For thousands of years, drying was the only way to keep herbs from spoiling. It’s easy, inexpensive and healthier than artificial flavoring methods because dried herbs do not contain chemical additives.
It’s important to harvest herbs at the right time. They should be picked before the flowers develop. Harvest on warm, dry mornings after the dew has evaporated. It’s best to pick and prepare one variety of herb for drying at a time.
Discard any damaged leaves. Strip large-leaved herbs, such as sage and mint, from their stalks. But leave small, feathery herbs, like dill and fennel, on the stalks until drying is complete.
Tarragon, bay, mint, lemon balm, lavender, rosemary and small-leaved herbs such as thyme take well to air-drying, so they are great for beginners.
Effective drying relies more on abundant dry, fresh air than on heat. A well-ventilated place out of direct sunlight is ideal.
If you live in a humid area, the process may be slower, and mold can be a problem. If mold is an issue, we recommend using a small commercial dehydrator.
Tie sprigs or branches into small bunches. Large, dense bunches can develop mold and discolored leaves.
Hang the bunches up to dry, leaves downward, wrapped loosely in muslin or thin paper bags to keep out dust and to catch falling leaves or seeds. Do not use plastic bags because of mold development.
Allow seven to 10 days to dry, depending on the size of the branches and humidity. They’re completely dry if the leaves sound like crisp cornflakes when crushed.
You also can air-dry the seeds of herbs such as fennel, parsley, caraway and coriander. Seed heads tend to ripen unevenly, so once most of a head is brown, harvest it with about 2 feet of stem (or as long a stem as possible). Bundle four to five stems together, then cover the heads with muslin or a paper bag and hang them upside down.
You can speed up drying by spacing out individual sprigs or leaves of herbs on racks. To make a drying rack, stretch muslin, cheesecloth or netting over a wooden frame and fix it in place. Place the tray in an airing cupboard, in the warming drawer of an oven or in a warm, airy spot out of direct sunlight. Turn leaves frequently to ensure even drying, which should take two or three days.
The leaves of herbs such as sage, mint, rosemary, thyme and parsley, stripped from their stalks, are well suited to oven drying. Space out leaves on a muslin-covered tray in an oven set to the lowest possible temperature. Higher temperatures diminish the fragrant essential oils. Leave the door ajar to allow moisture to escape.
Turn the leaves over after 30 minutes to ensure even drying; they will be quite dry after about an hour. Leave in the oven until cool.
Microwaving works well when drying small quantities of herbs. Separate the leaves from the stems, rinse if necessary and let air dry.
Place a single layer of leaves on a paper towel on a microwave-safe plate. Lay another paper towel on top, and microwave on high for 1 minute. Watch closely, and stop if you smell the herbs burning. Continue heating at 30 second intervals, if needed, until the herbs are fully dry.
Storing and Using
Use this process for all drying methods.
Crumble the dried herbs with your fingers (discard the hard leafstalks and midribs) and store in small, airtight containers.
If you use clear glass containers, store them in a dark place so the herbs don’t lose their color.
A Few Notes
Dried herbs are suitable for cooked foods, but remember: Drying concentrates the flavors, so you don’t need to use as much in recipes. For example, if a recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs, use 1 teaspoon of dried herbs instead.
Timing is everything: Harvest herbs in the morning after the dew has dried from the leaves. Try to harvest herbs for drying before flowers develop for better flavor.
Making a Fragrant Fire Starter
To make an aromatic herb fire starter, gather old newspaper and an assortment of herbs. Sage, basil and rosemary work well; experiment with your favorites.
Wrap the herbs in a sheet of newspaper and secure the ends with raffia or cotton twine.
As you pile the logs, tuck a few of the herb bundles underneath, allowing the newspaper ends to stick out. Then light the paper ends to start the fire.
As the paper burns, the herbs will catch fire, igniting the logs and sending a lovely aroma through the air.
Kitchen Herb Garden
Growing a nutritious herb garden outside your kitchen door is easy! Many varieties also double as beautiful ornamentals that add color and texture to gardens. And even though growing herbs saves you money, you can’t put a dollar value on the flavor you’ll savor when you add fresh-picked herbs to homemade recipes.
For long-term storage, keep dried herbs in airtight containers made of dark glass, which shields them from damaging light. Canning jars with glass lids held by metal clamps work great.
Want to add zest to pasta sauces? Just leaf it to basil. There are more than 30 varieties of this herb, but sweet basil is the most common.
Space plants 1 foot apart; they’ll grow 1 to 2 feet high. To promote bushiness, pinch off growing tips and blooms as they appear. Consider colorful varieties, such as Purple Ruffles.
Bay leaves actually come from a shrub that’s a perennial in warmer climates. Those in colder regions may have better luck buying a small plant and growing it indoors for the winter and even year round. It reaches 5 or 6 feet in height if kept pruned.
Warning: Be sure you buy a culinary bay tree, as other relatives produce toxic leaves.
Versatility, thy name is chive. Stir it into soups and sauces; whip it with butter, cream cheese, sour cream and dips; or sprinkle it on potatoes and omelets. Chive is a kissing cousin of onions but tastes slightly sweeter and milder.
They grow 10 to 15 inches tall, with bright blossoms and leaves.
Strongly associated with Mexican food, cilantro also is a popular ingredient in Middle Eastern, Indian, South American and Asian cuisines. And talk about getting a lot of bang for your buck –its seeds also produce the spice coriander.
Cilantro grows 1 to 3 feet tall. For a continuous harvest, plant successive crops every two to four weeks.
A member of the carrot family, dill is well known as a pickling ingredient. But its seeds and leaves also taste great in breads, dips and soups.
It grows best when sown directly in soil; it reseeds itself regularly. Common dill grows to about 3 feet tall but is leggy enough to warrant planting in a location protected from wind.
This drought-tolerant Mediterranean herb typically grows about a foot tall. It’s the ultimate low-maintenance herb, as it requires little watering. In fact, you don’t even have to cover the seeds with dirt; just mist them and watch ’em grow. To maximize flavor and keep plants compact, pinch off blooms as they appear.
Popular as a garnish, this member of the carrot family also enhances the flavor of meats, salads and soups.
The plants are slowpokes when it comes to germinating, so it helps to soak the seeds over-night before planting. Mature parsley will reach 10 to 18 inches in height and spread 6 to 9 inches.
This aromatic herb is packed with medicinal powers. The scent of its oil enhances memory, and the herb is a powerful anti-oxidant that reduces the risk of blood clots, cancer, heart attacks and strokes. It’s also a crowd-pleaser when roasted with chicken, fish, lamb, pork and potatoes.
Grows up to 3 feet tall.
Sage adds color, texture and fragrance to gardens-as well as flavor to pasta, meats and breads. Most types of culinary sage feature purplish-blue flowers and fuzzy leaves that range from gray-green to variegated colors.
Plants grow up to 2-1/2 feet tall and wide. Pinched for space? One plant is probably plenty.
This aromatic herb complements everything from tomato sauces and marinades to vegetables and jellies. It also doubles as an eye-pleasing, 6- to 10-inch-high ground cover. Better yet, this woody perennial doesn’t demand much attention at all, especially when it comes to watering. In fact, too much water reduces its flavor.