In the bag

Keep herbs fresh with paper and plastic

April 22, 2008

When it comes time to account for my sins, cilantro abuse won’t be at the top of the list, but it’ll be up there. I use a lot of cilantro — in salsa, curry paste, salads, sandwiches, quesadillas, and chili. That’s no sin, of course. But typically I’ll buy a $1.29 bunch at the supermarket, mince up a tablespoon or two, and put the rest of the bunch back in the crisper drawer in its plastic bag. A day or two later, the cilantro will have putrefied into brown sludge and I’ll throw it away and repeat the process. I’m not just a cilantro killer; I’m a cilantro serial killer.

No other fresh herb gives me quite as much trouble. I use a lot of Italian parsley, but it’s hardy enough that I usually get two or three uses out of it before it reverts to dirt. Sage, thyme, and rosemary last a couple of weeks. And delicate basil? Well, if you check my list of sins, you’ll find that I don’t actually like fresh basil.

Keep your fresh herbs in a glass of water — unless you knock such things over easily.

Because my grocery budget has been growing out of control but giving up cilantro is unthinkable, I wanted to find a way to enjoy its green freshness on demand without being so wasteful. Here’s what I tried.

Growing my own. The gold standard, no doubt. Last year I planted a pot of cilantro on the balcony, and, in a refreshing departure from my usual gardening adventures, it actually grew. As soon as there was enough homegrown cilantro for a batch of roasted tomatillo-serrano salsa, I harvested it and made the best salsa of my life.

Upon dipping the last chip, I realized I’d cut all the cilantro and that was it for the summer. This year I’ll plant several pots in rotation and hope it doesn’t bolt immediately. Assuming all goes well, I’ll be rolling in cilantro all summer, but what about the tacos I’m making for lunch today?

Taking it downtown. At Seattle’s many Asian supermarkets, cilantro runs about 50 cents, which is a big psychological distance from $1.29. Unfortunately, my closest Asian market is a serious bus ride away. I should probably move and tell people it’s for work-related reasons.

Being a king of convenience. I tried two processed cilantro products. Trader Joe’s sells frozen cilantro cubes in a cute miniature ice-cube tray, imported from Israel. The taste was OK, but it took many cubes to impart much cilantro flavor, which made the cost savings negligible, and it only works in applications where you’d cook cilantro, because it’s already cooked.

Then at Safeway, I found Gourmet Garden refrigerated herbs in a tube. I was hoping this would be as good as tomato paste in a tube, which I swear by, but it turned out to have about as much culinary potential as Tartar Control Crest.

fresh cilantro
Wrapping fresh herbs in a damp paper towel and then a plastic bag works well and saves space.

Precarious storage. Many sources advised storing the cilantro upright in a glass of water and covering the leaves loosely with a plastic bag. Some people report that this keeps their cilantro fresh for up to three weeks. It might have done the same for mine, except I knocked the glass over on day two and was too frustrated to set it back up.

Bagging it. The most common suggestion for preserving fresh herbs is to wrap them in a wet paper towel and place them in a ziplock bag. This, I’m pleased to report, works great, but it didn’t stop me from . . .

Buying new toys. I’d long admired the FoodSaver vacuum sealer, but was too cheap to drop $100 on it. Then Reynolds came out with the Handi-Vac sealer, which sells for a mere 10 bucks. The bags look like ordinary ziplock bags, but with a special area for applying the vacuum sealer. Obviously they’re playing the “we’ll give you the razor” game, and obviously I bought one right away.

My daughter and I spent the afternoon putting various things into the vacuum bags, sucking out the air, and watching, say, our socks shrink into little lumps. We even remembered to vacuum-seal some cilantro — one bag with a moist towel and one bag with just unwashed herbs. Then we left town for a week.

When we got back, the moist cilantro was rotten, but the dry was fine. This was very cool, but I’m not sure it works any better than the vacuum-less bagging method, nor do I need more than a week to make it through a bunch of cilantro. The vacuum sealer was still a good investment, though, because it makes cool noises and could give you a severe hickey.

