Few people would disagree that the best way to use herbs is fresh from the garden, but from a practical standpoint, we need to be able to preserve our herbal harvests to enjoy them year round. When an herb is gathered in midmorning, after the dew has dried and before the oils start to volatilize, its flavor is at its peak; any further treatment, whether chopping, bruising, drying, freezing, storing, or leaving it on a countertop for a hour or two, will cause the loss of some of that flavor. Recent university studies have confirmed what we have long observed–that heat dramatically speeds the deterioration of herbs from their fresh state. A warming oven, a hot attic, or a microwave are a likely means to feeble flavor. Heat used in the drying process may account in part for the lack of flavor in commercial herbs and spices.
Years ago, in a rush to get Thanksgiving dinner on the table, we found an easy way to dry herbs using cold instead of heat. Left over from the meal preparation was an extra plateful of fresh herbs–some chopped, some whole–that we stuck into the refrigerator and forgot about. There it sat for a few days, uncovered, hiding behind the leftover mashed potatoes. By the time we discovered the lost plate, the herbs were crispy dry but fragrant and still flavorful. Amazingly, the parsley, dill, and chives–herbs that don’t usually lend themselves to home drying of any sort–were still green and tasty and usable.
Now, decades later, we’re still convinced that the refrigerator is one of the best places we’ve ever found to dry herbs. The secret, it seems, is frost-free refrigeration. At the time of our discovery, we had just bought a new refrigerator, trying out what was then a fairly new idea. In a frost-free refrigerator, moisture doesn’t build up inside the refrigerator compartment. Instead, water (melted ice) from the automatic defrosting cycle drains into a pan near floor level and evaporates, leaving a cold, dry atmosphere inside the refrigerator compartment.
Refrigerator drying of herbs preserves a quality and flavor superior to careful air drying while maintaining the bright green color of the fresh herbs. Chopped herbs spread out on a tray or a plate and tucked away in the fridge will usually be dry to the touch within two to three days here in east Texas. Whole herbs take slightly longer, about a week. Since all the other food in the refrigerator is well covered, there is little chance that the herbs will pick up other food flavors, nor have we noticed foods absorbing herb flavors.
We like to pile up the whole stems of small-leaved herbs such as thyme, rosemary, oregano, and marjoram. The dried leaves are easily brushed from their stems into a container. To promote drying of thick-stemmed herbs such as basil and mints, we strip off the leaves, discarding the stems, and dry only the leaves on trays. We stir the leaves two or three times a day to hasten drying and minimize wilting and discoloration. We don’t follow a rigid time schedule, but check the herbs often and wait for that moment when they are just right–dry and crispy but not so dry that they crumble to powder at first touch.
To store them, we transfer the freshly dried herbs to jars or other containers with tight lids or to plastic freezer bags (we like to double-bag to ensure freshness) and pop them into the freezer. Storing in the refrigerator is another option, but we think that freezer storage gives the best results as well as affording us the most space. The airtight containers prevent the herbs from absorbing moisture over time.
The obvious drawback to refrigerator drying is that large quantities aren’t feasible. Refrigerator space is at a premium for most families, and trying to balance numerous trays and plates of herbs among the bowls and bottles can be frustrating. We use this method most often when we have leftovers, either from fixing large meals or after class demonstrations.
Faith Swanson, a friend who has been growing herbs for as long as she can remember, discovered refrigerator drying years ago in the same serendipitous fashion that we did. Each year, she toys with different ways of refining her method in an effort to save space. Rather than using trays or plates, Faith wraps leaves and stems very loosely in stiff, sheer tulle fabric, then ties the bundles with a piece of nylon from pantyhose. The tulle bundles can be tucked into niches, propped up on the shelves of the refrigerator door, or dangled from the sides and ceiling of the refrigerator compartment, clipped to magnets that keep them out of the way. Using this method enables Faith to avoid knocking things over and making messes while reaching for that tarragon or summer savory that has achieved the perfect state of dryness and is ready for longer storage in her freezer. The little bundles take several weeks to dry during the relatively humid Ohio summer, perhaps due to less air circulation than when laid out flat, but the principle is the same and the quality of the herbs appears to be outstanding.
One might think that if drying in the fridge works, drying in the freezer would be even better, but we haven’t found that to be true. The water within the herbs freezes, breaking down cell walls and turning some herbs dark and mushy before they have had a chance to dry. Some herbs, such as parsley and chives, we still prefer to freeze directly, not as part of a drying process.
Using the refrigerator to dry herbs is a beautifully simple idea. Those chopped herbs in the back of the fridge that you forgot about last week? Just taste them.
Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay are a friendly mother-and-daughter team of tremendous herbal experience. They write from and garden at their home in Cleveland, Texas, and they travel and teach about growing and using herbs.