Preserving your Fresh Herbs

I have always bought my dried herbs at the grocery store during the off-season. An aisle full of little glass jars of alphabetical seasonings is where ya go for your parsley and sage, right? Most of the time…..

Just like when I realized that brownies don’t have to come from a box, I also realized that I can make my own herb blends at home. Duh. In a continuing effort to know where my food comes from and possibly save some money, I had the ‘aha’ moment that this is really, REALLY easy to do. Just like making brownies….

I am a gardener, so growing herbs is part of my life. Using fresh herbs from the garden is a summer and fall staple. There is nothing better than walking out to the garden and grabbing a handful of freshness to add a sprinkle of green parsley to your pasta or zesty cilantro to your salsa. Then the weather turns and you are stuck with those little glass jars. Wahhhh.

Every fall when my herbs would finally die (honestly, my parsley was still green until the polar arctic blast on November 11) I would close up the garden for good and wait until next year to start all over again. This year, I am saving what I can. And whether you have a full garden or pots of herbs on your front porch, ANYONE can do this.

Tender herbs like cilantro, parsley, tarragon and basil are better to freeze in ice cube trays of oils. Chives are easy to flash freeze and store in a jar. But let’s talk about drying your other herbs…

Rosemary, thyme, oregano, marjoram, dill and mint are all excellent choices for drying and it doesn’t take much time and planning to do this. Why spend all summer growing and tending to these plants and forget to harvest all their goodness?

There are a few ways that you can dry your herbs, so pick what works for you. You can simply air dry them by spreading them out on a screen or hanging in bunches (this always looks so lovely and works well for rosemary). You can also dry them quicker in the oven or microwave nd for those die-hard herb lovers, you can go all out and get yo-self a dehydrator. I am currently looking at Excalibur Dehydrators – Merry Christmas to me….

Before drying, let’s harvest. Harvesting your herbs is best to do in the morning after the dew has dried. I am assuming you are growing your herbs organically like I do, so there is no need to wash them….just give ’em a good shake to make sure you don’t have any stragglers.

Air drying by laying them on a screen –

I use an old window screen that we replaced to dry my herbs. I raise it up off the ground so air can circulate all around. If you do not have a screen, you can always lay out your herbs on a cookie sheet with a towel, but make sure to flip them often. I put mine in a warm area (near the furnace) away from direct sunlight. It takes 2-4 days to dry this way. You will know when they are done drying because they will be crumbly.

Don’t forget to harvest those dried dill seeds! That is where all the dill flavor is!

Air drying by hanging in bunches –

It looks so sweet and homey when you hang herbs from the ceiling or a farmhouse ladder to dry, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, this is not my favorite way to dry because bunches can take longer to dry and you could lose some of those precious herbs if you don’t have a way to catch them. One way to keep them from falling is to wrap a paper bag around the bunches and punch a few holes in the bag for air circulation (but then it just doesn’t look pretty anymore). Bunches should be small (larger ones will take longer to dry and you could experience some mold) and I find that twist ties work best since the bunches will shrink as they dry (so you just need to twist them a little tighter). Depending on the size of your bundles, this type of drying can take 2-3 weeks. Make sure to remove the paper bag when they are dry. Ultimately, you want to make sure your herbs are well ventilated and out of direct sunlight. Now they will look really pretty hanging in your kitchen!

Oven drying –

This is probably the most finicky way to dry your herbs because everyone has different oven temperatures and this method requires much experimentation on your part. Set your oven to no higher than 100 degrees. If your oven does not go this low, you may need to heat it up, turn it off and leave the door open. Use an oven thermometer to help you figure out what works for you. You want to dry the herbs, but not burn them or steam them. When I proof bread, I sometimes put it in my oven with just the oven light on to keep it warm enough. Drying this way can take around an hour but keep an eye on it and make sure to flip the herbs half way.

Microwave drying –

I have never tried microwave drying, but have read that the benefits are a greener color and quicker drying. Start with clean herbs that have been stripped from the stems. Place a single layer of herbs on a paper towel on a microwave-safe plate and cover with a second paper towel. Microwave on high for 1 minute. Keep an eye on them as they could burn at any second. If the herbs are not quite dry yet, continue drying them at 30-second intervals. Depending on the herb and the moisture content, this can take anywhere from 1-10 minutes.

Drying your garden fresh herbs is a great way to preserve that taste all winter long and a way to save you some money! If you grow the herbs, you might as well use them completely.

Once you have dried your herbs, store them in an airtight container and keep them in a cupboard. Some people like to grind them with a mortar and pestle, but I like to keep mine as whole as possible until use. They should last 6-12 months, but the earlier you use them, the more potent they will be. Speaking of potency, remember that dried herbs are more potent that fresh, so you will need less dried than fresh in your recipes!

My favorite method is air-drying on screens because I can put them in the basement near the furnace and they aren’t taking up any space. Whatever way you decide to preserve and dry your herbs, enjoy! You are doing something wonderful for our earth.

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