How to dry and preserve herbs from your garden

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It’s great to have a herb garden.

Not only does it provide tasty herbs to add to all kinds of recipes, but the pollinators love it, and it’s such a pretty addition to the backyard.

There’s just one problem. Most herbs do best when regularly trimmed back, and one can only use so many fresh herbs at once.

One of the best methods to avoid waste is to dry herbs to use later. It’s easier than you might think. Here’s what you need to know.

What is meant by drying herbs?

Drying herbs is a simple way to prevent them from spoiling so you can use them later.

It allows you to remove water from the leaves, stems, seeds, or blossoms that you want to save while still preserving the essential oils that provide most of the flavor.

Dried herbs are crisp to the touch, and can be stored in jars or canisters for up to a year, though the older they are, the more the flavors will begin to dissipate.

Why should you dry herbs?

It’s good for your pantry

Drying isn’t the only way of preserving herbs, but it is by far the easiest, so if you’re just getting started in growing and preserving your own food, it’s the perfect way to practice.

Herbs are ideal for drying, since they’re small, relatively dry to start with, and most retain much of their flavor. It’s a great way to keep that garden-fresh flavor available in your kitchen even when fresh herbs are out of season.

Since they’re fresher, home-dried herbs tend to be more flavorful than anything you can find at a supermarket.

Drying your own herbs also gives you access to a much larger variety of flavors. After all, when’s the last time you saw dried chocolate basil or lemon thyme on grocery store shelves?

It’s good for your plants

Another great reason to dry herbs is that it encourages regular harvests, which keeps your plants growing vigorously. If you’re only using fresh herbs, there’s no reason for this kind of intensive harvesting, and that can actually shorten the lifespan of your plant.

The most desirable part of many herbs are the leaves, which begin to lose their flavor once the plant starts to put energy into blossoming. Trimming back the leaves and stems with regular harvests keeps the plants focused on creating more leaves rather than blossoms.

It’s not a trick that works indefinitely, but it can extend your harvest by weeks, or even months, depending on the type of herb. For example, every couple weeks, I cut my chives off right at the ground, and within just a few days, there are tender new shoots ready to be cut and used fresh.

Without that kind of harvest, the stems grow tough and bland by early June, but as long as I keep after them, I can go on harvesting into September.

How to choose herbs for drying

While most herbs can be dried, some take to the process better than others.

Basic considerations

Drying works best on the stems, leaves, flowers, and seeds of herbs (as opposed to roots or fruits). The thinner the leaves and stems are, the more quickly the herb will dry.

Tender leaves, like those of basil, cilantro, or parsley tend to lose some of the brightness of their flavor while drying. Sturdier plants, like rosemary, can actually grow more flavorful with drying as warmth releases stored oils.

If you’re new to drying herbs, start with something relatively sturdy, like garden sage or thyme. Once you’ve had a chance to practice, start experimenting with other herbs.

Watch out for herbs that grow moldy, as they’re not drying quickly enough to preserve them properly, and also for any that quickly turn brown and crispy, as they’re likely drying too fast and will not be flavorful.

Dry what you like!

Something that’s easy to forget when you first get into drying herbs is that the flavors you like in your cooking are those you should focus on.

Don’t worry too much about saving all your coriander seeds if what you really love is oregano and basil. First and foremost, the herbs you dry should be the herbs you like.

When to harvest herbs for drying

How do you know when your herbs are ready to harvest for drying?

If they’re ready to harvest for using fresh, they’re ready to harvest for drying as well.

For peak flavor, harvest in the early morning, before the day grows hot and the sun can begin to evaporate essential oils, but after the dew has dried, so you’re not contending with extra moisture and dirt.

For leaves and tender stems

When harvesting herbs to dry for leaves and stems, cut them before the plant starts to bloom.

Producing flowers, and, subsequently seeds, saps energy from the plant, so you’ll get more flavorful leaves if you harvest early.

For petals or blossoms

You’re going to have to let your plant flower if what you’re after are the blossoms or petals. Flowers can attract lots of dirt and grime that’s tough to wash away.

If you plan to dry them whole, cut them just before or soon after they begin to open. This would include flowers like chamomile or lavender sprigs.

You can also strip petals and dry them separately—rose petals are an excellent example here.

For seeds

There are lots of herbs from which you can harvest seeds. Not only is this great for seed saving, but lots of them are tasty ingredients in their own right, like dill, fennel, caraway, and coriander (which actually comes from the cilantro plant!).

Cut seed heads to dry just as they begin to turn brown. Unlike leaves and stems, or even blossoms, you don’t want these to retain their bright green color through drying. That indicates the seeds were harvested too early, and won’t have the same depth of flavor.

