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Drying herbs is a simple way of keeping your garden bounty for longer. Drying your own herbs allows you to have total control over the origin of the herbs and the amount. There are three principal ways to dry herbs: hanging, freezing or steeping in oil. Each has its benefits. Here's how to dry your own herbs in any way you choose.
- Harvest herbs from the garden. Use strong scissors or a kitchen knife to snip the herbs. If the herb can survive winter (i.e. it is a perennial with over-wintering abilities), cut the stems at the base of the plant. Other herbs can be entirely pulled out and the roots and woody parts composted after cutting. Cut all herbs used for drying in a way that leaves them with long stems. See "Tips" for hints on best times to harvest.
- Wash dirty herbs carefully. If you have to wash your herbs because of dirt, the best thing to do is to gently spray them with a fine mist sprayer and then wipe them. (Otherwise there may be a risk of mildew problems during storage.) Pat them with a kitchen towel or shake dry.
- Remove lower leaves from the stems and tie the bunch of herbs together close to the top of the stems. Ideally, a bunch should contain no more than 5 - 10 stems to facilitate ventilation.
- Find a dry, warm (not humid), dark and well ventilated place that is out of the way of pedestrian traffic or constant rummaging. The ideal temperature for drying is around 68ºF/20ºC. If you do not have a dark spot in the house, you can try tying paper lunch bags over each bunch and piercing airholes in the bag. This has the added bonus of also keeping the dust off.
- Leave the herbs to dry for 1 - 3 weeks. Check them every now and then to see how they are drying - thicker stemmed herbs will take longer. Check to see if their consistency has become crumbly by rubbing a leaf between two fingers. If they crumble, they are ready to be taken down.
- Remove the leaves and bottle them in airtight glass herb jars (or other jars you have around). Pick out any fluff, woody pieces and other foreign material as you remove the leaves. You can keep the leaves whole, crush them in your fingers to make a really fine ground mix for cooking (but use this quickly to retain flavour) or leave them in leaf shape for tea, garnishes on soups, etc. (these should not be too crumbly). Seeds should be left whole and crushed only when needed for cooking.
- Label the jar and date it. Store the herbs for up to one year.
- Select appropriate herbs for freezing. Usually this method works best for soft-leaf herbs such as basil, tarragon, lovage and parsley. Some herbs can only be frozen as they don't dry, such as chives.
- Wash and dry freshly picked herbs, as above. Strip the leaves off and place them into freezer bags or containers. Label and date them as they should keep for up to 3 months. If you want them to last longer, blanch them for a few seconds in hot water and then dip straight into ice-cold water and pop them into the freezer in bags/containers. Blanched herbs will freeze for up to 6 months.
- Some cooks prefer to freeze herbs in ice-cube trays, so that they have handy little sizes for cooking use. If you choose to do it this way, freeze approximately one-third chopped herbs to two-thirds water. Basil is great pureed with olive oil before freezing in ice cubes (don't add water). Remove herbs frozen as ice cubes and store in plastic freezer bags. Remove pieces as needed.
- Steeping in Oil: (see warnings below)
- Harvest and clean herbs as per instructions above.
- Choose an oil; olive oil is preferred but any other oils that you like are generally fine.
- You have the choice of keeping the leaves attached to the stem or removing them and adding them separately. If you want to use the oil as herbal flavoured oil, the stems are fine. Place in a bottle as a container; herbs remaining on their stem inside the oil bottle look very attractive as ornamental arrangements, as well as being useful culinary items. If you wish to remove the herbal leaves for cooking, a shorter, wider container is preferable to enable you to put in a spoon and scoop out the herbs and oil.
- Keep in a cool or refrigerated place, especially during warmer months. Use within 6 months of preparation.
- Another effective drying method is to lay a clean kitchen towel on counter top; lay another one on top of this. Snip washed leaves off stem and arrange in rows on 1/2 of the towel. Lay another kitchen towel folded in 1/2 over leaves. Add another layer of leaves and bring other 1/2 of first 2 towel layers to cover this. Leave it to dry about 2 days or 3 depending on leaf thickness. You know they're dry when you can crumble a leaf in your hand. Place in a zippered plastic bag or plastic container.
- A very good way to reduce time it takes to air dry is to put an airconditioner filter (looks like a large dryer lint catcher) down. Put your herbs on that and stick one more on top of that. secure with a rubber band and secure the whole thing to a fan. (as seen on Alton Brown's cooking show "good eat's")
- The best time to harvest herbs is during a rainy evening when everything is still soaking wet, but before the sun beats down and draws out the volatile oils. Late morning is usually a good bet. Herbs picked under these conditions will retain their flavour longer and are less prone to mildew problems.
- Herbs used for their leaves are best picked before they flower (i.e. as soon as the buds arrive); this will ensure the best flavour because they contain the maximum amount of volatile oils prior to blossoming.
- If you want to cut the herbs twice in one season, only harvest small amounts for the first harvest. This will leave energy for the herbs to grow through to the last harvest, which should be more bountiful.
- If you want to collect seeds for the next generation or for cooking with, wait until the blooms have died off the herb. Get to them before the windy weather does.
- Attics, pantries and warm basements are ideal locations for drying herbs. Large, rarely used cupboards or wardrobes are also another possibility.
- If you need to substitute dried herbs for fresh herbs in a recipe, remember that dried herbs are more potent. As a rule of thumb, one teaspoon of dried herb equals one tablespoon fresh herb. Don't overdo addition of dried herbs as too much can ruin the entire dish.
- Herbs can also be dried in a conventional oven, a microwave oven or using a dehyrdator. These methods do affect the content of the herb's volatile oils, however, and produce an inferior product. However, if you live in a humid climate, air drying is not successful and oven drying may be a choice you prefer.
- For drying in a conventional oven, the usually recommended temperature is 200ºF/100ºC. Place herbs on tray covered in baking paper. Watch very carefully, turn over if necessary (use tongs or similar tool and wear oven mitts). Check consistency of herbs every few minutes until they appear crisp. It might help to leave the oven door slightly ajar.
- Herbs placed into a microwave oven should be wrapped in kitchen towel and add a glass of water to prevent the dryness of the herbs from affecting the oven. Try one minute drying on high and check for consistency after each burst.
- Frozen herbs will not ever work as a garnish - they're only good for cooking.
- If you have used chemicals in your garden, even if not directly on the herbs, you must take greater care to clean the herbs before drying, even if this means washing them more vigorously than described above. Your and your family's health is precious so do not take risks.
- Do not harvest herbs in moist conditions or while dew is still on them as they will be difficult to dry by hand and will be more prone to mildew.
- Do not leave herbs hanging too long or their flavour will decline.
- Always be careful using paper towels in a microwave in case they catch fire from overheating combined with dryness.
- Herbed oils can cause botulism poisoning. Botulism is a potentially fatal food poisoning characterized by blurred or double vision, speech and breathing difficulty and progressive paralysis. Without prompt and correct treatment, one-third of those diagnosed may die. Clostridium botulinum bacteria are widespread in the environment and the spores multiply in an environment without air (anaerobic) such as oils. Therefore, herb-infused oils must have proper acidification and refrigeration to inhibit spore growth and toxin production. Consult your local Home Extension Office for proper preservation methods.
Things You'll Need
- Fresh garden herbs or locally produced herbs
- Twine, elastic bands or wool for tying bunches together
- Dark, warm, well-ventilated area for hanging herbs
- Storage jars
- Freezer for freezing herbs
- Plastic bags
- Oil for steeping herbs
- Glass bottle or container for herbs in oil
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