Of all the different types of foods and ways to preserve them, from pickling and curing to freezing or canning fruits and vegetables, making cheese and yogurt, drying your own herbs is probably the simplest thing to do. Most contain very little moisture, so it takes little effort after you’ve harvested them from your garden.
If you’ve ever taken a tour through a historic home, odds are, if it was authentic, there were bundles of herbs hanging from ceiling beams in the kitchen. That’s because it was once quite common for most houses to have some type of kitchen garden. Even if it was very small, those gardens almost always included herbs, for both medicinal and culinary purposes. While they were generally available at apothecaries, many houses in the 18th, 19th and the early 20th centuries, had a budget that was way too tight to allow for buying herbs that could easily be grown in their own yards for free.
Drying herbs is cheaper and you’ll get better quality too…
Drying herbs allow one to save money, as they demand a high price at the supermarket, and you get the best quality herbs at the same time.
Drying herbs is significantly cheaper than picking up a bag or bottle at the store, especially if you grow them in your own garden. While it does take a little time and effort to harvest them and hang them to dry, it’s really not much more than what it would take for you to drive to the market, buy the herbs and drive back again. By growing your own perennial herbs, you’ll have just a one-time expense, but will be able to enjoy a fresh supply of homegrown herbs for many years to come.
When you buy your herbs at the grocery store, you probably have no real way of knowing how fresh and how high quality they really are. That’s something you don’t have to worry about when growing your own herbs and drying them yourself. And, while you’ll be paying a premium price, you’re more likely to get all of those twig fragments mixed in. Plus, if they aren’t organic, you may also be getting a host of toxic pesticides, and they’ve likely been exposed to gamma radiation, which destroys pathogens and microbes but takes a significant portion of the nutritional content with it.
That said, drying your herbs is so easy, why would you want to go with store-bought?
When herbs are dried, they’re safe from mold, yeast, and bacteria, and will remain potent for at least six months to a year. To remove the moisture, all you need is air circulation and perhaps a little warmth. There are a number of ways to dry them that you can choose from – you might want to try a few and then move forward with the one you like best.
How To Harvest Your Herbs:
No matter which drying method you choose, you’ll need to harvest your herbs first. Harvest them for drying just before the flowers open – it’s easy to spot the many buds, which provide the clue that flowering is about to occur. It’s generally best to harvest your herbs during mid-morning hours after the dew has dried, but before the sun burns off newly developed essential oils.
Once you’ve harvested your herbs, don’t leave them sitting around too long or they’ll start to gather moisture or dust, which will spoil their flavor, color, and appearance.
Washing your herbs usually isn’t necessary if they were grown organically, but if they collected debris like weeds or dried grass, you can rinse them under cool water and then gently shake them to remove any excess moisture. Be sure to remove any dead, old, diseased or wilted leaves in the process.
Now that your herbs are ready, you can choose one of the following drying methods.
1. Outdoor sun drying
If you live in a warm, dry place you may want to use the heat of the sun for drying – however, this method can cause the herbs to become bleached and lose their flavor, so you’ll want to be sure they don’t get too much direct sunlight or plan on using them for a craft project. The ideal conditions are 60 percent humidity or less, and temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Once the dew has dried off your herbs, cut them and tie them into a bundle using a rubber band. The leaves and flowers or buds should be facing downward.
- Now you need to place them in a place that gets lots of sun without putting them in the direct sunlight. You can place them on drying screens outside, bringing them indoors at night, or even dry them under the rear window or windshield of your car on a hot day.
- You can use this same method and hang them in a place like your porch and tie them securely to keep them from being blown off on a windy day. After they’re bundled, tie a paper bag around the bundle and then hang them up. The bag offers extra protection against the sun and will catch the seeds that dry too.
- Your herbs are ready when they start becoming crisp and brittle, and no moisture can be felt.
2. Indoor air drying
Many herb gardens prefer Indoor drying as it tends to keep the color, flavor, nutrients and other qualities of the herb more intact than drying them outdoors. It’s especially good for those tender, leaved herbs.
- First bundle your herbs up in a bunch, tying a rubber band around the stems to keep them secure. Like before, the buds or flowers should place downward.
- Wrap a paper bag, mesh produce bag or muslin around the bundle, and tie it at the neck. This option can help speed up the drying process as well as help to catch any falling leaves or seeds. But, if you choose to dry without wrapping the bundle, you’ll get to enjoy an attractive herb display.
