Part 3 of the Series Methods to Preserve Your Herbal Harvest
Drying is probably the most common way to preserve herbs. Drying herbs is an economically savvy food preservation strategy, because fresh and dried herbs and teas demand high prices at the grocery store.
Your own dried herbs will taste better than store-bought because they’ll be newer and thus more pungent. If you grow your own herbs, you can also choose the tastiest varieties. AND even better, no preservatives!
When herbs are dried, they are safe from bacteria, mold, and yeast, and will remain potent for at least 6 to 12 months. To remove moisture, all you need is air circulation. Some warmth can also help. Herbs are done drying when brittle and crumbly which can take hours or days, depending on the herb and method. Simply expose the leaves, flowers or seeds to warm, dry air. Leave the herbs in a well ventilated area until the moisture evaporates.
I do not recommend sun drying because the herbs can lose flavor and color. The essential oils that contain the nutrients, flavor, and herbal properties are overheated and tend to quickly evaporate.
Tips for Successful Drying
- Select fresh herbs suitable for drying.
- Cut herbs into pieces of similar size to ensure uniform drying.
- Circulate air around the herbs to help remove water from the herbs.
- Check periodically to avoid over drying.
- Cool herbs quickly after drying and package to prevent the herbs from absorbing moisture.
- Store in airtight packages. Avoid use of plastic bags if insects or rodents are a problem.
- Check packages within one week for moisture.
- Store foods in a dark, cool, dry area of the kitchen AWAY from appliances that promote heat/humidity like stoves, toasters, and dishwashers.
Choosing Herbs for Drying
The following herbs are good candidates for drying.
- Leaves such as: bay, celery, chervil, dill, geranium, lemon balm, lemon verbena, lovage, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, sage, summer savory, tarragon, thyme.
- Seeds such as: anise, caraway, celery, chervil, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, mustard.
- Flowers such as: bee balm, chamomile, chive, dill, geranium, lavender, linden, marigold, nasturtium, rose, thyme, yarrow.
- Roots such as: galangal, ginger, licorice, turmeric.
Drying Method #1
The traditional method of drying is to tie the herbs into small bundles and hang them.
- Gather your herbs, wrap a string around 4-6 stems, and hang upside down in a warm, dry spot.
- Wrap the herbs in a piece of muslin, cheesecloth, or paper bag with holes in it to keep the herbs clean and to catch any leaves that fall during the drying process.
- Select a suitable drying hanger. All sorts of items can be used to hang herbs from, including ladders, ceiling beams, coat hangers, a nail, etc.
- Herbs can also be dried on a rack or screen. An old window screen can be used if clean and in decent shape. Position such a screen to allow the air to move freely both sides of the screen. If using a screen, you’ll need to turn the herbs daily to prevent curling.
- Air-drying works best for low-moisture, less tender, hardy herbs. The more sturdy herbs such as rosemary, sage, thyme, summer savory and parsley are the easiest to dry without a dehydrator.
- Better color and flavor retention usually results from drying indoors.
Tender-Leaf Herbs such as basil, oregano, tarragon, lemon balm and the mints have a high moisture content and will mold if not dried quickly. Try hanging the tender-leaf herbs or those with seeds inside paper bags to dry. Tear or punch holes in the sides of the bag. Suspend a small bunch (large amounts will mold) of herbs in a bag and close the top with a rubber band. Place where air currents will circulate through the bag. Any leaves and seeds that fall off will be caught in the bottom of the bag.
Drying Method #2
Another method of drying that is especially nice for mint, sage or bay leaf, is to dry the leaves separately (especially if you live in an area of high humidity). It will work better than air drying whole stems. This method also works well for herbs like rose hips, coriander leaf [Chinese parsley, cilantro], thyme, and parsley. These herbs are some of the highest in vitamin C which can be lost if heat is applied. The use of heat and air, and blanching, in the drying process can destroy vitamins A and C,
- Remove the best leaves from the stems. Lay the leaves on a paper towel, without allowing leaves to touch.
- Cover with another paper towel and layer of leaves. Five layers may be dried at one time using this method.
- Dry in a cool oven. The oven light of an electric range or the pilot light of a gas range furnishes enough heat for overnight drying. Leaves dry flat and retain a good color and flavor.
Drying Method #3
To dehydrate your herbs, use an electric dehydrator for the job. Ovens and microwaves rarely maintain a low enough temperature and do not provide enough air circulation to properly dry herbs. In addition, oven-dried herbs will cook a little, removing some of the potency and flavor. Dehydrators use electric heat to gently dry the produce but they don’t ‘cook’ the produce. Herbs like basil, oregano, tarragon, lemon balm and the mints contain more moisture therefore it is best to dry them in a dehydrator.
- Pre-heat dehydrator with the thermostat set to 95°F to 115°F.
