How to Dry Herbs

comments (3) April 28th, 2009

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Click To Enlarge Photo: Scott Phillips

Air drying fresh herbs at the peak of their flavor preserves the flavor and color of their leaves, flowers, and seeds. Certainly, no dried herb will have the piquancy of fresh, and a few idiosyncratic varieties, such as coriander, chervil, and frilly parsley, tend to develop off-flavors. But with planning and care, most herbs, from agrimony to zatar, can be dried with excellent results.

The thickness and water-holding capacity of each type of leaf, blossom, or seed head will determine the length of time and amount of attention needed to dry it successfully. Small-leafed thyme, delicate borage flowers, and low-water-content rosemary need to be watched closely to ensure that they don't become overdried. Lush, thick borage leaves and bulky dill blossoms require attention to avoid mildew or contamination by other flavors or aromas over their longer drying period. Many popular herbs, such as oregano (leaves and blossoms), 'Genovese' basil, and Italian flat-leaf parsley, fall somewhere in between.

  Can I harvest now?

Mints are at their best before flowering, so pick then.
• Harvest oregano and thyme when the flowers are barely open.
Rosemary leaves are easy to dry. Pick them whenever you want.
• Pick sage flowers when the top blossoms are barely open. Wait another month or so to snip leaves.
• Pick tarragon when it's lush, before cool nights cause it to yellow.
• Basil should be picked before the plant sets flowers.
• Pick chive blossoms young, before seeds develop.
• Trim the lacy leaves of dill before the plant flowers. Later, pick the flowers before the seeds set.
   

Time your harvest for the best flavor
If you often walk among your herbs, you know there's a time in their growth cycle when they are heaviest with fragrance. This is the time when their oils and resins are at peak concentration-and it's precisely the time you should be picking them. For basil, it's before it sets flowers. For thyme, it's after. Oregano blossoms are as deliciously aromatic and flavorful as the leaves, so pick them when the mood strikes you. For parsley, the time to pick is before cool autumn weather toughens the leaves.

The time of day for harvesting herbs makes a difference, too. I prefer mid-morning of a dry, moderately sunny day, after the dew is off the plants. I've adopted a simple technique for cleaning them prior to drying. Early in the morning, I gently spray water on upright herbs, such as basil and oregano, on both the top and underside of the leaves to remove dust and dirt. Since I mulch my garden with hay, I don't have to worry about dirt splashing up from the ground.

Then I let Mother Nature dry them for a few hours just before I harvest, cutting them close to the ground to ensure a long enough stem for easy bunching. For varieties that hug the ground, such as thyme, I wash them after cutting, shaking off as much excess moisture as possible, then spinning them in a salad dryer.

Snip the herbs Tie the herbs into bundles
When harvest time is at hand, snip off sprigs, leaving enough stem to bunch the herbs together.   Tie the bunches with cotton string or butcher's twine.
   


Find a dry, out-of-the-way place

While it's romantic to think of hanging up bunches of herbs to dry in a warm, bustling kitchen, the oil particles, smoke, and competing tastes and fragrances generated during daily food preparation can mask or contaminate the delicate flavors and scents of your herbs. And bright light will cause colors to fade. Far more appropriate would be an extra bedroom with the shades drawn, a dry cellar or attic, or even a little-used closet. The key is to provide a dust-free environment and plenty of ventilation in a spot without direct sun. If you don't have natural air circulation, consider setting a fan on low to keep the air moving.
 

Video: How to Dry Herbs View videos on preserving herbs:

Video: How to Dry Herbs
Video: More Ways to Freeze and Store Fresh Herbs


You'll need something to hang your herbs from, such as a closet rod, laundry rack, or twine strung across a room. I like cotton string or butcher's twine for bunching herbs. You also may need some clean paper bags.

After you harvest your herbs and they seem free of excess moisture, examine them stem by stem to be sure they're as clean as possible. If they're not, there's no getting around ridding them of dirt; rinse them. Then, gather them into small bunches to assure good air circulation. Tie them tightly with twine and hang them upside down to dry, leaving a few inches between each bunch.

If ambient dust, soot, or other particles are a problem, you'll want to protect your herbs while they dry. Hold a paper bag next to each herb bunch and check to see how far the bag covers the herbs. The bottom few inches of the herb bundle should poke out from the bag. Trim the bag and punch a hole in the middle of its bottom panel. To guard against mildew, punch a few holes in the sides of the bag. Turn the bag upside down and draw the herbs, stem side up, into the bag. Fish the twine through the hole and tie it to the closet rod, laundry rack, or string. Continue tying, bagging, and hanging your herbs, leaving ample room between each bag. If you're using a fan, turn it on low and angle it in a way that keeps air moving around the herbs.

