Why Dry Herbs and Spices?
Drying herbs is one of the fastest and easiest ways to preserve them. Many herbs grow quickly in backyard gardens and dry easily through methods like air drying or dehydration.
Store bought herbs and spices are often expensive for the small amount that comes in spice containers, and you can save money and ensure that your herbs are organic when you grow your own. There are quality places to order any herbs and spices that don’t grow in your area (I order here) and this also saves money when you order in bulk, but growing and drying your own is by far the most economical method.
In a culinary sense, herbs typically refer to the leaves of plants and can be used fresh or dried. Spices come from the bark, berries, root, stem, seed or other part of the plant and are often used dried and powdered. Almost any herb or spice can be dried at home to preserve it for up to a year, though some herbs preserve their taste better when frozen (see method below).
You can preserve almost any herb or spice at home in your kitchen, but the method is slightly different.
Step 1: Harvesting Herbs and Spices
The first step in preserving herbs or spices is harvesting them correctly. This is best done in the morning before about 10 AM for maximum potency, since beneficial oils in the plant have not yet been affected by the sun that day.
Leaves should be harvested fresh and any wilted, brown or discolored leaves should not be used.
Seeds should be harvested when they start to turn brown and harden, but before they start to fall off the plant naturally.
Flowers can be harvested by carefully cutting the flower heads off of the plant shortly after they bloom.
Step 2: Choose a Drying Method
There are several methods that work for drying herbs effectively. Some methods are preferable for certain herbs, but in general, any of them will work with a little modification:
- Gather herbs in small bunches of 4-5 stems per bunch and secure stems with a twist tie or small piece of wire.
- Loosely wrap each bundle in a breathable muslin cloth or a paper bag. It helps to secure this in the twist tie as well.
- Hang the bundles in a well-ventilated place space indoors and out of direct sunlight until dry. This typically takes about a week. TIP: Use some clothes hangers and clothes pins to hang the bundles easily.
- If it is still warm outside, you can solar dry herbs in indirect sunlight on drying screens or in little bundles with the same method.
- Remove leaves from stems and store (see below for method).
TIP: If you prefer to use a screen to dry instead of hanging the herbs in bunches, stretch a piece of cheesecloth or organic muslin cloth over a wooden frame and staple to hold (even an old dollar tree picture frame will work for this). Place this frame in a well ventilated area or outside (not in direct sunlight) until herbs dry.
Oven drying seems simple but it is actually one of the more difficult methods to correctly preserve the qualities of the herbs because the temperature must stay low.
- Remove leaves from stems of herbs.
- Place leaves on a baking sheet in a single layer.
- Preheat the oven to the lowest setting. For most ovens, this is around 170 degrees F, which is still to high. I prop my oven door open with the handle of a wooden spoon to allow air circulation and keep the temperature low enough.
- Check temperature often (between 100-120 degrees is optimal) and adjust as needed. Herbs tend to dry quickly with this method, so check the herbs often and remove when leaves start to crumble and no longer bend without breaking.
Using A Dehydrator
A high quality food dehydrator with a fan and adjustable temperature is the most efficient way to dry herbs quickly and preserve the most beneficial parts of the herb or spice.
If you have a dehydrator, follow the instructions on your model for drying herbs.
Method to Avoid: Microwave Drying
Some sources suggest drying herbs in the microwave. This only works for small quantities of herbs and this method is prone to problems, especially with high moisture herbs and is not energy efficient at all. I don’t recommend this method.
Step 3: Storing Herbs and Spices
To best preserve the flavor of dried herbs and spices, do not crumble or powder until the herb or spice is needed for use. Of course, the exception would be any herbs needed for pre-mixed herb and spice blends as those must be crumbled in order to mix well. These are the herbs and spice blends I always keep on hand.
Store leaves of dried herbs in clean class jars or containers with airtight lids. With any herbs or spices, make sure to label the jar immediately since many herbs look the same once dried.
Voila! Your dried herbs and spices can now be used when you need them in recipes. Note that dried herbs are typically more concentrated than fresh herbs, so if a recipe calls for fresh herbs, not as much of these dried herbs are needed.
Basil, Cilantro, Mint, Chives, and Parsley can be easily dried but retain their color and flavor better if they are frozen. To freeze easily and avoid freezer burn, finely chop the herbs and pack into ice cube trays. Cover with water or olive oil and freeze until solid. Pop out herb cubes and store in an airtight container until needed. These are excellent to add to soups or cooked dishes as needed.
Ever preserved or dried herbs? Which ones?