Here’s just about everything you need to know about preserving herbs for your own use.
Drying herbs is a fine thing to do because you’re going to get the maximum freshness and taste (well, fresh herbs are the best-tasting but dried are the next-best)
Quite frankly, you’ll also know your herbs are organic as many of the herbs purchased in stores have had herbicides or pesticides used on them to control insect pests.
I know they don’t tell you this but in order to get large quantities of herbs into stores, you need large farms and most of these farms are “offshore” and the use of chemicals is not as regulated as it is in North America or Europe. Grow your own herbs and you guarantee both freshness and quality all season long.
Tips for Drying Herbs
As the first practical tip, let me suggest you make drying herbs part of your ongoing garden work all summer and do not try for a single blast of herb Harvesting: at the end of the season. In this way, a little work every week will give you an amazingly large supply and you’ll be able to harvest the herbs when they are at their peak of flavor and potency.
The best system for retaining quality herbs is to air dry them and this is also the cheapest although one of the slowest. Moisture evaporates slowly in the air-drying herb system and this leaves most of the sought after oils behind in the leaf.
Some folks love their dehydrators and these are terrific if you are drying large quantities. Instructions will be in each kit but if you only have a few herbs to do, the cheapest way for drying herbs is the air-drying system.
Microwaves are quick and dirty solutions (see below for recipes) that will quickly dry a plant with a minimum of fuss or muss. The caution here is you have to get it to the “dry” state and not the “cooked” state.
I played with microwaves and drying lavender and I can tell you that I don’t bother with a microwave. I’m told by experts in this area that microwaves are fast but the difference between the “cooking’ and “drying” stage is very short and that microwaved herbs are of the lowest quality.
Recipe for air drying herbs
Plan on Harvesting: your herbs in the early morning and before they start expending energy for the day.
Time this for when they are in the best condition right – before flowering
Using a sharp knife or scissors, cut the large stems or branches away from the plant. Shake (gently) each branch to dislodge insect visitors. Remove any damaged or diseased leaves.
Careful if You Wash Herbs
Some recipes call for washing the herbs before drying. I have never done this but taken them from the garden to the next phase without washing.If you choose to wash the herb to remove any dirt or debris, it is necessary to completely dry the herb branch before you put it in contact with other branches. Wet herbs put together in bunches can turn to moldy messes really quickly.
I assemble my individual branches into a bunch and then remove the lower leaves. I have normally used usually 4-5 branches to a bunch. Note I remove the lower leaves because they are not normally as pungent or full of oil as the topmost leaves.
Put the bunch in a plain paper bag (plastic bags hold too much moisture and will rot the herbs). Punch a few holes in the sides of the bag for ventilation. Make sure you’re using a large enough bag so the leaves don’t touch the sides of the bag and then hang the bag (so the plants are upside down) in a warm, dry room. (It is a good idea to write the name of the herb on the bag so you don’t forget what you have in there.) I’ve also done this without the bag but somehow the herbs always wind up “dusty” after a week or so hanging around in a busy kitchen.
I’ve found that a week (for drying herbs of lesser moisture levels) or two weeks (for drying herbs of higher moisture plants) takes care of the drying needs. Don’t worry about which is which – just keep opening the bag every 2 days until the herbs feel good and dry to you. They shouldn’t bend, instead they should break, when you bend the leaf.
At this point, I check for signs of mold (if mold is present, I toss the entire batch) and if the leaves are fine, I strip the leaves.
To do this, run your hand up the stem and remove the dried leaves. Try not to crush them as the best flavor is preserved in whole leaves.
Discard the stems.
Microwave Drying Herbs
Microwave herb drying is a fast way to dry herbs. Place 4 to 5 herb branches in the microwave between sheets of paper towels. Using high heat, run the oven for two to three minutes. The leaves should be brittle – if not repeat in 30 second bursts until they are.
Again, this is not my favorite way for drying herbs. In fact, we no longer even own a microwave.
When you freeze instead of drying herbs, the first thing to understand is that you’ll be freezing the water in the individual cells of the plant leaves and when these leaves are thawed out, they will be limp. So you can’t freeze them and expect to use them as garnishes. Only freeze herbs you’ll use in recipes.
Systems that work include:
1) Place the leaves in an airtight, freezer bag or container. Freeze solid.
2) Spread leaves on a cookie try and freeze. When frozen individually, place in an airtight container for storage.
3) Pack leaves into an ice-cube tray and fill the cubes with water. Freeze. Drop the entire cube into the recipe. Note you’ll have to adjust your liquid in the recipe if you do this.
Storing Dried Herbs
Store your dried herbs in small airtight containers away from the light. I use old glass mason jars with glass lids for mine. Glass is much preferred for storing herbs as it will not lend or borrow flavors and fragrances to or from the herbs.
Most herbs are good for several years but if you’re growing a decent herb garden, store and plan for yearly replacement. Note that sage will become stronger with storage.