This may be a little nerdy of me, but have you ever seen The Hobbit? I have, once upon a time, and my favorite part in it was the part where the dwarves came and raided Bilbo Baggins’ pantry. I loved this scene because the whole time I was salivating over that pantry. Piles of stored vegetables, cured meats, breads, cheeses. I only saw the movie once, but I’ve never forgotten that scene, vowing to myself that one day, one day!, I would have a pantry such as that.
I’m not quite there yet, but let’s just say I’m on my way. My sourdough starter gives us fresh bread every week. I make crocks of sauerkraut. I’m growing potatoes and butternut squash to store in the basement. I’ve got fruit trees and grapevines in the ground for eventual preserves and wine. And, finally, I have enough herbs to bundle them up and store them in containers to flavor recipes and make tea.
Some day in a couple of years, we will renovate our kitchen, moving the washer and dryer to the basement in order to open up an alcove to create a walk-in pantry. Hobbit-style.
Usefulness of Herbs
Today the pantry staple we will be focusing on is herbs. I tend to view them as the darling of the kitchen. If garlic and onions are the foundation of good cooking, with salt and pepper being the dependable stand-by, then herbs are the darling that add that extra something special. I mean, have you ever had chicken salad with tarragon added to it? Or Italian meatballs with rosemary, oregano, and thyme? Or how about a roast turkey rubbed with herb butter?
As wonderful as fresh herbs are, the reality is that, unless you live in a warm climate, they don’t grow through the winter. That’s where drying comes in.
Choosing Herbs to Dry
Generally, when it comes to drying herbs, you can choose any herb leaves (and sometimes flowers) to dry. Some are dried for cooking, some for tea, and some for both.
Here are some herbs I chose to dry this year:
- Lemon Balm
There are others not on this list that I don’t grow (yet) such as lavender, chamomile, dill, cilantro, St. John’s wort, jasmine, and viola.
One herb that is not the best for drying is basil. Many people recommend freezing the leaves and then using them in recipes, blending them with olive oil, or making pesto. You can dry basil if you like, but much of the flavor is lost.
To prepare the herbs for drying, first you harvest them. Using kitchen shears, simply cut long stems with the leaves attached. You can wash them if you like; I don’t unless there is visible dirt on them. Harvest as much as you think you need, but try not to take too much from a single plant. You may kill it. Instead, plant multiples of herbs that you like and harvest some from each.
You can harvest from the same plant again and again throughout the season, allowing time for the plant to recover in between.
There are a three main ways of drying herbs: closet, oven, and dehydrator.
- Closet Method: The first, and easiest, is a dark closet. Gather like herbs into bundles. Tie twine or use a rubber band around the base of the stems. Add a label to each bundle so you don’t forget which is which. Then, hang the herb bundles in a dark, dry closet and wait about a week. After a week the herbs should shrivel up and be ready to store. If there is still just the slightest bit of moisture, wait a little longer to store them, otherwise they will mold.
- Oven Method: The second method is quicker, but requires more hands on time. Heat the oven to 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Pick the leaves off the herbs and spread them on a baking sheet. (For fennel, dill, and rosemary, it is better to leave the leaves on the stalks and remove them later). Spread the leaves, or stalks, evenly on the baking sheet, ensuring that they don’t overlap. Dry in the oven, checking every 20 minutes. Normally the herbs will take no more than an hour to dry. Ensure they are completely crisp and dry before storing them. I used this method for my borage.
- Dehydrator Method: This is similar to the oven method. This works well with leaves with a high moisture content, such as basil or lemon balm, since it is quicker than the closet method and the herbs won’t have a chance to spoil. Spread the herb leaves in a single layer on the dehydrator trays. Set the thermostat of the dehydrator between 95-115 degrees Fahrenheit. It should take between 1-4 hours to dry herbs this way.
Storing Dried Herbs
I have recently started saving empty herb jars and small plastic bags I used to buy bulk herbs, knowing I was going to be drying and storing my own very soon. This is what I used. If you have herbs growing outside and you suddenly find yourself wanting to dry and store them, you can use small mason jars (such as these) or just use small Ziplock bags.
Be sure to have some masking tape, a permanent marker, and your small containers when you are ready to process and store your dried herbs.
Gather your dried herb bundles, a large bowl for crushing your herbs into, a funnel, and a chopstick. The funnel and chopstick make it easier to coax the herbs into the containers.
Holding the bundle of herbs over the bowl, gently roll it back and forth between your hands. For some herbs, such as rosemary and thyme, it is easier to strip the leaves off of each stem.
Pour the stripped herbs into the funnel. Hold it over your jar, and use the chopstick to push it through into the jar.
Each time you process a bundle of herbs and put it in the stored container, use the masking tape and permanent market to label the container.
Dried herbs are best used in a year’s time. You can use them beyond this, but the flavor won’t be as strong.
What Will You Dry?
What herbs are growing in your garden? Which ones will you choose to dry? If you aren’t currently growing herbs, which dried herbs to you use most in your cooking that you can plan to grow next year? It is a satisfying, rewarding feeling to grow and dry your own herbs and get deliciously fresh flavor in your recipes.
I hope you found this helpful, and I hope to see you again.
Until next time,