How to properly harvest and dry herbs
When summer is fading away and you still have a lot of herbs growing in your garden, don't despair. You can capture those fresh tastes of summer by drying those herbs to enjoy during the winter months.
The best thing about drying your own herbs is that you know exactly where they came from and you know exactly what's in them. Dried herbs also make great gifts.
One year I exchanged gifts with a member of an online gardening group. I received freshly dried oregano and whole nutmeg from my secret Santa. It was probably the best gift I'd received in a long time and I couldn't believe how much better the oregano tasted. And any good baker or cook knows how much better nutmeg is when it's freshly ground for every recipe. Right then and there I knew that growing and drying your own herbs was the way to go whenever possible.
Luckily for all of us, drying your own herbs is very easy. You don't have to get fancy and you don't need to buy any special equipment, unless you want to dehydrate them with a food dehydrator.
Herbs can be harvested anytime of year. I tend to harvest through out the summer, which helps to prevent the plants from flowering. Once herbs have begun to flower, they start to loose their taste. Harvest non-hardy plants while temperatures are still above freezing for the freshest and highest quality herbs.
When you are ready to harvest, choose a dry morning. Mid-morning is good, as the dew has had a chance to dry from the plants.
Cut the healthiest stems from your plants and remove any dried leaves or any leaves that are discolored or appear to be diseased. If the herbs have gotten frosted, they will not dry well or taste very good for that matter, so you will probably want to compost those plants.
Cut stems with a sharp knife or pair of scissors. The length of the stem will all depend on how much you need, the drying method you are using, and if it's the end of the season. Shake any dirt from the stems and remove any bugs you might find. If you must wash off any leaves, do so with cool water, then pat the leaves and stems dry with a paper towel.
Air drying herbs is the easiest method, though a little time consuming. Air drying is best for herbs with a low moisture content. The big advantage to this natural drying method is that it preserves the essential oils of the plant, which will help to preserve flavor.
Cut your stems about the same length so it's easier to bundle and so the herbs can dry evenly within that bundle.
Bundle 4-6 stems together and tie with a string or wrap the ends with a rubber band. If needed, remove the bottom few leaves so you have room to bundle them together; use those herbs fresh for tonight's dinner. Place the bundle of herbs face down inside a paper bag and wrap a rubber band around the end of the bag, securing the stems to the bag at the same time. If you are using lunch sized bags, keep the length of your stems in mind when cutting.
Hang the bag of herbs in a warm, airy environment. After two weeks, check to see if they have dried sufficiently. Check weekly, until they are ready to be stored.
The best herbs for air drying are:
- Summer Savory
Dehydrating herbs is best for preserving high moisture content herbs. The good thing about dehydrating is that it's faster than air drying and it doesn't matter how long your stems are since you are removing the larger leaves from the stem anyway.
Place herb leaves in a single layer of the dehydrating tray. If you are dehydrating rosemary, for example, you can leave the leaves on the stem since they are so small.
Set your dehydrator to the lowest temperature possible. Try to keep the temperature at 100 degrees or lower.
Each tray in your dehydrator can contain a different herb, if you like. This will definitely save time in your drying process.
Most herbs will dry within 3-4 hours, depending on their size. Start checking them after two hours and every half our after that.
The best herbs for dehydrating are:
Storing Dried Herbs
Dried herbs are best used within one year of drying. As they lose there color, they are losing flavor and should be thrown out, although they won't hurt you, they just won't taste all that good.
I prefer to store my herbs in small glass jars with screw on lids. You can order herb jars online, or you can use small canning jars designed for jams and jellies. Both work well.
Store herbs in a dark cool environment, and check periodically for moldy leaves. If you are finding that your herbs mold often, you may not be drying them long enough or moisture is getting inside the glass jars.
If you are storing the herbs for long periods of time, don't crush them up ahead of time. If the herbs will be used quickly, it's OK to crush them up a little so that they are ready to use.