So there you have it: the solution to my cilantro conundrum is as boring and low-tech as a paper towel and a plastic bag, a couple of seed packets and a bag of dirt. Now, for my next scientific inquiry: What happens if you vacuum-seal stuffed animals?

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

There are 13 comments on this item
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1. by anonymous on Apr 22, 2008 at 11:49 AM PDT

The Handi-Vac is only meant for frozen storage. I was disappointed at how it kept some refrigerated things, so I checked the instructions to see what I was doing wrong. As it turned out, they tried to warn me!

2. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Apr 22, 2008 at 2:51 PM PDT

anonymous, you can tell how closely I read the manual.

3. by Tempting Fate on Apr 22, 2008 at 8:47 PM PDT

for a waste-free version of this wrap a damp clean tea-towel around leafy green herbs and put the bundle in the fridge- save those poor paper towels. my gran also taught me to put salad greens into a pot with a lid (she had an old battered steel one whose handle had fallen off)and into the fridge to keep them amazingly fresh for a long long time. the pot technique is amazing for keeping those watery asian-grocer type of bean sprouts fresh too.

4. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Apr 22, 2008 at 9:38 PM PDT

TF, saving paper towels is so two months ago!

Seriously, thanks for the tips.

5. by janelle on Apr 23, 2008 at 10:54 AM PDT

loved reading this article:).

I make a mean cilantro pesto, maybe you could make that and freeze it in ice cube trays for a much more interesting frozen version than the TJoes cubes.

Have you had the pork sandwich from baguette box? Layered with big glorious sprigs of cilantro, it is divine. Cheers Matt!

6. by dusksunset on Apr 23, 2008 at 11:40 AM PDT

I freeze washed cilantro in a ziplock bag and use as needed. It holds for months this way. While the flavor is a bit less intense, you can compensate by using more.

7. by Kate on Apr 24, 2008 at 2:54 PM PDT

Albertson’s here in Seattle sells fresh cilantro in a soft plastic cone thingie that you can put in a glass of fresh water and then in the fridge. I’ve had the stuff last for 2 weeks! I use the cones for other herbs that don’t come in them after the cilantro is gone. If the water gets icky I use for my potted plants outside.

8. by DawnHeather Simmons on Apr 18, 2009 at 6:34 AM PDT

ohmigosh! I just read this article and just about gave myself an asthma attack from laughing so hard! I, too, have wondered how to preserve cilantro, but not gone so far as to experiment. I just use it all at once or wind up tossing the sludgy stuff that didn’t get used. Now I’m going to have to try some of these other suggestions. But, in the meantime, I thoroughly enjoyed your article. Thanks! (oh, and stuffed animals are kinda like marshmallows, if you take my meaning...)

9. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Apr 18, 2009 at 8:11 AM PDT

Thanks, DawnHeather!

10. by anonymous on May 13, 2009 at 4:07 PM PDT

if you put the cilantro in the Handi-vac bags and then stored in the freezer, do you think that would keep it good enough to use for salsa in a few months? and still retain a good flavor?
I found a store with a great sale on the cilantro and would like to take advantage of it.

11. by Matthew Amster-Burton on May 13, 2009 at 4:18 PM PDT

anonymous, that’s a good question, and I have no idea. What are you planning to do with the cilantro? I wonder if it might make more sense to make whatever you were going to make, and then freeze that.

12. by steve bryant on Apr 3, 2010 at 11:37 AM PDT

Cilantro (at least in TN) is a good 2-year herb. One plant does poorly but next year, six fresh plants spring from the initial one.

I vacuum sealed 50 lbs of Alaskan halibut and froze it. It made for incredible Ceviche for 9 months and the fish tasted absolutely fresh. I advise getting a small freezer with a vacuum sealer.

13. by anonymous on Jan 5, 2011 at 4:44 PM PST

I know that you wrote this article several years ago, but I assume you still love cilantro. You totally need an aerogarden for winter. You can grow your cilantro (or any other herbs) all year! But if you get one, get the master gardener kit instead of the prepackaged herbs that they sell. The stuff that you pot yourself is much better tasting.

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Unexplained Bacon

Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.

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