Drying Leafy Herbs
In my herb garden, the thyme, oregano and sage are just starting to show their flower buds, reminding me that this is the best time to be drying some now for winter use. I love to use fresh herbs in my cooking, but hate to buy the ones in little plastic containers in the grocery store when my own herb garden is under snow. Who knows how long they've been in that package, and many of them barely last until you get them home. So what I do for winter herbs is use one of the oldest and simplest methods of preservation - drying.
When to Harvest
Herbs should be harvested when the oils responsible for flavor and aroma are at their peak, just before flowering. Once flowering begins, leaf production generally declines and the leaves lose some flavor. You can start harvesting your foliage herbs when there is enough foliage to maintain growth. Clip sprigs from your plants in the morning, after dew dries, and before the heat of the day has evaporated some of the essential oils.
If the plants are clean, don't wash them. Otherwise, rinse off the dust and dirt, shake them to get rid of the water, and spread them out on a dish towel until they're dry. Once they're dry, remove any dead leaves and tie them into small bunches and hang them to dry somewhere where there is good air circulation, but away from direct light. You can also place a clean paper bag over the herb bundle, to control light and possible dust accumulation. Make sure the bag has some vent holes cut so air can circulate through it.
I find that thyme, sage, savory, marjoram rosemary and oregano are the most easily dried. Mint, chives, tarragon, basil and parsley need to be dried quickly so they don't mold, so drying is by a different method, or else another preserving method such as freezing is used.
Preparing the Herbs
The length of time the herbs will take to dry will vary according to the temperature and the air movement. If you're hanging them in the kitchen, near the stove, and there is also a good draft, they may be dry in just a few hours. If left to dry in a closet or pantry, where there is little air circulation, they may take 4 - 7 days.
You'll know they are dried completely when the main stems of the herbs crack, rather than bend, and the leaves are brittle. I've found that hanging the herbs to dry is the best method for dehydrating them, since added heat can decrease the flavor and discolor the leaves somewhat.
Another method of drying is with a dehydrator. Dehydrator drying is fast and easy because temperature and air circulation can be controlled. Pre-heat dehydrator with the thermostat set to 95°F to 115°F. After making sure the herbs are clean and dry, place them in a single layer on the dehydrator trays. Drying times may vary from 1 to 4 hours.
Use Your Oven to Dry Herbs
If hanging your herbs to dry isn't convenient, you can also use your oven to dry them. This is a good method for the herbs such as mint, tarragon and basil that have a higher moisture content. Rather than tying them in bunches, remove the leaves from the stems, and put them in a single layer on a cookie sheet.
Dry at the lowest possible oven setting. Turn the herb sprigs over part way through the drying and open the oven occasionally to let out moisture. If you have a convection oven, the drying time is further reduced, and should take less than 2 hours. The heat from the pilot in a gas oven may be all the heat you need to dry your herbs overnight.
General Drying Method - Basil
Storing the Dried Herbs
When the leaves are dry, strip the leaves from stems and discard the stems. You can crush the leaves, but keep in mind that whole herbs retain their flavor longer than crushed, ground or rubbed herbs. Store your dried herbs in airtight containers - glass jars with lids, ceramic crocks, or zip-lock storage bags - away from the light.
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Of Gardening, 1685
"So that for all things out of a garden, either of sallads or fruits, a poor man will eat better, that has one of his own, than a rich man that has none.
And this is all I think of, Necessary and Useful to be known upon this subject."
Sir William Temple, 'Of Gardening', 1685