As late summer advances and autumn appears on the horizon, gardeners who have grown herbs will have lots of large plants from which to harvest material for drying. As herbs are best picked before they flower, since that is when there is the highest oil content in the leaves, plants from which material has been harvested continually all season will be in good shape as this constant clipping will have probably prevented flowering from occurring.
The best time to harvest herbs is late morning or early afternoon – after the morning dew has evaporated but before the intense heat from the afternoon sun wilts the leaves. Snip several branches, give them a shake to remove dust, remove any dead or diseased leaves, and tie the stems in bundles of four to six with garden twine. If you think the herbs need to be washed, rinse them in clear water and then let them dry completely before proceeding with the drying process.
Punch holes in a paper bag and place a bundle upside down in the bag, gathering up the mouth of the bag around the stems of the bundle of herbs and tying it securely. The end result is a bundle hanging upside down in the bag without touching the bag itself. Label the bags. The bags keep dust off the herbs during the drying process. Hang the bags in a warm location with good air circulation and check them every two weeks. When the leaves are crispy, they are dry.
After they are dry, remove the bundles of herbs from the bags and strip the leaves from the stems. Put the dried leaves in airtight containers and store them in a dark, dry place. Label the containers. Store the leaves whole and crush the leaves just before using them, or better yet, grind them using a mortar and pestle.
Rather than air drying, herbs can be dried in a dehydrator. Directions come with these machines and may vary according to the machine in use. Herbs also can be dried in the oven with only the oven light providing heat – you don’t want to cook the herbs, just dry them. Sandwiched loosely between layers of paper towels, herbs will dry overnight in an oven. A microwave is a poor way to dry herbs as it will cook the leaves, reducing their oil content and flavour.
The best herbs to air dry are herbs with low moisture content such as dill, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, thyme, parsley, summer savory and sage. Air drying does not deplete the essential oils in the herbs so they retain their pungent flavour. Herbs with high moisture density such as lemon balm, mint, tarragon and basil will likely mould before they air dry and are best dried in a dehydrator or frozen. Chives are best frozen as they are diffi-cult to dry satisfactorily.
Most herbs can be frozen easily by simply packing ice cube trays full of herb leaves, adding a bit of water to cover the leaves and placing the ice cube tray into the freezer. When frozen, the “herb cubes” can be bagged, labelled and stored in the freezer until needed, when they can be used individually.
Harvesting and preserving herbs for winter use is a pleasant task in the fall, and one that will bring back fond memories as you use the fruits of your labour during the winter to create all sorts of wonderfully flavoured dishes in your kitchen.
– Albert Parsons writes from Minnedosa, Manitoba