Drying herbs

Lemon balm, tarragon, basil, summer savory and marjoram tied up and ready to go

With September’s Eat Local Challenge’s emphasis on food preservation, I thought I would show “easy stuff” first. Refrigerator pickles are easy. This is even easier.

A lot of the reasons I do what I do is because, in the country, I have no access to the gourmet establishments that populated my city life. Instead of doing without, though, now I am D.I.Y. But even when I was a city kid, I dried my own herbs. It was so easy to do. Considering how expensive spices can be, this certainly appeals to my tightwad side. And in the thick of winter, it is so nice to be able to grab a bit of summer seasoning off the shelf.

Not that I am growing cinnamon, vanilla, peppercorns or even ginger outside (though I could grow the latter, I suppose). Instead, most of the spices I grow fit in that generic French category of “fines herbes.” These are the green ones that most of us can, and DO, grow in our North American gardens. Basil. Borage, chervil, cilantro (coriander), fennel, mint, marjoram, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, savory, thyme. Chives. Tarragon. Lemon balm, lemon grass. And Hungarian peppers can even be dried and ground into your very own paprika.

So, here’s the procedure. Select the healthiest, strongest herbs: generally, they’re at their peak before they go into flower. Go outside in the morning and cut some herb branches. If they are wet with dew, shake them off a bit and set them in the sun to dry (but not fry: it is important to watch out for this). DO NOT wash them off; just try to brush or shake off any of the dirt you see. Tie them up with some twine and place inside a small paper bag (lunch bags work well for this) that you have punched a bunch of small holes in. Cheesecloth also works: you must make sure, though, that the drying place is dark. Tie the bag around the branches and hang it up in a dry, dark, well-ventilated spot (not your kitchen, in other words: your bedroom, maybe, or your garage). The herbs should be dry in about 3 weeks. You can them remove the leaves from the stems and gently crush them or grind them as needed.

I love making my own herb mixes. Italian herb mix is one I use frequently (oregano, rosemary, thyme, marjoram and basil). The true Fines Herbes is an equal mixture of of the following: chervil, chives, parsley and marjoram (or tarragon). Bouquet garni is a stronger mixture of thyme, sage, and parsley, but, like Fines Herbes, its contents can vary. I am also a huge sucker for savory (both winter and summer) and thyme, so I make a big mix of that, too.

Confession here: I did a lot more herb-drying in Minneapolis, as those harsh Minnesota winters generally laid waste to all but my most hardy perennial herbs. Now? I am a lot more lazy, as our winters here are a lot more forgiving. I find that I can still go out in December and pick fresh, frost-bitten herbs for my cooking.

7 responses to “Drying herbs

  1. We must be on the same page, I just harvested a bunch of herbs this morning, too. I haven’t had great luck with the paper bag method over the years, somehow spiders always find their way in no matter how tiny the holes. So I’m putting them all in the dehydrator.

  2. I am usually lazy here, too… one year, I was delighted to go out on Thanksgiving morning and discover that sage leaves break off very easily when they are frozen. They thaw delightfully inside.

    This year, though, I think I’m going to put together some herb combinations to give as gifts at Christmastime. So I will be following your instructions and get ahead of the game–before the oregano flowers again.

  3. Since we have an oven with a pilot light that keeps a steady 100Ėš, I use it as my “dehydrator”.

    I think everyone should dry their own herbs… what could be easier? Great post, El! šŸ™‚

  4. Robin (Bumblebee)

    It’s funny about your timing. I just sent my husband to the store today with paper lunchbags on the list. I start my herb harvest tomorrow.

    I’m reading so much lately on locally grown foods and sustainability, I think that even my little bit of basil, mint, rosemary and other herbs are important. Not just for taste.

    –Robin (Bumblebee)

  5. Kelly: I get the little buggers too but I just figure it’s because the wee beasties came in with the herbs (horrors, I haven’t got spiders in MY house! wink wink). But a dehydrator is one gadget I don’t have.

    Kim, sage is the one reliable herb I even kept through my Minnesota winters! (They had to be low to the ground and under the snow, though, otherwise they’d be blown away in the arctic blasts.) But that sounds like a delightful gift from you for the holidays, especially since people know how much your gardens mean to you.

    Liz, I see POTENTIAL in that pilot light: bread rising/yogurt curing/tomato drying…so lucky you! But it is easy, and herbs are really easy to grow, too.

    Robin: you see, every little bit helps! Actually, it’s really just selfishness on my part, as these’re much fresher than what you’d get in the store. But you will feel the tiniest twinge of accomplishment when you get out that rosemary this winter.

  6. El, here in the South, it would take MONTHS to dry herbs by hanging them out, since our dewpoint and humidity probably would mold them first. Do you ever freeze them and if so, how? or that drying in the oven? Maybe you can tell us how hot and how long? That would help. I have herbs that are begging to be kept, somehow. Thanks.

  7. Jules, I will look into that for you. My first reaction is to ask if you have an attic, as things get really hot in a Southern attic, I would think; hot and dry enough to do the job. But I would like to look into it for you and make another post about herbs, especially freezing them!

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