Overlooked by the more fabulous, labor-intensive methods of saving the season like canning, fermenting, and freezing, drying herbs and flowers is a simple way to preserve and extend the usable life of much that our gardens produce. While each herb has a perfect time to harvest, a good rule of thumb is to harvest leaf herbs before they flower, and seeds like coriander after they have attained their full size but before they are completely dry on the plant. This means that oregano is best harvested in late spring, after it has broken winter dormancy, but before the flowering stage of late summer. Basil may be harvested all throughout the growing season, but the flowers tend to impart a bitter flavor, so the leaf is mainly the only part used. Stems tend to be too woody to be useful on most plants. The leaf is the only part used from the thyme plant, but it is best to strip the tiny leaves from the stem after drying for ease of handling. This is the case with many larger-leafed plants as well; mint, for instance, has leaves large enough to handle on or off the stem, but it is easier and more efficient, if not too pressed for space, to remove the dried leaves from the stem after drying.
One of the oldest methods of preservation is simply to tie the herbs or flowers into bundles, and hang them upside down to dry. This way, the plant juices can flow to the brightest, tastiest parts of the plant via gravity. Whether we want to eat the tender leaf tips or gaze at the bright dried flowers, the best way to retain color and flavor is to hang the herbs upside down in a cool, dark place. Sunlight and excessive heat can damage volatile oils as well as color, leaving the remaining plant without scent, brown and tasteless. A comfortable humidity is ideal; too dry, and the flowers and leaves will crisp into unusable, dry powder. Basements are often too damp; beside the woodstove is far too dry.
Too much humidity will cause mold to grow. This is useful to bear in mind when harvesting and washing and bundling plants. It is a good idea to wash herbs that you want to eat before drying them; this will ensure that there are no aphids, dust, or fertilizer residue, among other impurities, on the plants that will feed your family. Simply run them under cool water, or swish them in a bowl of the same, to let dirt and dust fall away. Allow the leaves to dry thoroughly before bundling and hanging them to dry, however, or you will risk creating damp, airless pockets where mold can thrive. Herbs and flowers that have been infected with mold will rot rather than be preserved, and any mold that you overlook will flavor the remaining leaves.
When making bunches of herbs to dry, choose stems of similar thickness. Strip the leaves away from the stem where they will be bundled together, to avoid creating those moist pockets of potential mold growth. Secure the stems firmly with a rubber band or thin gauge horticultural wire. Be aware that larger stems, such as those belonging to amaranth or white sage will retain more water than thin, already dry woody stems. These thick stems will shrink more than their drier, thinner counterparts as they lose moisture in the drying process. However, you should expect all stems to shrink by at least 20% as they release their moisture to the surroundings. Check herbs after a week or so, and tighten the bindings on any bunches that have become loose. Rubber bands are ideal to bind stems together, as they exert a constant pressure and can compensate for shrinkage while remaining secure better than wire or twine can. If using rubber bands, a paper clip can be used to secure the rubber band to a wire strung between two secure hooks or nails to make a drying line. Horticultural wire can be used to secure the herbs and the remaining tail of wire can be fashioned into a hook to hang the herbs from the drying line.
If drying herbs in a dehydrator, rinse the herbs as before, and arrange them on the sheet so that they do not touch or overlap. Try to group like herbs together, to make drying times simpler. It’s best to dry herbs separately from other dehydrating projects, like fruits or vegetables; these other items contain so much water that they will keep the herbs moist for longer than they need to be.
Herbs should always be dried on the lowest setting of a dehydrator, around 105°F, to preserve the best of their aromatic oils, flavors, and colors. The length of time can vary greatly from plant to plant, but generally an herb is dry when it retains a green color, but crumbles easily in the hand when rubbed between the fingers. Over-drying can cause a loss of flavor and color, so keep an eye on those tender herbs. Small leaves, like those of thyme, can be dry in 2-8 hours; large, dense, or woody herbs may take up to 18 hours.
Once the herbs are dry, regardless of the method used, they should be stripped from their stems and stored in small, airtight containers to maximize freshness. Strip the desired part of the plant off of the stem, and crumble it into a clean, airtight jar. Store as all herbs are best stored, in a cool dark place, and use within one year. Smaller containers are perferable to large jars, since the each time the jar is opened, the herbs lose some of their precious aroma and flavor. Monitor the herbs closely for a few days after sealing them in the container; if condensation forms, it means that the moisture level is too high and the herbs should be promptly removed from the jar and spread out to dry, if mold has not yet set in.
Use dried herbs when fresh herbs are not available seasonally, but be aware that the flavor of dried herbs is sometimes stronger than that of the fresh herb. This is not the case with herbs like basil and tarragon, whose powerful flavors are reduced somewhat by the drying process, but it is certainly true of herbs such as marjoram, oregano, and thyme. A good general rule when substituting dried herbs in a recipe that calls for fresh is to use one third the amount that is called for, and adjust to taste. It’s easy to add more, but hard to take that flavor away.
In a place where we are fortunate to be able to grow so many amazing herbs in our gardens, why not extend our harvest by using these simple steps to keep our cooking full of fresh, herbal flavors, all season long?
It’s part of our mission here at Mountain Feed to help you make delicious, sustainable, homemade food more often. Stop by and say hello on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest. Or, as always, you can do it the old fashioned way and come by the store to speak with one of our in-house experts.