shelves with direct access to sunlight," says Plotkin. "However, heat and light degrade their flavors very quickly." Moving herbs to the pantry or to a closed cabinet can protect them. Stored there in an airtight container, they'll stay fresh for at least one year.