- After rinsing under cool, running water and shaking to remove excess moisture, dry the herbs thoroughly.
- Place the herbs in a single layer on dehydrator trays. The herbs may be placed with the stem on if they are not too thick. For larger leaves, you may wish to separate them from the stems.
- Drying times may vary from 4 to 12 hours. Check periodically. Herbs are dry when they crumble, and stems break when bent. Check your dehydrator instruction booklet for specific details.
This method also works well for root spices like ginger. Dry your ginger and grind it to use in baked goods such as ginger snap cookies. Be sure not to dry ginger in big pieces: they become rock hard when dried and you won’t be able to grind them without burning your electric grinder’s motor. Instead, mince the ginger finely, and then spread it in a shallow layer on a dehydrator tray-lined with a mat. Dry it at 115F, stirring occasionally if necessary.
Drying Method #4
Refrigerator-Dried Herbs. Another super-simple method of drying herbs basically amounts to neglect. Simply stick them in a frost-free refrigerator and forget about them for a few days. This handy tip was discovered by the late herb authority Madalene Hill and her daughter, Gwen Barclay. By accident, they discovered that herbs left alone (out of packaging) in a cold, dry refrigerator dried beautifully crisp and also retained their color, flavor and fragrance. They even liked this method for parsley and chives, which don’t have the best reputation for keeping great flavor or color in dried form.
In 2011, a separate experiment was done with the same results by Dennis Mawhinney, Master Gardener of Penn State Agricultural College Extension.
“This process works extremely well for herbs that otherwise lose flavor or scent and color, such as, basil, tarragon, the fruit flavored sages, lemon or lime balm, parsley, rose petals, and scented geraniums. Chives and rosemary will also do better by using this method but placing them in a frost-free freezer instead. In the freezer, the process will take 2 months rather than two weeks, but flavor and color retention are excellent. Cut chives into small pieces and rosemary can be done with stems and leaves.
Another benefit of this process is that you can use the stems and flowers to make herbal vinegar so that no part of the herb is wasted. Even if an herb air-dries well this process will further enhance the flavor retention.”
- Make sure that herbs are clean (wash and then dry with paper towels).
- For large leafed herbs (basil, sage, etc.) remove the leaves from the stem, for small leaves (parsley, thyme, etc.) dry stem and all.
- Place no more than 20-30 large leaves or 10-15 stems in a brown paper bag. Fold the top down and place a paper clip to keep the bag closed. Write name of herb and date on the bag.
- Then simply place the bag into your refrigerator. It should take approximately 2 weeks to dry.
- To help the process along, whenever you get something from the refrigerator, shake the bag gently to separate herbs.
- When the herbs are crisp dried (you can tell from the sound of the bag and by touch); take the bag out of the refrigerator and keep it at room temperature for approximately one week to insure that it is totally dry.
- Then place the dried herbs into a glass container (preferably opaque glass), label and date.
- Store in a dark, cool place and the flavor will last for a year.
Storing Home-Dried Herbs
Always label jars immediately with the date and contents. If you grew a particular variety, be sure to include its name so you can pinpoint your favorites over time. Check new jars for droplets of moisture or mold. Throw out anything moldy, and re-dry anything that created moisture in the jar.
Store dried herbs in labeled, dated, airtight containers like canning jars, plastic storage containers or freezer storage bags. For best flavor, keep the leaves whole until you are ready to use them, and then crush. Whole leaves and seeds retain oils better in storage than crumbled herbs.
Tea blends are also useful, such as a combination of peppermint and fennel to calm an upset stomach. Store dried herbs in airtight jars out of direct light and away from high heat.
Dried herbs are best used within a year. Vacuum sealing dried herbs and spices will allow longer storage of your products.
Using Dried Herbs in Cooking
When using dried herbs in recipes that call for fresh, keep in mind that oils in dried herbs are more concentrated. Dried herbs are usually 3 to 4 times stronger than fresh herbs.
To substitute dried herbs in a recipe that calls for fresh herbs, use 1/4 to 1/3 of the amount listed in the recipe. If your recipe calls for 4 tablespoons of fresh herbs, start by adding 1 tablespoon of dried herb, tasting, and adding more if needed.
To use herbs in teas, pour boiling water over a teaspoon to a tablespoon of the dried herb (or more to taste) and steep for 5 to 10 minutes.
Methods to Preserve Your Herbal Harvest, an 8 Part Series
To see the other articles in the series, click on the links:
Part 1, Harvesting, Preparing, and Seeding Herbs & Spices
Part 2, Freezing Methods for Herbs & Spices
Part 4, Extracts/Tinctures from Herbs & Spices
Part 5, Preserving Herbs & Spices with Infused Vinegars
Part 6, Making Teas from Herbs and Spices
Part 7, Herbal Infused Honey
Part 8, Making SAFE Herbal Infused Oils
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