- As drying times often vary depending on the various herbs you’re using (from 5 days to several weeks) you may want to start out by drying only one type of herb until you know the time it will take to dry each type. Choose a warm, dry spot – not the kitchen. They should be set somewhere that’s away from both sunlight and moisture, or they’ll spoil.
- There are many different things that can be used to hang your herbs from, including nails, coat hangers, ceiling beams, etc. You can also use a drying screen rather than hanging them – make your own using an old window screen stapled to a picture frame or scrap wood, and then lay cheesecloth over that before placing your herbs on top.
- When your herbs have dried (again, 5 days to a few weeks depending on the type of herb), remove them. They should be crisp.
3. A Food Dehydrator
Food dehydrators range in price from as little as $30 to several hundred dollars, but the time they can save you often makes it well worth the cost. This Hamilton Beach Food Dehydrator is one of the most popular with a number of convenient features to make drying herbs (and foods) simple. By keeping it in a place you’ll have easy access, you’ll be more likely to use it, which means it will likely pay for itself before long.
The dehydrator will have a temperature control mechanism and a fan to circulate air, the most energy efficient types are the models that have multiple stacking trays. It can take anywhere from one to four hours to dry herbs in a food dehydrator, depending on how thick the leaves are, and the amount there is to dry. Use the instruction booklet that came with it, which will provide details as to what settings to use, etc. If you’ve lost it, you can often find instructions online by heading to the brand’s website.
4. Oven drying
If you don’t have a dehydrator and don’t want to invest in one, you can dry them in your oven. While it might sound easy, since you probably use it regularly, this is actually the most labor-intensive and least energy efficient way to go. You’ll need to set the oven on the lowest temperature possible – they generally have to be tried at 100 degrees, so if your oven doesn’t go that low, using a different technique is probably the way to go. You’ll also need air circulation.
If you want to try it, you can also experiment by using an oven thermometer. You can turn the oven on its lowest setting, and then turn it off, but leave the lights on. Check to see how long it takes before the temperature drops to 100 degrees, and how long it stays at that temperature.
- Place your herbs on cheesecloth over a wire cooling rack, which allows for air circulation – the rack should be placed on the lowest level of the 100-degree oven.
- Turn your herbs frequently.
- When the herbs start to look crisp, remove them.
5. Microwave drying
Using your microwave works better than oven drying, but it’s not as easy as using an electric dehydrator or air drying. It is a great method to choose if you need dried herbs in a hurry for a craft project, however, but it’s really not a good way to dry them for medicinal or culinary purposes. You’ll also need to experiment, as drying times can vary dramatically when microwaving, making it a rather frustrating experience. Keep in mind that herbs that tend to air dry well with little shrinking, like thyme, will need less time in the microwave than herbs that don’t air dry as well, such as basil.
- First, strip the leaves off of the stems and then place the leaves between layers of paper towels.
- Start by microwaving on high for 1 minute, and then allow a 30-second break before alternating between 30 seconds on high, and 30 seconds of rest.
- Most will be fully dry within 10 minutes, but again, you may need to experiment depending on the herbs you’re drying.
6. Refrigerator drying
This method is arguably the easiest of them all – the only problem is that you’ll have to have enough room to allow your herbs to sit uncovered for several days. If you have space, it’s a good one to try. All you do is stick your herbs in the fridge and leave them there.
- Use about six sheets of paper towels, and lay your herbs out on one end of the long sheets of toweling.
- Roll the herbs up in the paper towels, and then write the variety and date on the towels before placing them in a frost-free refrigerator.
- The paper towels help to absorb moisture in the herbs, and using a frost-free refrigerator helps to ensure the water will evaporate from the towels.
- Forget about them for a while and eventually, you’ll have some beautiful, crisp herbs that have retained their aroma, flavor, and color.
How To Store Your Dry Herbs:
Once you’ve got your dried herbs, you can use them right away, but chances are, you’ll have lots left that you’ll want to store for later use.
To do so, wash your hands first and them crumble them up with your fingers or use a mortar and pestle. If there any hard stems, toss them out. You may want to leave a few herbs whole to help them retain their aromatic oils. Place your herbs into small, airtight containers and then keep them in a cool, dark place like your kitchen cabinet. They’ll keep for six to 12 months, but the sooner you can use them, the better they’ll taste.
Some herbs you may want to freeze, as they retain their flavor better that way, such as chives, cilantro, basil, tarragon, and parsley. To freeze them, chop them up finely first and then put them into an ice-cube tray. Completely cover them with extra-virgin olive oil and place them into the freezer. Once the cubes are totally solid, put them into a plastic bag and store them in the freezer.