For those who cook with herbs, knowing how to dry herbs is absolutely crucial, particularly if you want to retain all of the nutrients and flavors of your favorite culinary additions. Fresh herbs are excellent for preparing meals immediately, but for those with herb gardens, being able to harvest and save the excess herbs for autumn and winter is very important. This is also a great way to save money, as buying your own herbs to grow at home is inexpensive, but purchasing dried herbs at the store can be quite expensive!
Growing your own herbs and learning how to dry herbs quickly will also help them retain their quality over store-bought varieties. The purposes of drying of course, is to protect your herbs from yeast, mold and other bacterial growth that can occur when water is present. Drying herbs will also lock in their nutrients and allow them to stay good for up to a year, in some cases.
Before you dry herbs, however, you need to harvest them correctly, and at the right time of the day. Furthermore, it is critical that you harvest your herbs before the plants flower. And generally speaking, late summer is the best time to harvest your herbs for a full drying and storage process.
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How to Dry Herbs?
The most popular ways to dry herbs include air drying, sun drying, and oven drying, among others. Each of these has their own advantages and disadvantages, depending on the types of herbs and your level of patience.
Arguably the best approach to drying herbs, this involves drying your herbs inside the home, away from sunlight. Begin by removing any dead or wilted leaves from the harvested herbs and then tie the herbs in small bundles with twist ties. Hang these herbs upside down in a warm and dry area of the home, away from direct sunlight. Avoid areas like the basement, kitchen or bathroom, as these areas often fluctuate in moisture content. As the herbs continue to dry, the stems will shrink, so tighten the twist ties once every few days to avoid the herbs falling out. Wrapping the hanging herbs in a brown bag can also speed the process of indoor air drying. While this method can take days or even weeks to full dry the herbs, the herbs will retain a high concentration of their active ingredients.
For most people who want to learn how to dry herbs, solar drying is the most obvious approach. In warm climates, sun drying herbs is very popular, but it is important not to expose the herbs to extended periods of direct sunlight. This can cause the herbs to bleach and lose many of their active ingredients and oils, as this process is basically slowly cooking the herbs. Allowing herbs to dry under windshields or in a glass-topped drying screen will be a faster means of drying herbs than hanging them inside, but there will be an inevitable loss of some nutrients.
Arguably the laziest means of drying herbs, once any external liquid has been removed from the herbs, they can be laid out in the refrigerator and left there for 2-3 days. This approach to drying herbs isn’t common, as the herbs shouldn’t be in contact with one another, and thus takes up space in the refrigerator. However, this can help dried herbs retain some crispness.
Heating herbs on a low setting of the oven or microwave is definitely the fastest way of drying herbs, but it will also cook the herbs, causing some of the proteins to denature, which means some of the active ingredients and nutrients will be compromised. If you need to dry your herbs quickly, this approach will work, but the resultant herbs won’t have as much of a health impact or a fresh flavor.
Using a dehydrating machine is an excellent option if you have access to one, or are planning on drying a large amount of herbs for many years to come. There are a number of useful applications for food dehydrators aside from drying herbs, but a good machine will typically cost $350-500.
How to Store Herbs?
Understanding how to store herbs the right way is just as important as learning how to dry herbs properly.
Storing Dry Herbs
Dried herbs will do best when stored in an airtight jar or container in a cool, dry area away from direct sunlight. More importantly, before storing your herbs, be sure that they are completely dry. Many herbs come in a “whole” form and are later ground for culinary practices. If you want to retain as much freshness and flavor as possible, store your herbs in their whole form until you plan to use them. Always mark the dates you stored the herbs, as most herbs will lose their flavor and potency after 12-18 months.
Storing Fresh Herbs
If you want to harvest a larger amount of fresh herbs, but don’t plan to use them immediately or dry them, one easy option is to bind them in medium-sized clumps and place them in a small mason jar filled with enough water to cover the bottom of the stems. Then, place a plastic bag over the top of the herbs and the jar; this should allow you to keep fresh herbs crisp and flavorful for 1-2 weeks.