Herbs are a wonderful part of life. They add vibrant flavors to our prepared foods and many have various medicinal properties that make them valuable additions to our continued good health.
Unfortunately, fresh herbs are not always available from your garden or supermarket. When that happens, you need to rely on dried herbs.
You can always buy supermarket dried herbs but with their mass preparation techniques, they are a poor substitute for correctly harvested and hand dried herbs. And since herbs are so easy to grow, it really is a great skill to learn – offering you optimal flavor and potency any time of year whether they be freshly picked or carefully dried and stored for future use by you.
Harvesting the Herbs
Before you can dry your herbal bounty, you need to know when to harvest them for best flavor, etc.
There are two basic types of herbs – leafy herbs like basil and marjoram – and bushy herbs like rosemary and sage.
For leafy herbs, the best time to harvest them is just before they start to bloom. At this point in their growth cycle, the essential oils of the plant will be at their highest level. You can certainly pick and use them fresh any time but for drying, it is best to consider this the only time to harvest these types of herbs.
For bushy herbs, you can get a lot more cuttings. The trick is to cut them in the morning on days that are going to be nice and hot and dry. Wait for the dew to dry off the plant and then snip off the top several inches of growth. You can do this several times a growing season.
Once they are picked, you need to decide if you are going to wash your cuttings.
As a rule of thumb, it is better to not wash them if it is not needed. But if they are dusty or have been sprayed with pesticides, you can wash them briefly with cold water. Try to do this for as short a time as possible as washing will remove some of the essential oils.
Once they are washed, just shake off the excess water before you dry them.
Drying the Herbs
Gather your herbs into small bunches and tie them close to where you did the cut.
Hang them upside down in a dry part of your house where they will not get direct sun. If your house tends to be dusty, you can cover your herbs with paper bags that have lots of holes punched in them to ensure adequate air flow. This bag will also protect them from direct sunlight if the only place you have to dry them experiences direct sunlight.
The herbs are hung upside down to help the aromatic oils flow from the stems into the leaves, enhancing their flavor.
An alternate way of drying your herbs is to remove the leaves from the stems and lay them out on a dehydrator tray with fine netting in a single layer and putting them in your dehydrator. If you choose this method, be sure the temperature of the dehydrator is less than 105 degrees Fahrenheit. If you set it higher, you will start to lose essential oils.
When the leaves are thoroughly dry, they are ready for storage. They should be stored in an airtight container. (If you are worried about any moisture still being in the herbs, a food safe moisture absorber can be added to the container.
When you store them you have a decision to make – save them as whole leaves or crumple them up.
In general, if you can, you should save them as whole leaves and only crumple them up when you are going to use them. Whole leaves tend to hold the oils and flavors much better than the crumpled pieces.
And that’s it in a nutshell.
The process of drying your herbs is really simple. I think the hardest part is the patience waiting for them to dry. I personally prefer air drying them (as described in the first method) but if you are short of time or space, the dehydrator method works almost as well.
If you’ve never made and used your own dried herbs before, you will be amazed at their quality and vibrant taste vs store bought ones when cooking your favorite meals.