Throughout the summer you've been able to enjoy fresh-picked herbs from the garden, but as the days shorten and the weather begins to cool, it's time to harvest and dry your herbs so you can also enjoy them in fall and winter meals.
Picking and drying your own herbs means capturing the leaves' flavors while the essential oils are at their freshest. There is no contest between the intense flavor of homegrown herbs and those sitting for who knows how long in jars in the supermarket.
Air-drying is not only an easy and flavorful way to preserve culinary herbs, it's economical, too. No special equipment or pricey gadgets are required.
Most herbs lend themselves well to drying, including basil, bay, rosemary, tarragon, cilantro, dill, mint, parsley, catnip, chamomile, chervil, chives, lemon balm, sweet marjoram, oregano, sage, summer or winter savory, and thyme. It's the leaves of these herbs that are dried, and many can be harvested right up until frost.
Pick herbs in the morning after the dew has dried but before the day heats up. Heat can volatize oils in the leaves, reducing the intense flavor. Choose stems that are healthy and free of insect pests or disease.
Rinse the leaves quickly in cool water if they are dusty and shake as much water off them as possible. The leaves should be completely dry before you gather them into bunches. Use rubber bands or twist ties to secure the bundles rather than string. A rubber band will contract around the drying stems so none will slip out.
Even after an herb is harvested and hung to dry, sunlight is the enemy, causing the oils to dissipate and the flavor to suffer. To preserve as much of the flavor as possible and to keep leaves from growing mold, hang your herbs to dry in a cool, dark place with good ventilation and low humidity. The drying process may take a month or so, depending on the water content in the leaves.
Don't forget to save the seeds from herbs such as cumin, dill, coriander, fennel, and caraway. Harvest when the seedpods change color. Cover the flower heads with paper bags to catch the seed and hang in a warm, dry, dark place.
Use most dried herbs within a year. Store whole leaves in airtight containers away from sunlight, and crush or grind them right before using. Remember to label and date the container. Always discard any that appear moldy.
Using a dehydrator, microwave, or your oven can all over dry herbs, reducing their flavors. Air-drying is an easy and aromatic way to enjoy them year-round.
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By Justin Hancock, Monrovia Horticultural Craftsman
Photographs courtesy of Monrovia
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