This is a long post, but I’ve had several people ask me how I preserve my Herbs. So here goes! One of the ways I put them up for winter and to give away to family and friends is to dry them. I have also frozen certain kinds of Herbs, but that’s for another post.
I start by picking my Herbs in the morning before it gets too warm. Usually by 10:00 am. Here in Oklahoma it starts getting warm really fast, and you want to start out with a fresh product. I bring a large bowl (it’s about 2 gallons) half full of ice water out to my Herb garden. I start picking out which stems I want to cut, by checking to make sure the leaves are not wilted and I also snip off any leaves that have bad places in them or have been eaten by insects. I cut the stem just above a leaf nod (that is where 2 or more, leaves are intersected together on the stem). And about 1 – 3 inches from the ground (depending on how big the plant is) for example Oregano is much taller than Thyme, so I leave about 2-3 inches of stem still on the plant to the ground. For smaller plants like Thyme, I snip off the stem about an inch above the ground. For Sage, Basil, Parsley, Mint, Dill and Rosemary, I cut closer out toward the top of the plant again just above a leaf nod, using only about 4-5 inches of the leaves and stems. This lets the plant continue to branch from that leaf nod and doesn’t stress your plant. If you cut below a leaf nod it leaves a bare stem sticking out from the plant that will die back and possibly let disease get into the dead stem and move on down into your plant.
As I cut the herbs that I want to dry I place them directly into the cold water. For drying I always keep the leaves attached to the stem. If you don’t, you will drive yourself crazy trying to pick up those tiny leaves off of your drying rack and end up wasting most of it.
The reason I use Ice Water, is to wash the stems and leaves, and kill any bugs that might be on the Herbs. Some people use vinegar to soak their Herbs in, (the vinegar is supposed to break down any pesticide residue on the Herbs) but since I don’t use any pesticides on my plants at all, so there is absolutely no need for me to use anything but water to wash them. Because there is nothing on them except maybe a little dust and a few bugs. Also another reason I don’t like to use anything stronger than water, I think the acid in the vinegar starts to break down the tender leaves and changes the taste and flavor of the Herbs.
Then when I’ve picked as much as I want, I then take the bowl into the house and put more Ice and Water on top of the Herbs, completely covering them. I then anchor them down in the water with an inverted saucer or small plate. I let them soak in the Ice Water for at least 30 minutes. I then Line an area on my counter with a towel or paper towels. I use both, placing a clean kitchen towel on the bottom, then lay a couple of layers of paper towels on top of the towel to soak up any remaining water. Then take the bowl of Herbs and Ice Water to the sink and pull each of the stems out of the water one at a time and inspect it again for any bugs or bad places, like a dark spot or wilt. (Herbs have very few bugs, or at least mine don’t, bugs don’t like Herbs very well). Removing any undesirable leaves and discarding them. Shake out any excess water into the sink and lay the stems and leaves onto the paper towels to dry. Spreading them out as much as possible. See Photo below.
When all of the water is drained off, after about 30- 45 minutes. (the more moisture that is on the Herbs the longer it’s going to take to dry them.) You can then start loading your Herbs onto the drying racks.
I use a dehydrator. Simply because it takes so much longer in the oven, and I don’t like to heat up my house with an open oven door. Plus it ties up my oven for several hours. My dehydrator has 5 trays or racks, which I load with my Herbs, spreading them out as much as possible. After I get them loaded I stack each tray on top of the other and place the lid on top. My dehydrator lid has a lever that you can open or close, I always leave mine fully open, the Herbs dry much faster that way. Then turn it on (My dehydrator only has one setting, off or on, it’s very simple). Depending on how thick your leaves are or how full you fill each rack, with all 5 trays fully packed, mine will take 8 – 10 hours to fully dry the Herbs. I always check the trays after about 2 hours, starting with the bottom tray or rack, I will rotate it to the top. And continue to check them throughout the day. The bottom rack will always dry out first, so in order to keep them drying evenly I continue to rotate them until all racks are completely dry. If I get busy and the bottom rack gets completely dry, I just remove it and set it aside until they are all done and all the leaves are dry and crispy. If you have any leaves that feel soft or rubbery, they are not done.
When all the Herbs are dry turn off the dehydrator and remove the lid and start with the top rack first. Start taking out the stems one at a time. Handle them gently, so that you don’t lose the leaves as you transfer them to a bowl. Remove each dried leaf from the stem and place it into a clean dry bowl.
( Make sure your hands, bowl, jars and all utensils are sterile and DRY.) Discard stems and continue this process until you have emptied all the racks and all the leaves and stems are separated. I use my hands to crumble or rub the dry leaves and make sure there are no small stems hiding in the pile of dried Herbs. (be careful, those dried stems can become very sharp) Then I use my sterile tongs to fill the clean dry jars with dried Herbs. Label each jar and either place them in the freezer or store in a cool dark pantry until you are ready to use them. I like to check my jars once in a while just to make sure there is no discoloration or mold. The experts recommend using them within 6 months to a year. So far in all the years I’ve been drying them, I’ve never had any to go bad. Even though we live in such a humid climate.
Besides using my Herbs to cook with, I love to share them as gifts to family and friends. I hope you give my methods a try. It is time consuming, but well worth the effort. The flavors of drying your own Herbs are so much better than the little store bought bottles that have been sitting on shelves for no telling how long.
Note: All machines are different, so depending on the Herbs you are drying, and how many trays or racks you have in the machine, will determine the drying time. For example if you only fill 2 drying racks and you are drying Dill Weed, it could only take a 2-3 hours. So check your machine often.
Just a little history of how I got started with Herbs:
Both of my Grandmothers were unstoppable gardeners, but my Mom’s Mother was the one that had an Herb garden just outside of her kitchen door and all along the path to the garden, beside the garden fence. Where she had a huge bed of Garlic right in the corner of the garden. My sister, cousins and I grew up helping my Grandmother in the garden and helping her tie those Herbs and hang them to dry. She had a building (actually their old house that had all of the rafters in the ceiling exposed) that she used just for drying Herbs and storing treasures. (and Grandpa’s home grown tobacco) Grandma always had several balls of string that she had saved from everything. She would snip the lengths of string off and have them ready and laid out on the table to tie onto the ends of the stems once she prepared the Herbs for drying. She would bundle several Herb stems together and wrap one end of the string around one bundle, then wrap the other end of the string around another bundle. Grandma had a backward wrap that she used, to get that string just tight enough so that when the stems started to dry they wouldn’t slip out. Some Herbs she would put into paper bags to hang and dry just in case the leaves fell of the stems, the bag would catch them. Some of them she left open to dry in the air. We would then take all of the Herb bundles tied with string out to the old house and she would take one bundle and throw it over a rafter so that they would hang there in the air until they were dry. I remember those bundles gently blowing back and forth hanging from those ceiling rafters.
The old house was absolutely one of my favorite places at my Grandparents. It was well shaded with huge trees in their yard and it always seemed to have a breeze blowing through it. The smells inside that old house were so wonderful, to this day when I think about walking into the rooms it makes my mouth water.
I hope you have enjoyed my little piece of Herb history and preparation.