When the summer sun warms our gardens, enticing tender leaves to bring forth abundant fruit and vegetables, everything we feed our families is at the height of freshness and perfection. We want it to last as long as possible.
How to prolong the garden is the question.
Herbs have always been a fascination for me. I love their tiny flowers, delicate scents, medicinal uses, and flavor adding power.
This year, while I’m already canning fruits, pickling vegetables as we speak and making berry jams, I’ll also be drying herbs from the patio herbs I planted early in the season.
It is one of easiest forms of preserving there is. Drying herbs is one of the ways we can bring the taste of summer into the winter kitchen.
While I would like to envision myself drying herbs on an antique drying rack on a wooden table in the sun with my farm off in the distance, it is no longer the preferred method. The drying of herbs that is. The farm … still preferred, at least by this writer!
There are two kinds of herbs. Less Tender Herbs and Tender-Leaf Herbs. Tender-Leaf herbs are most successfully dried in a dehydrator because their high moisture content can leave them more susceptible to mold when the drying process becomes prolonged.
The best time to harvest most herbs for drying is just before the flowers first open on the herbs. Gather them in the early morning after the dew has evaporated. They should not lie in the sun after harvesting. Rinse herbs in cool water and gently shake to remove excess moisture. Discard all bruised, soiled or imperfect leaves and stems.
Less Tender Herbs are more sturdy herbs such as rosemary, sage, thyme, summer savory, and parsley. These are the easiest to dry. Simply bundle them into a small bunch and turn them upside down to air dry. Indoors is best for color and flavor.
Tender-Leaf Herbs consist of basil, oregano, tarragon, lemon balm and the mints. Again, they are most successfully dried in a dehydrator but can, with care, also be dried without.
One method the National Center for Home Food Preservation recommends for these herbs is to dry the leaves separately, without touching, on single layers of paper towels on the top and bottom. You can safely dry up to 5 layers for this method. Place herbs in a cool oven and leave overnight.
When the leaves are crispy dry and crumble easily, they are ready for packing and storage and can be crumbled or left whole. Package herbs in an air-tight container and store in a cool, dry, even dark place to preserve color and flavor.
And all winter long … you will benefit from the fruit of your labor.
Hanging to Dry
Tie sprigs or branches into small bunches. Large, dense bunches can develop mold and discolored leaves.
Hang the bunches up to dry, leaves downward, wrapped loosely in muslin or thin paper bags to keep out dust and to catch falling leaves or seeds. Do not use plastic bags because of mold development.
Allow seven to 10 days to dry, depending on the size of the branches and humidity. They’re completely dry if the leaves sound like crisp cornflakes when crushed.
You also can air-dry the seeds of herbs such as fennel, parsley, caraway, and coriander. Seed heads tend to ripen unevenly, so once most of a head is brown, harvest it with about 2 feet of stem (or as long a stem as possible). Bundle four to five stems together, then cover the heads with muslin or a paper bag and hang them upside down.
You can speed up drying by spacing out individual sprigs or leaves of herbs on racks. To make a drying rack, stretch muslin, cheesecloth or netting over a wooden frame and fix it in place. Place the tray in an airing cupboard, in the warming drawer of an oven or in a warm, airy spot out of direct sunlight. Turn leaves frequently to ensure even drying, which should take two or three days.
The leaves of herbs such as sage, mint, rosemary, thyme and parsley, stripped from their stalks, are well suited to oven drying. Space out leaves on a muslin-covered tray in an oven set to the lowest possible temperature. Higher temperatures diminish the fragrant essential oils. Leave the door ajar to allow moisture to escape.
Turn the leaves over after 30 minutes to ensure even drying; they will be quite dry after about an hour. Leave in the oven until cool.
Microwaving works well when drying small quantities of herbs. Separate the leaves from the stems, rinse if necessary and let air dry.
Place a single layer of leaves on a paper towel on a microwave-safe plate. Lay another paper towel on top, and microwave on high for 1 minute. Watch closely, and stop if you smell the herbs burning. Continue heating at 30-second intervals, if needed, until the herbs are fully dry.
Storing and Using
Use this process for all drying methods.
Crumble the dried herbs with your fingers (discard the hard leafstalks and midribs) and store in small, airtight containers.
If you use clear glass containers, store them in a dark place so the herbs don’t lose their color.