I’m living a cliché this morning: caught up in autumn’s entrance as September slowly unfolds and October eagerly awaits his annual debut. It’s too early for the crunch of leaves, no pumpkins decorate the front steps, my flip flops remain stubbornly at the door, and the yard still requires mowing. But, I did gleefully make my first apple crisp, I am wearing my softest long-sleeved t-shirt, the afternoon sun is a bit more golden than last week, and the shadows on my patio are a tad softer. My house is quieter as the kids are in school, AND I’m harvesting the last of my outdoor herbs. I’m enjoying this cliché day.
I’m also contemplating my overgrown (bountiful?) containers of herbs. I confess, I’m spoiled. It’s been a summer of fragrant, seasoning pleasure and it’s hard to see it end. I’d love to haul my herb containers inside, give them priority seating at my picture window, and continue summer’s pleasure. But common sense suggests growing 15 herbs indoors is not the same as an outdoor garden haven. Besides herbs are best when utilized, not left waiting in the wings. I’m not sure that I’m ready to be snipping, clipping and pruning 15 different herbs for the entire winter. Thus, my need for contemplation. This year I’ll dry some, move some indoors, and yes, let some go — a painful, but necessary process.
I’m frequently asked about the best herb drying methods. I think there are as many ways to dry herbs as there are herbs and herb growers. Everyone seems to have a favorite. If you’ve never dried herbs before, here are a few ways to get you started. But before you begin, have your own moment of contemplation. Ask yourself (1) How will I be using them? (2) Which herbs will I be harvesting?
Crafts and Florals
Drying herbs for either craft or floral use is fairly simple:
- Harvest – snip plants from the bottom of the stems, place gently in basket. Take care not to bruise or crush stems or leaves (this releases the oils and you don’t want that to happen).
Dry – Gather 4-5 stems together. Tie them together with either string, raffia, or a rubber band. Hang upside down from peg or clothes line in a well ventilated area, away from sunlight. If necessary, use a dehumidifier. Check them in a day or two. They are dry when the leaves are crisp and the stems break off easily.
- Store/Use – If using them in floral arrangements, pack them loosely in tissue, place them in a lidded box, and store in a dark, dry spot. They should last through the winter.
Culinary uses can be a bit trickier because you want to make sure to preserve not only the fragrance and taste, but also the appearance. Few people feel good about cooking with gray or brown herbs. Whichever method you choose, keep in mind that quick preservation is best. Fewer oils are lost, fragrance is preserved, and the chance of color changes are reduced.
- Harvest – To retain the best flavor in leafy herbs (basil, savory, chervil & marjoram) harvest before they flower. That said, if life gets in the way, and they bloom before you get to them, don’t fret too much. They won’t be perfect, and you may not want to use them in your best dishes, but they certainly are useable. Harvest and use them. Then make a mental note to get to them earlier next time.
- Wash – Herbs for culinary use do need to be washed, but you’ll want to wash the leaves carefully and quickly. It’s one of those battles….no one wants to taste a gritty herb, but washing in warm water releases oils and flavor may be lost if leaves are left wet very long. So wash quick, give them a quick shake to remove excess water, then let air dry. If herbs were grown close to ground or are exceptionally dirty, put them in a warm bath first, then cool rinse and then drain on a screen in the sink.
- Oven Drying – As with drying herbs for craft and decor purposes, put them in a dry, dark, draft-free place. While there are many nostalgic, hanging methods (see below) for drying herbs. When using them for culinary drying in the oven is one of the best ways to preserve color and flavor. The trick is to make sure your heat doesn’t exceed 150 degrees. Using a fine wire mesh screen, spread leaves thinly, then place in oven, leaving door open. Check frequently as drying time should only take a few minutes.
- Other drying methods:
- Hang upside in small bunches (Sage, savory, mint, oregano, marjoram, basil, lemon balm & horehound are best dried this way). Be aware of dust. Don’t let them hang too long.
- Brown paper bags – place small bunches in bag with several holes to let air in and moisture out. Hang bags up.
- Brown wrapping paper – Spread leaves out flat on brown wrapping paper. Then place in dark, dry place.
- Dry in trays (chervil, lovage, myrrh, lemon verbena, parsley, thyme, & rosemary). A think layer of these herbs can be placed in trays and moved to a dry, dark area.
- Drying Chives – Chives need to be cut or shredded before drying. Be sure to use only tender green stalks, not yellow or dried out ones.
- Drying rosemary – once rosemary is dried, run it through a coffee grinder or food processor to break up the needles.
Make sure your herbs are completely dried. They should be brittle and the stalks break easily. Once dried put them in clean, glass screw-top jars right away. The longer they are left out, the more flavor they’ll lose.
Those are my favorite ways to dry herbs. I know there are lots more. If you have a favorite drying method, please let us know!
In addition to drawing from my own experience, the sources I used for this article include:
Herb Gardening In Five Seasons by Adelma Grenier Simmons
Herb Gardening From the Ground Up by Sal Gilbertie