By Larry Hodgson
This spring you sowed and planted herbs for the first time. Well done! It’s a wonderful project. I’m sure you watered them in times of drought, gently fertilized as needed, chased insect pests away, even talked to them. Well done again! You did everything right. But now you have to think about making the most of your efforts: harvesting your herbs and using them for their exquisite taste.
Throughout the summer, you can harvest most of the herbs that are grown for their aromatic leaves (sage, parsley, thyme, rosemary, basil, chives, etc.) as you need them, even daily, a few leaves at a time and that’s marvelous. However, if you want to store your herbs for use during the off-season, from fall until next summer, you also have to learn how to preserve them.
When to Harvest for Storage
When it comes to preserving herbs, it’s interesting to know that the perfect time to harvest is just before the plant flowers, usually in mid to late summer or early fall. In other words, pick them when you see flower buds, but before they start blooming.
*Herbs that are usually grown for their seeds rather than their leaves, such as dill, anise, coriander and caraway, are harvested after they flower, of course. When the seed capsules turn brown, take that as a sign it’s time to harvest them.
Why at that time? It’s because plants store up a maximum of sugars, lipids, minerals and essential oils as they prepare to bloom, then break many of them down to feed the flowers and the seeds that follow. So, right before flowering is the time in the herb’s growth cycle when it contains the highest concentration of “flavor,” especially the aromatic oils that give herbs their delicious aroma and bite. So, herb leaves dried at the “about-to-bloom” stage will have a particularly good taste and you won’t need to use as much of them.
Harvest in the Morning
For most herbs, the best time for harvesting is early in the morning on a dry day, just as after the dew has evaporated, but before the heat of the day has set in. If possible, avoid washing the leaves, otherwise aromatic oils may be partly removed. If you must rinse them (there could dust or dirt on the leaves), at least dry them by patting them gently with a towel after.
That some dried herbs (thyme, sarriette, sage, etc.) are actually tastier than fresh herbs? That’s because drying removes liquids that dilute the aromatic elements and thus this intensifies their flavor.
Hang ’Em High
Most herbs can be dried by the traditional method, that is, by tying them together in bunches and hanging them from the ceiling in a dark, well-ventilated room. The drying time will vary depending on the type of herb and the conditions, but it will take at least a few weeks in most climates. The idea is to dry them slowly but surely, before molds and mildews have time to move in. When the leaves and stems are crisp to the touch, you can crush most herbs into a powder and store in a plastic bag or jar. Dried herbs can last for years!
Using the Microwave
In my youth, we used to dry herbs in a convection oven, and of course you can still do it, but it uses a lot of power and makes for a very expensive harvest as well as needlessly heating the kitchen in what is often already very hot weather. These days, you can obtain equally good herbs much faster and more cheaply using a microwave oven.
Just place the leaves in a single layer on a paper towel. Now cover them with a second paper towel and place in the microwave for one minute on high. If the leaves are not dry enough, repeat, increasing the duration 30 seconds each time until you obtain nicely dry and brittle leaves. Each herb requires a bit of adjustment, but you’ll find the sweet spot soon enough. It costs significantly less to dry herbs in the microwave oven than in a conventional one.
Try a Dehydrator
This method seems to be becoming very popular and is very easy and convenient, but involves greater expense because you probably don’t already own a dehydrator and will have to buy one. And also, you need to find a place to store it when it is not in use. (Yes, yet another kitchen appliance, as if you didn’t already have enough of them!) That’s why I insisted on methods of drying that use tools you already have on hand first. Still, dehydrators do a really good job and don’t cost much to run.
Ideally, you’d follow the method recommended by the manufacturer, but in general, you should preheat the appliance to about 95 °F to 110 °F (35 °C to 45 °C) first, but certainly never above 130 °F (55 °C), otherwise the aromatic oils in the leaves will tend to be lost through evaporation. Spread the stems and leaves on the tray in a single layer, then place it in the appliance. Don’t try to dry herbs with very moist products like fruits and vegetables: that can alter their taste and texture. Usually, the herbs will be dry in 2–3 hours.
Alternately, you could try solar heating to dry the leaves. There are several simple models of solar dryers you can make or buy, often just superimposed mesh trays placed in full sun.
I must admit I’ve had little luck with this method: it requires hot air and low humidity (ideally 100 °F/38 °C or more and an atmospheric humidity of less than 60%), both of which I have trouble providing in my area, where tbe harvest season tends to be fairly cool and quite humid. In arid climates, it will work like a charm!
A Four-Wheel Herb Dryer
If you have a car, you won’t need to buy a dehydrator to help dry your herbs. Use your vehicle to do it.
Just park your car in direct sunlight. Spread stems and leaves of herbs on a baking sheet and place the sheet on the dashboard, under the windshield. Then roll up the windows and close the doors.
The herbs will dry out quickly, certainly before the end of the day, and because they dry out so quickly there is no risk of mold. In addition, your car will give off a delicious herbal aroma for several days!
Note that you don’t have to sit in the car during the drying process. In fact, I strongly discourage it!
Freeze Your Herbs
Some herbs are difficult to dry at home (chives, mint, dill, lemongrass, lovage, etc.), but freeze readily. Some may lose their texture, but they do retain their taste.
To freeze them, remove any stems and rinse the leaves with water, then gently pat dry with a towel. Spread them out on a cookie sheet and freeze them (better chop the leaves of chives and lemongrass into short bits first). When the leaves are frozen, just scoop them up and store them in a plastic bag or other airtight container, then keep them in the freezer until use.
Another way to freeze herbs is in ice cube trays. Chop them finely, spoon them into the compartments, cover them with water (always use oil in the case of basil, otherwise it blackens) and place the tray in the freezer. When the cubes are frozen, transfer them to an airtight bag for storage. For use, just drop the cube into whatever dish you are cooking and stir: it’s very practical.
There you go! Storing herbs isn’t rocket science, but you do have choices to make. I suggest you pick the method most convenient to you.