Friday, September 10, 2010

Dry your harvest!

I have used five different methods to dry the harvest from my garden. All are easy and I have listed them in order of energy and attention needed. Those that need the most attention are listed last.

Before you begin:

Always pick herbs just before the plant flowers to insure the strongest flavor.

Harvest in the late morning after the dew has lifted, but before the sun becomes too strong and evaporates the essential oils.

Cut only healthy herbs. Don’t worry about a few dead or damaged leaves; just pluck them off before the drying process.

Ways to dry:

                 1. Hang Drying – this is ideal for any long-stemmed herbs, tarragon, lavender, sage, rosemary,  mints, lemon balm, etc.

Take stems and bundle together, tying them or holding them with a rubber band. Depending on the size of the stem 10 to 12 stems is a good size bundle. Choose a hanging location that has good air circulation, minimal light, especially sunlight, and dust. In my first home I suspended a rack from the ceiling in the basement, draped a white bed sheet over the top to collect the dust and had plenty of air circulation under and around the herbs. The average drying time is 1 to 2 weeks. In humid places, like Illinois, running a dehumidifier during the muggy months can help.

Once they are dry, and you know they are completely dry when they crumble in your hand, you can crumble them into jars for long-term storage. Or you can leave them on the stem for longer storage by placing them stem and all in a zip lock bag. Herbs left on the stem will keep their flavor several months longer than those crumbled and a year longer than those ground or powdered.

                2. Screen drying – smaller leaf or stem herbs, flowers and other petite plants are perfect for        screen drying.

Place herbs on a window screen. You can also use cheese cloth stretched over a frame or even lay them out on paper towel on corrugated cardboard. What you want is good air circulation again and minimal sunlight. The herbs will dry in a week or less, but you may need to turn them over depending on your air conditions.

I purchased scratch and dent window screens from a building supply store all the same size and shape. For this we then crafted a frame where the screens could slide in and out to make access easier once during loading and unloading.

                3. Oven drying – can be used for any herbs, but is best for those that do not do well with longer  methods, especially Basil. You do have to be careful with sage that has a very volatile oil.

Remove the fresh leaves from the stalk and place them on an oven tray. You can layer the tray with parchment to make it easy to remove. There are two ways to use the oven, the short method and the long method. The short method you place the tray in a warm oven (350 to 400 degrees) for only 5 to 9 minutes until the herbs are dry and brittle. Do not walk away and leave them or you can end up with scorched herbs. If you have picked the herbs previously (up to 24 hours ahead) you can reduce the oven temp to 250 to 300 degrees.

The long method is easier because you can set it and forget it. With the long method you set the over to 350 degrees and allow it to pre-heat. Then take the tray of herbs and set in the oven after you turn it off. Leaving the oven door open to allow moisture to escape and allow a couple of hours or overnight for the herbs to dry. If you have a gas oven with a pilot light, you can use this method without turning the oven on. It may take 6 to 8 hours to dry the herbs this way.

                4. Refrigeration method – this is perfect for herbs with small leaves, thyme, rosemary,             marjoram, or savory.

Place the small leaved herbs on a plate or a square of cardboard laid with paper towel and place in the refrigerator. You can also do this with basil leaves but the paper towel is required. Check them frequently and stir them around to avoid wilting and ensure even drawing. The drying time varies depending on the herb. Thyme is much faster, while basil may take more time. Once they are dry place them in containers.

The down side of this method is you need extra space in refrigerator and you can have flavor transfer. Some foods stored in the fridge may flavor the herbs and some foods may pick up the flavor of the herbs.

                5. Microwave drying – good for small batches of herbs, especially those that need to dry quickly or risk turning moldy, like Basil.

Lay the herbs out on paper towel. Don’t fill the sheet too full, then place another towel on top. You can do multiple layers of herbs and toweling. Place the towel stack in the microwave and microwave on high for 2 minutes stopping every 30 seconds to be sure they do not burn. Remove leaves that become crumble dry and continue until all herbs are dry to the touch.

Do you have a favorite drying technique? Which one gives you the most success? Leave a comment and let’s chat about it.

At the Backyard Patch we make hundred of blends using dried herbs if you are interested in learning more about our combinations, visit us at

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