Once you’ve harvested your herbs, remove any debris, as well as damaged or diseased leaves, stems, or blossoms. If your herbs weren’t grown organically, or if they appear dirty, don’t skip washing them!

Hold them under cool, running water, or use a deep bowl or sink filled with water so that any dirt and residue can settle to the bottom. Don’t soak seeds or blossoms that you plan to dry whole. These tend to hold too much water, and will often spoil. Rinse them instead.

When your herbs are clean, shake them gently to get them as dry as possible, then proceed to your favorite drying method.

What are some herb drying methods?

So now you know what kinds of herbs you want to dry, and you’ve harvested them all at just the right time. Now what?

It depends a bit on your space, equipment, patience, and the kinds of herbs you want to preserve. Here are the most common methods for drying herbs.

Hanging Dry

This is the most basic technique. Use twine, rubber bands, or thin wire (twist-ties work great!) to tie your herbs into small bundles.

Avoid making your bundles too large, especially with soft, tender-leafed plants like basil or parsley, as the centers won’t dry well and can mold. As they dry, the bundles tend to shrink, so be aware that you may need to adjust the ties to keep them together.

Once you’ve prepared your bundles, hang them leafy-ends down in a dry, well-ventilated space that’s not too hot and is out of direct sunshine. A closet actually works really well for this.

Cover the bundles with paper lunch sacks, muslin, or cheesecloth to keep leaves and seeds from falling and making a mess, and to keep dust from settling on the herbs as they dry.

Leave them until the leaves are crisp and crumble easily. The time will vary depending on the herbs in question and the humidity in your home.

Rack Drying

This works great for herbs you want to dry whole, like seeds and flowers, or those you want to dry flat, like individual leaves or delicate sprigs. You can use almost any kind of rack, from a cooling rack used for baking to a clean window screen. Just make sure that the holes are not too large for your drying herbs to fall through (remember, they shrink as they dry!).

Lay the herbs in a single layer on the screen, then cover lightly with muslin or cheesecloth to keep out dust. Place your rack in the same kind of location as you would hanging bundles: dry, well-ventilated, dark, and not too warm.

Make sure there’s air circulation beneath your screen, and, for larger items, rotate them regularly so they don’t flatten on one side, and to promote even drying.

Oven Drying

Oven drying is not the best way to dry herbs because most ovens are too hot, burning off the flavorful essential oils before the herbs are properly dry. But in a pinch, or if your home is particularly humid and you’re having trouble getting herbs to dry while hanging in bundles or on a rack, the oven might be a viable alternative.

Set your oven as low as it will go, preferably under 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Most ovens don’t actually go that low, however, so you can try propping open the door a little.

If you have a convection oven, make sure the fan is running, as this will greatly improve the drying effect. Layout your herbs on a rack, as for rack drying, and place them in the center of the oven.

Check them frequently, and remove them as soon as they’re crisp to the touch. Let them cool and make sure they’re completely dry by crumbling a leaf. They should easily crush into dust. If not, put them back in for a bit more drying.

Microwave Drying

Another great trick for last-minute herb drying, but one that takes a little patience. It’s a fine line between perfectly dried and microwaved into mush, especially since every microwave is different.

This technique works best if you’re only trying to dry small quantities, and hardier herbs like rosemary and sage stand up better than cilantro and basil, which tend to get overheated.

Lay your herbs out on a single layer of paper towel or muslin on a microwave-safe plate. This will keep it from sticking to your plate.

Microwave on low to medium power in short bursts, starting with 30 seconds to a minute, then check the herbs. Continue the process of heating and checking until the herbs are dry.

Solar Drying

Like oven drying, solar drying is often too harsh for delicate herbs. However, if you’ve got a solar dehydrator, it can be used to dry herbs if you don’t have a better option available.

Solar dehydrators combine the heat of sunlight with the natural air currents created by warm air’s movement to dehydrate food.

They’re great for wetter foods like fruits and veggies because they can get quite hot, so avoid using them for the most delicate herbs, like basil, parsley, and other tender leaves.

Layout your herbs on the dehydrator trays as for rack drying—one layer, plenty of space. Place them in your dehydrator, then check regularly. You want your herbs to be dried, but not brown.

Don’t have a solar dehydrator, but still feel like the sun is your best option? You can cheat. Prepare a rack of herbs as for rack drying, then tuck it on your car’s dashboard on a sunny day.

Make sure to cover your herbs well with a layer of muslin, and prop the rack up so it gets plenty of air-flow. The heat will dry the herbs quickly, plus your car will smell garden-fresh!

Machine Dehydration

If you have a dehydrator, you’re probably just a few hours from perfectly dried herbs. The most versatile dehydrators have a heating element with temperature controls, as well as fans to increase air circulation and speed drying time.

