Preserving the flavors of summer for later use can be a bit of an art, be it canning, pickling or dehydrating. But drying herbs at home is easy. If you ever find yourself with an excess of fresh herbs, there are several methods to try. You can dry them in a warm oven, but I find too many of the essential oils volatilize. I prefer to hang dry or use a dehydrator appliance, both of which I’ll explain below.
One thing to note, some herbs dry better than others. The flavors of cilantro, chervil and tarragon are fickle and all too often get lost in the process, resulting in flavorless flakes of dried plant matter. These herbs are far better fresh, making them simply seasonal. Most other herbs dry well and will hold onto their flavors for a year or two if properly dried and stored.
PREPARING HERBS FOR DRYING
Make sure that your herbs are clean. Anytime you wash herbs, you run the risk of losing their essential oils. But a dirty leaf is no good. If you need to rinse them, do so under a light stream of tap water and shake off the excess water (resist the wring). Lay them out on a towel so the rest of the moisture can evaporate. If you’re using a dehydrator, you could skip this step, but excess water can induce mold growth, which is also no good.
Trim off any old or brown leaves and trim any excess stems. Stems hold moisture too and will take longer to dry than leaves. You can take the time to strip leaves from stems now, but I find it easier to strip them when they’re dry.
If you have a small dehydrator appliance, they are the quickest and easiest way to dry your herbs (among many other foods). I prefer to dry one variety at a time so the flavors do not mix, but sometimes that’s not very efficient. Spread the herbs in a thin layer onto the trays and set it at the lowest temperature setting (~90F).
Different herbs require different drying times. This can be anywhere between 12-48 hours depending on how many trays, how thick the herbs are spread and what type of herb you’re drying. Run the dehydrator until the leaves are crispy and easily crushed between your fingers and/or until stems break easily.
It helps to rotate your trays throughout the process. Every time I check on my dehydrator for dryness I’ll take the bottom tray and move it to the top of the stack.
If you don’t have a dehydrator appliance, fear not! Hang drying herbs is simple. Loosely bunch your herbs and secure with a rubber band or piece of twine. Don’t try to pack too many sprigs to a bunch or you will have difficulty getting the inner sprigs dry. When in doubt, make another bunch.
Find a place that’s out of the way, out of direct sunlight and in a well-ventilated space. A corner of your kitchen, perhaps, or in the dining room. Run a piece of string onto which you can hang you bunches of herbs. Secure the bunches to the string with another piece of twine.
Now here’s the trick! Hang drying takes more time than a forced air dehydrator. To prevent dust from settling onto your herbs, drape a light towel over the string and herbs. A light linen towel works best as it breathes better than other fabrics (like terry cloth).
The time it takes to hang dry herbs varies depending on the humidity, air flow and temperature of your room. Start checking on the herbs after a week has past. The same quality test applies. When you can crush the leaves between your fingers and/or easily snap the stems in two, your herbs are ready for your pantry.
STORING DRY HERBS
You will want to seal your herbs in a clean, air tight container to preserve their freshness. I prefer glass jars, as there’s no chance of former flavors bleeding into the herbs, but you can also re-use store bought herb and spice containers.
To save time processing herbs with thinner stems like thyme, I often store them stem and all, stripping them just before cooking. For herbs with large stems, like mint or lemon balm, strip the leaves from the stem, but resist the urge to crush the leaves. In order to preserve maximum flavor, store your herbs as whole leaves and wait to crush them just prior to cooking. Crushing the leaves will release the essential oils (read: flavor!). To crush them, use a mortar and pestle or your fingers.