Nicolette Goff is a watercolourist, writer, and dedicated gardener. Her books, articles, and paintings reveal her love of nature.
In my herb garden, the thyme, oregano and sage are just starting to show their flower buds, reminding me that this is the best time to be drying some now for winter use.
I love to use fresh herbs in my cooking, but hate to buy the ones in little plastic containers in the grocery store when my own herb garden is under snow. Who knows how long they've been in that package, and many of them barely last until you get them home. So what I do for winter herbs is use one of the oldest and simplest methods of preservation - drying.
When to Harvest
Harvest leafy herbs when the oils responsible for flavour and aroma are at their peak, just before flowering. Once flowering begins, leaf production generally declines and the leaves lose some flavour. Clip sprigs from your plants in the morning, after dew dries, and before the heat of the day has evaporated some of the essential oils. Leave enough foliage so the plant can continue producing.
If the clipped sprigs are clean, don't wash them.
Otherwise, rinse off the dust and dirt, shake them to get rid of the water, and spread them out on a dish towel or screen until they're completely dry.
Preparing the Herbs
Best Method for Drying Herbs
Drying herbs by hanging them is the method used for thousands of years, and still the favourite one for many gardeners.
Once your washed herbs are dry, remove any dead leaves and tie them into small bunches. Hang them to dry in a spot where there is good air circulation, but away from direct light.
You can also place a clean paper bag over the herb bundle to control light and possible dust accumulation. Make sure the bag has some vent holes cut so air can circulate through it.
I find that thyme, sage, savory, marjoram, rosemary, and oregano are the most easily dried. Mint, chives, tarragon, basil and parsley need to be dried quickly so they don't mold, so drying is by a different method, or else another preserving method such as freezing is used.
The length of time the herbs will take become fully dry will vary according to the temperature and the air movement. If you're hanging them in the kitchen near the stove, and there is also a good draft, they may dry in just a few hours. If left to dry in a closet or pantry, where there is little air circulation, they may take four to seven days.
You will know they are dried completely when the main stems of the herbs crack, rather than bend, and the leaves are brittle. I've found that hanging the herbs to dry is the best method for dehydrating them, since added heat can decrease the flavour and discolour the leaves somewhat.
Another method of drying is with a dehydrator. Dehydrator drying is fast and easy because temperature and air circulation can be controlled. Pre-heat dehydrator with the thermostat set to 95°F to 115°F.
Lay individual sprigs or leaves on the mesh trays, being careful to keep them in a single layer. Bushier sprigs should be separated into smaller parts.
After making sure the herbs are clean and dry, place them in a single layer on the dehydrator trays. Drying times may vary from 1 to 4 hours. Parsley, chives, tarragon, basil, and mint dry well in a dehydrator.
Use Your Oven to Dry Herbs
If hanging your herbs to dry isn't convenient, you can also use your oven to dry them. This is a good method for the herbs such as mint, tarragon, and basil that have a higher moisture content. Rather than tying them in bunches, remove the leaves from the stems, and put them in a single layer on a cookie sheet or a mesh sheet.
Dry at the lowest possible oven setting. Turn the herb sprigs over part way through the drying and open the oven occasionally to let out moisture.
If you have a convection oven, the drying time is further reduced, and should take less than 2 hours. The heat from the pilot in a gas oven may be all the heat you need to dry your herbs overnight.
Storing Dried Herbs
When the leaves are dry, strip the leaves from stems and discard the stems. You can crush the leaves, but keep in mind that whole herbs retain their flavour longer than crushed, ground or rubbed herbs. Store your dried herbs in airtight containers - glass jars with lids, ceramic crocks, or zip-lock storage bags - away from the light.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2009 Nicolette Goff
Barbara Hendrickson on September 19, 2009:
Thank you for such helpful information. I have some chinese basil that I love to use in my green curry dish, but it always goes bad before I can use it all, so I decided to dry it for later use in dishes.