How to Dry and Store Herbs
By Melissa K. Norris
This is a guest post from a friend and colleague Melissa K. Norris, we urge you to visit her website for more great articles and insight like this one.
Herbs are a great addition to any homestead and home garden. While many homesteaders focus on a large vegetable garden in their quest to being self-sufficiency, I find an herb garden is just as important.
Unlike vegetable gardens, you need very little space to start an herb garden. A windowsill, large pot, or between flowers are all excellent spots to tuck in an herb plant or two. Many herbs will come back annually, such as mint, lemon balm, and oregano. Depending upon your climate, rosemary may also winter over.
While herbs are wonderful to use fresh in your cooking during the spring and summer months, like any good homesteader, you’ll want to preserve them for use during the winter months. Not only do herbs add depths of flavor to dishes, they can also be used medicinally and in teas and tinctures.
There are two ways to dry herbs. The first is the old-fashioned hanging method and best used for shrubbery type herbs, like rosemary, sage, and thyme.
The second uses a dehydrator or oven. This method is best for tender leaf herbs, like mint, basil, oregano, and lemon balm.
To harvest herbs, you’ll want to pick them first thing in the morning when their oils are at the highest concentration in the leaves. Avoid harvesting herbs if it has rained in the past two days, as their moisture content will be higher and make drying difficult. Herbs also have more flavor if you harvest the leaves before the plant has flowered. Leave a long stem when you pick them.
Gently rinse herbs to get rid of any dust or dirt. Lay them on an absorbent towel or drying rack to dry. Remove any leaves that are wilted, show signs of pests (egg sacks), or bruised.
If you’re going to be using the hanging method to dry your herbs, gather four or five stems together. Hang herbs upside down and tie the ends of the stems together, leaving a loop in your twine or rope to hang the herbs from.
Choose a dry spot out of direct sunlight, with plenty of ventilation. Many people use the rafters in their kitchens, attics, or porches. We’ve even hung them from the curtain rod close to our woodstove, with care to not cause any fire hazards. Check the leaves every day or so for signs of mold.
Once leaves are brittle to the touch and the stem breaks when bent, your herbs are ready for storage. Remove the leaves from the stems. Store dried herbs in small glass containers. I save small glass jars throughout the year for my herbs. When not in use, keep dried herbs in a cool, dark, dry place.
If you live in an area with high humidity or lots of moisture, you’ll want to use our second method of drying herbs. If you have a dehydrator (perfect for jerky, fruit leather, and making your own garlic, onion, and root powders) then pull it out. Herb leaves shrink considerably as they dry, so it’s best to use the non-stick mats that come with your dehydrator, or they may fall through the slats.
Place the herbs on the tray. Take care they don’t touch one another and air can circulate. Use the lowest setting on your dehydrator to dry herbs. Herbs don’t transfer their flavors, so you can dry different plants at once. I had two trays of different mints, basil, and oregano drying all at once with no flavor cross.
Check herbs after a few hours. The smaller leaves will dry faster and should be removed once they crumble to the touch. Allow larger leaves to continue drying.
If you don’t have a dehydrator, you can use an oven. Place leaves on a shallow baking pan. Put oven on lowest possible setting, preferably 150 degrees or close. Leave the oven door open and stir leaves often. As soon as they’re dry, remove.
One of my favorite herbs to use in the kitchen is basil. Basil can also be made into pesto and frozen as another preserving option. Here’s my recipe for basil lambsquarter pesto.
A herb garden is something every homesteader should utilize, the same method could also be applied to a medicinal plants like Echinacea purpurea which can be made into Echinacea elixirs. We’d love to hear about your herb garden.