8/3/11

Simple Air Dried Herbs

I like to make the most of the herbs I grow by drying them for year-round use. With the exception of cilantro and basil, which I think have their best flavor fresh, I use simple air-drying for my herb plants. Depending upon the type of plant, I dry leaves, stems, flowers, seeds and roots - mostly for culinary use and teas, but also some for ingredients in lotions and salves.

Examples of leafy herbs I dry are parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme (hey, sounds like a good song!), mint, lemon balm, lemon grass, chives, marjoram, stevia, holy basil, horsetail, and sassafras (called "filé" powder when dried and ground, an ingredient in southern gumbos). I dry the flowers of lavender, dandelion, and calendula. Seeds, which form after the flowers die, are pretty well dry by the time I gather them, and those I save include dill, fennel, coriander (the seeds of the cilantro plant), and nasturtium. Roots I harvest and dry include garlic, horseradish, bloodroot, echinacea, and - hopefully from this year's planting - licorice.

I primarily use four drying racks which slide in and out of a wood frame, a set-up I purchased a few years ago. I've never seen another like it, so I am sorry to say, I can't recommend where to buy a similar one. Each of the rack "drawers" is a rectangular wood frame lined with fine mesh screening. Air flow is essential for dehydration, and a single layer of herbs on the screen avoids mold or mildew forming. I set this up in my basement, which averages about 60 degrees in the summer. You can use old window screens or stretch a piece of screening bought at the hardware store over wood frames or artists' stretcher bars for a similar set-up.

Most guides recommend picking herbs for drying just after the morning dew has dried. If the herbs have large leaves, I strip them from the stems and lay in a single layer on the screening. For those with tiny leaves, like thyme, I keep the leaves on the stem until drying is complete, then just run my fingers down the stem and they drop off. For long leaves like chives and lemon grass, I cut the freshly picked leaves with scissors, into pieces 1/4-1/2" long. Flowers dry best when newly opened. If they are large or bulky, I dry them on the top drawer of my racks, which is open (see photo). For drying roots, which often hold a lot of moisture, I slice fresh, cleaned roots into smaller pieces, exposing more surfaces to the air to expedite drying.

Drying time is influenced by the type of herb, the type of drying rack, the amount of air circulation, and the ambient temperature. Most of those I dry are dehydrated in a few days.

To preserve the flavor of the dried herbs, store in a tightly covered jar, away from heat or light. I save the desiccant packets from vitamins and supplements and drop one in the jar with the dried herbs, just in case any moisture is released. If I have more of a dried herb than I'll use in 6 months, I often use the hose attachment of my FoodSaver and vacuum seal the herbs for longer-term storage in canning jars.

Herbs are relatively easy to grow - they don't demand picking all at once when "ripe", as most vegetables do, grow in pots as well as in the ground, don't require large gardens, and they aren't too fussy about soil requirements. Most prefer full sun. Perennial herbs come back yearly and grow into larger patches (beware of mints, they can take over); annuals such as basil or dill can be left to self-seed and the plants will return the following year. Some herbs are seasonal - I've found, to my dismay, that cilantro grows best for me in the winter months; basil demands warm weather.
Plant a pot of herbs, tuck some among your flowers, or dedicate an area to an herb garden, and enjoy the bounty!