Your Fresh Herbs Could Be Contaminated With Bacteria—Here’s How to Wash Them
Cooking with fresh herbs is a surefire way to add a burst of bright flavor to any dish. But before you break out the knives to chop and chiffonade your way to greatness, you should be cleaning your fresh herbs before consuming.
“It’s important to carefully wash any produce—including fresh herbs—because [it] is handled before being sold, and whether the item is organic or conventional, the growing process leaves deposits on the item,” says Molly Siegler, global culinary and hospitality associate coordinator for Whole Foods.
While you probably won’t get sick from herbs that undergo a “kill step,” such as high-heat cooking to reduce or eliminate bacteria, the dirt and residue that can be caught in the leaves aren’t exactly appetizing. However, herbs like cilantro, parsley and basil that are typically eaten raw (think fresh guacamole, homemade pesto or as a pizza topping) can carry a health risk. They’re grown low to the ground and are more susceptible to contamination—cilantro is one of the worst offenders, as it’s often sold with the roots intact and covered in sand, notes Siegler. The FDA reported nine outbreaks linked to these three herbs from 1996 to 2015, resulting in nearly 2,700 illnesses and 84 hospitalizations.
Buying herbs from a farmers market isn’t any better, either: 24 percent of cilantro, parsley and basil sourced from 13 different farmers markets tested positive for generic E. coli in a 2014 study published in Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture.
If fending off illness isn’t enough to get you washing your herbs, consider the fact that cleaning also makes them last longer. “Washing right away is actually good for the shelf life of the herbs, as it allows you time to inspect them and remove any damaged leaves, which can hasten the shelf life of the herb bundle,” says Siegler. The exception is delicate herbs, such as dill or tarragon, which are best washed right before using.
This step-by-step method for washing, drying and storing works well for most fresh herbs, says Siegler.
- Carefully remove herbs from any packaging, including twist ties.
- Remove any damaged leaves or stems.
- Rinse herbs under cool running water, turning constantly until thoroughly clean.
- Let herbs drip-dry for a moment over the sink. “Hard herbs,” like parsley, have woody stems and are much tougher, so they can be spun dry in a salad spinner.
- Check for and remove any remaining damaged leaves.
- Wrap clean herbs completely in a section of paper towel, dampening the towel as needed so the paper adheres to itself.
- Transfer wrapped herbs to a resealable plastic baggie, labeling the baggie with a date and the type of herb.
- Place baggie in the refrigerator, being careful not push them to the back of the fridge where it’s often the coldest and delicate herbs may freeze.
A few fresh herbs require a different method of cleaning. To get rid of the sand in cilantro, Siegler says, fill a bowl with cool water, add just the leaves, swirl them around and put them on a paper towel for drying. Very delicate herbs like tarragon should be carefully washed by hand under a light stream of water.