While the herbs from your herb garden are best used fresh, there is always more than you can use in one season. Air drying herbs is not only the easiest and least expensive way to dry fresh herbs, but this slow drying process also doesn't deplete the herbs of their oils. This process works best with herbs that don't have a high moisture content, like Bay, Dill, Marjoram, Oregano, Rosemary, Summer Savory and Thyme.
Techniques for high moisture herbs are given at the end of this article.
To retain the best flavor of these herbs, you'll need to allow them to dry naturally or use a food dehydrator. A microwave or a low set oven may seem like a convenient shortcut, but use them only as a last resort. Microwaves actually cook the herbs to a degree, diminishing the oil content and flavor.
Harvesting Your Herbs
- Harvest before flowering. If you've been harvesting all season, your plants probably haven't had a chance to flower. But non-hardy herbs will start to decline as the weather cools, so late summer is a good time to begin drying your herbs.
- Cut in mid-morning. Let the morning dew dry from the leaves, but pick before the plants are wilting in the afternoon sun.
How To Dry Fresh Herbs
- Cut healthy branches from your herb plants.
- Remove any dry or diseased leaves. Yellowed leaves and leaves spotted by disease are not worth drying. Their flavor has already been diminished by the stress of the season.
- Shake gently to remove any insects. There are always hitchhikers and since you won't be thoroughly washing the stems, you want to get rid of as many as you can now.
- If you've picked your herbs while the plants are dry, you should be able to simply shake off any excess soil. But if necessary, rinse with cool water and pat dry with paper towels. Give them plenty of air circulation, so they can dry out quickly. Wet herbs will mold and rot.
- Remove the lower leaves along the bottom inch or so of the stem.
- Bundle 4 - 6 stems together and tie as a bunch. You can use string or a rubber band. The bundles will shrink as they dry and the rubber band will loosen, so check periodically that the bundle is not slipping. Make small bundles if you are trying to dry herbs with high water content.
- Punch or cut several holes in a paper bag. Label the bag with the name of the herb you are drying.
- Place the herb bundle upside down into the bag.
- Gather the ends of the bag around the bundle and tie closed. Make sure the herbs are not crowded inside the bag.
- Hang the bag upside down in a warm, airy room.
- Check in about two weeks to see how things are progressing. Keep checking weekly until your herbs are dry and ready to store.
Storing Dried Herbs
- Store your dried herbs in airtight containers. Zippered plastic bags will do, or small canning jars work nicely as well.
- Be sure to label and date your containers.
- Your herbs will retain more flavor if you store the leaves whole and crush them when you are ready to use them.
- Discard any dried herbs that show the slightest sign of mold.
- Place containers in a cool, dry place away from sunlight.
- Dried herbs are best used within a year. As your herbs lose their color, they are also losing their flavor.
- Use about 1 teaspoon crumbled dried leaves in place of a tablespoon of fresh herbs.
Freezing Herbs: Another Preservation Method
Moisture dense herbs, like basil, chives, mint, and tarragon preserve better in a dehydrator or you can try freezing them. It's easy to do and quicker than drying. Learn how with this video on How to Freeze Herbs.