Herb Drying 101: The Low-Tech Art of Drying Herbs
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As anyone who grows herbs knows, some years you just end up with a bumper crop of certain things, which is wonderful, but what are you supposed to do with it after you bring it in? Preserving these wonderful herbs is just as important as the harvest itself.
I sometimes preserve in oil in the freezer, in vinegar, in pestos, and even by using my dehydrator. But my favorite way to store them is air-drying. I love how easy this method is to reduce large quantities of my herbs to amounts that are easy to store. Ten pounds of fresh herbs is the equivalent of about 1 pound of dried herbs. My favorite part of air-drying is that anyone can do this method, without investing in a dehydrator or worrying about using up electricity.
Low-tech drying is not a sure fire method. There are many people whom I encounter who have devastating experiences with drying herbs. They harvested and dried their favorites, but ended up with unusable brown straw.
The problem with most ways to drying herbs is that they are too generalized. Herbs are not universal. Each grows in a different way and has individual uses and tastes. They each also need different things when harvested and dried.
Herb Drying 101
There are two categories to remember in order to dry herbs for the maximum possibility for success- bunching and chopping.
Bunching is gathering large amounts of herbs on their stems and bundling them together to dry. This method is best for mints (with the exception of apple mint) that are quick-drying.
Chopping, and then laying to dry on screens or trays, is best for almost all other herbs that you may have growing.
There are the few herbs that just don’t dry well at all, like chervil and salad burnet, so either use these fresh or preserve in vinegar for future use.
“Harvesting herbs is an odd blend of glamour and strain. Ultimately, there is great satisfaction in the large, filled harvest baskets.”- Margaret Brownlow, Herbs and the Fragrant Garden (1957)
Timing Is Everything
Even the most seasoned gardener can get distracted or overlook the importance of timing when harvesting herbs. They are to be harvested at the peak of their flavor. Overripe herbs become stalky (almost overnight it seems at times). The woodier the plant becomes, the less flavor is left in the precious leaves. As the plant directs their energy toward flower and seed production and less into the leaves, the potency dwindles.
The perfect time to harvest varies to each specific herb and the part of the plant that is harvested. Foliage should be picked when the plant is beginning to form buds. This is when the leaves have the highest concentration of oils. Herbs, such as chamomile, whose flowers are used in teas, should be harvested when the blooms are newly opened and most potent.
But, as is typical in all things, there are exceptions to these rules. Lavender, for example, is perfect when buds form on the plant, as the buds and not the actual flowers are what contain the most flavor and fragrance. If you are preserving for dried flower crafts rather than consumption, then the right time also varies. Then it depends on your desired effect within the craft project itself.
For more information on Herbal Crafts, make sure to check out Beauty Everlasting – Dried and Pressed Flowers – Learning the Ancient Art of Drying and Pressing Flowers and Creating Things of Beauty available here.
Using the “Bunching” Method
The harvesting and bunching method is used to dry herbs quickly. On a sunny day, after the morning dew has dried off, I cut my herbs with a heavy pair of kitchen scissors specifically purchased for use on my herbs only. (And they are marked accordingly, lest City Spouse forgets their use.) Find the lowest set of clean leaves on the stalk. Grab a small bunch gently in one hand and cut the stems with the other. Make sure that you do a once over of your handful to make sure that you are not including any weeds in your bunch. Also, check for discoloration of the leaves and any insects that may be hiding. This is the simplest time to rid your bunch of these hidden saboteurs. Lay these in your gathering basket with all of the stems pointed in the same direction.
Secure these bunches with a thick rubber band or a natural twine about 1 1/2 inches from the end of the stems. Keep your bundles to about 12 to 15 stems each to promote air flow evenly through the bunch.
Hang these bunches in a cool and airy room without direct sunlight. I use my basement for this. I also know people who use an unused bedroom or bathroom within their homes. Sunlight can destroy and herb’s essential oils and color, so avoid this at all costs. Wherever the herbs are hung, make sure they have plenty of room so that air circulates to speed up the drying process.
Most herbs, if harvested and bunched properly, are crispy dry within a week or less This, of course, depends on the weather and humidity of your climate and room. If after a week passes and you want to hang more and speed up the process, remove some of the stems and lay in your dehydrator to finish them out.
Preparing for Storage
Once the leaves are crispy dry and the stems are brittle, it’s time to strip the leaves. On a flat surface, spread a double sheet of newsprint under a large bowl. Hold the bunch upside down (the same direction it had been drying) and remove the rubber band or string. Holding a few stems at a time, remove the leaves with a quick, downward motion of your free hand. You may leave them as they are for teas, or rub them between your palms to “grind” them for herb mixes.
Make sure that you label these as you store in jars. Store your jars away from light and heat, and they should stay in prime condition for well over a year.
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