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Air-Drying Herbs

Air-Drying Herbs

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

We all enjoy growing fresh herbs to use in summertime meals and drinks. Another flavorful – and economical – benefit is how easily they dry for use in fall and winter cooking. And late summer is the time to start drying them.

Homegrown dried herbs have a more intense, robust flavor than store-bought because their essential oils are fresh. Expensive jars of herbs in stores may sit around for months while their flavors degrade. Once you’ve tasted homegrown oregano in a tomato sauce, or spearmint in a cup of tea, you’ll never settle for supermarket herbs again.

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For the best flavor, harvest herbs before they reach the flowering stage. Pick them in the morning, after the dew has dried. That’s when the oils are at their strongest.

Air drying is the easiest way to preserve most culinary herbs. Herbs that dry well include rosemary, tarragon, dill, mint, parsley, lemon balm, sweet marjoram, oregano, sage, and thyme.

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How to Harvest Herbs

  1. Gather a small handful of stems, no more than a ½ inch in diameter.
  2. Secure each bundle by wrapping a rubber band tightly around the stems. The band contracts as they dry, so none slip through as can happen with string.
  3. Hang the herbs to dry out of direct sun, in a warm, dark place. It should have good ventilation and low humidity to keep mold from growing. 
  4. Herbs like bay leaves and chives dry best when spread on a screen.
  5. Herbs are dry when they feel crisp and crumble readily, which can take a couple of weeks to a month or more, depending on the water content of the leaf. Herbs such as rosemary and thyme have less water in their leaves, and dry quicker than succulent herbs, like mint or parsley.

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Do:

  • Dry only healthy stems. Remove any with diseased leaves or insect damage. Rinse with cool water if they are dusty, and shake or blot with paper towels to remove most of the water. If stems are already clean, don’t get them wet.
  • You can cut the stems of vigorous, leafy herbs, such as mint, parsley, dill, tarragon or oregano, right up until frost.
  • If you want to collect the seeds of plants like cumin, dill, coriander, and caraway, harvest the stems once the seedpods have browned but not yet opened. Catch the seeds by covering the pods with paper bags and secure with twist ties. Dry as above.

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Don’t:

  • Harvest woody perennial herbs such as rosemary or sage later than one month before the first frost date. Pruning encourages new growth, which may be killed by frost. Cut no more than a third of the stems at one time.
  • Bother with dehydrators, microwaves, or the oven. These methods can overdry herbs, diminishing their flavor.
  • Let them get stale. Use dried herbs within a year. Mint holds its flavor for up to two years. Store your herbs in a dry place away from sunlight. If you ever see mold, don’t use the herb. Throw it away.

 Two herbs you shouldn’t bother drying are basil and cilantro, because their flavors lose their potency when dried. Make a slurry and freeze them instead. Process a handful of fresh leaves and a little water together in a blender until it has a thick, almost pasty consistency. Freeze the mixture in ice cube trays so in winter you can taste summer all over again.

 


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