Layout your herbs on your dehydrator’s racks. For particularly delicate or small items, you can place a single layer of cheesecloth beneath the herbs to keep the leaves or petals from getting stuck in the dehydrator rack.

I frequently run into this issue when drying thyme, and find a bit of cheesecloth does the trick perfectly. If you are drying different types of herbs at once, and if your dehydrator uses stacking tiers, place the wettest herbs on the bottom, nearest the heating element, and the most delicate at the top.

Check your herbs frequently until you get to know your dehydrator’s settings well. As usual, herbs are properly dried when a leaf crushed between your fingers is powdery, not spongy.

Refrigerator Drying

This is a handy little trick you might have discovered by accident yourself, which is reportedly how herb specialists Madelene Hill and Gwen Barclay of Mother Earth News came across it.

I know I once left a bundle of rosemary on the bottom shelf of my refrigerator and forgot all about it. When I unearthed it a week later, the leaves were still bright green, but also perfectly crisp to the touch.

Just make sure that any food in the fridge is tightly covered whenever you’re drying herbs. This will help keep your leftovers from picking up herb flavors, but also keep your thyme from tasting of tuna casserole.

How to store dried herbs

There are a few things that can damage dried herbs. Watch out for these hazards when deciding how to store your latest batch!

Moisture

Dried herbs do best when kept, well, dry. Too much moisture can cause them to spoil, so store them in airtight containers to keep the water out.

That means you’ll also need to make sure that your herbs really are dry before you store them. Check your containers for signs of condensation after closing them up. If fogging or moisture appear on the inside of the container, your herbs aren’t dry enough yet.

Sunlight

You’ve seen what sunlight can do to fabrics, right? Curtains begin to bleach and lose their color, and the cushions on outdoor furniture grow pale and brittle after just a couple of seasons.

The same thing happens to herbs, and all that bleaching is more than just a loss of color. Too much sun can cause the flavorful essential oils to break down, leaving your carefully home-grown and dried herbs with about as much flavor as crispy autumn leaves.

The best place to store your herbs is in a dark cupboard. If you must store them on a countertop or exposed shelf, opt for opaque tins or amber-tinted jars to counteract sun damage.

Heat

It’s convenient to store your dried herbs right next to the stove, but it’s also going to drastically shorten their lifespan. Once again, it comes down to those essential oils, which are volatile—or evaporate at relatively low temperatures.

This makes them great for cooking since just a little heat can bring out a lot of flavors, but baking in the excess heat from your stovetop and oven day in and day out will soon have your herbs running low on essential oils.

For the best flavor that lasts the longest, choose a spot that’s relatively cool and temperature-stable to store your herbs.

Oxygen

You’re probably familiar with oxidation from other fruits and vegetables. It’s the chemical process that makes apples and avocados turn brown once they’re exposed to the air.

It’s not the same as spoiling, but it does mean that some of the more delicate chemical compounds in your food, like (you guessed it!) the essential oils in herbs, are starting to break down.

You can limit the surface area exposed to oxygen by storing your herbs whole rather than crushing them. If you dry herbs on the stem, leave them there until ready to use. Similarly, leaves separated from the stem, but dried whole will keep better if crumbled just before adding to your recipe.

Oxygen is another reason why airtight containers are ideal for storing herbs. There’s already oxygen in the jar, of course, unless you’re vacuum-sealing them, but limiting circulation once your herbs are dried will also help limit any further oxidation damage.

Time

Dried herbs have got a shelf life of six to twelve months, tops. When you’re storing herbs, always store each batch in a separate container.

Remember to label it carefully with the date it was harvested so you’ll know when it’s getting close to its “expiration date.”

Some herbs last longer than others, but you can always tell by tasting a little pinch. If it still packs a flavorful punch, you’re good to go, but if it’s starting to taste bland or dusty, it’s time to toss it in the compost bin and reach for a fresher batch.

This is why you should never mix batches of dried herbs. You’ll end up with the bottom of a jar that’s been around nearly a decade while the top’s only a few weeks old!

Summary

So when it comes to drying herbs, it’s really not that difficult. There are lots of easy herbs to practice with, and lots of ways to dry them.

You might want to do a little experimentation to see what works best given your space and the herbs you want to dry but start with the basics.

A bunch of your favorite herbs, a bit of twine, and a paper bag is all you need to get started. What herbs will you dry first?

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2 thoughts on “How to dry and preserve herbs from your garden”

  1. Great Article, Kevin. I’ve long been a believer in drying food – there’s no point in letting good food spoil. Yeah, I hear ya regarding mass-produced food full of chemicals; you can’t beat home-grown veggies and fruit! Best of luck, Susan.

    Reply

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