Protect herbs from dust Hanging bagged herbs
  If you need to protect herbs from dust or dirt, draw the bundle into a paper bag, dried end first (left). Then hang the bags from a cord or rod (above).
   

Are they dry yet?
Every day or two, check your herbs. You should be able to feel a gradual but steady decrease in moisture content. Continued dampness requires immediate action to improve air circulation. Increase fan speed to move the air more. If you bagged the herbs, you may want to remove the bags and hope the herbs stay clean. Or, make bigger holes in the bags or cut them shorter so less of the herbs is covered.

Check herbs for dryness
  You'll know herbs are dry when they break into pieces.
 

When the herbs are dry, the leaves will crumble easily between your fingers into small pieces. If you're unsure whether they're dry enough, snip a little of the herb off and place it in a clean, dry glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Set the jar in a warm, sunny spot for a few hours and see if any moisture condenses inside. If it doesn't, your herbs are dry enough. If the leaves form a powder when you crumble them, they're too dry, and you may have lost a substantial percentage of their volatile oils.

Fragrance and flavor through the year

Some people report success using ovens, microwaves, and dehydrators. All of these methods work, but they require a good deal of trial and error, and very careful attention. This is because artificial heat can quickly overdry herbs. This can happen in hours in a dehydrator, in minutes in the oven, or in seconds in the microwave. Still, each of these methods is worth experimenting with, especially if you live in a very humid climate where mildew is a major threat during air drying.

Proper storage keeps herbs colorful and flavorful. I store the leaves and flowers whole, crumbling them as needed. The smaller exposed surface area slows the evaporation of oils still present in the leaves.

Keeping your herbs on a shelf over the stove may be convenient and attractive, but the heat and light will fade their colors and shorten their useful life. A dark, cool, dry environment is best. I keep mine in glass jars in a cabinet. Stored this way, properly dried herbs will keep their color and flavor for about a year.

Use your senses and your imagination when it comes to adding dried herbs to your cooking. If you think an herb will work in a dish, check the herb's aroma. If it smells right, it will work. Use a light touch at first, as the flavor is concentrated. Soon you'll be cooking meals steeped in the fragrances of summer-all year long.

Herbs throughout histery: When eye of newt isn't enough

Herbs in historyAre you swooning from a lover's rebuttal of your charms? Do you need to keep a steadfast heart to endure the crash of your company's stocks? When eye of newt and toe of frog aren't enough, turn to another form of healing: herbology.

As far back as the great Greek and Roman civilizations, common folk, royalty, even clergy used herbal spells to cure ills, ward off evil spirits, or put a pox on their enemies. Thyme was believed to impart strength and courage; sage to alleviate grief. Rosemary strengthened memory and restored vigor. Basil increased wealth; garlic kept evil spirits at bay. Saffron and savory were believed to be aphrodisiacs, as were anise and coriander.

Of course, mere mortals are always seeking means to improve their lot. And while we can't guarantee any of the above really work, herbs are wonderful culinary additions. Like spices, they were once helpful in masking the odor of putrid food. Fortunately, they're now used to enhance great food, and if used sagely, may work a little magic on dinner guests.

by Ellie MacDougall
August 1997
from issue #10


posted in: herbs, Preserving (Canning, Drying, Freezing)

Comments (3)

LesliePaige writes: Ericavil: I have been saving those net bags for a reason! Thanks for a great solution for I have been strung out a few times with stringing my basil, celantro, and parsley.
Posted: 11:03 am on April 8th
gemkees writes: I used a multi over-the-door hook set and hung it on my free standing clothes dryer. Gives the herbs plenty of space and not touching.
Posted: 12:55 pm on July 12th
ericavil writes: While using string to tie up herbs is attractive, it's a pain to do and doesn't work for drying only the tips of herbs or just the flowers (as with calendula, red clover and bee balm). I prefer to loosly stuff the herbs in net bags to dry them. Easy and effective.

I save all the various plastic net bags that produce comes in during the winter and take them out to the garden or field with me when it's time to collect herbs. The cut plants can go directly into the bags. It's nice to have a variety of sizes and weaves so you can choose what might work best for the size, shape and quantity of plants your are drying.

Fill them with herbs without stuffing and hang them up or set on racks. Check the second day or so to make sure clumps haven't formed and to shift the contents so all surfaces dry evenly.

If I hadn't learned the net bag method, there's no way I would be drying so many of my own herbs!
Posted: 1:06 pm on July 20th
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