A Guide to Drying Herbs and Spices

Growing and drying herbs and spices is among the easiest forms of food preservation.

| September/October 2013

When it comes to preserving our own food, growing and drying herbs is one of the best jumping-off points. Many herbs are incredibly easy to grow, and most contain so little moisture that the preservation job is done soon after they’re harvested. Drying herbs and spices also makes good economic sense considering the cost of high-quality seasonings and teas. And when we grow our own, we know with certainty we are getting herbs that are both fresh and organic. Lastly, when you grow your own herbs, you can grow the particular varieties that appeal to you and experiment with creating your own custom herb blends.

Herb and Spice Drying Basics

According to The Deluxe Food Lover’s Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst, culinary herbs are leaves, while spices are obtained from the bark, berries, buds (and even flower stigmas), fruit, roots and seeds of plants. Spices are almost always used in dried form, whereas herbs can be used fresh or dried. Here are a few examples: bark (cinnamon); berries (peppercorns); buds (cloves, lavender); fruit (chili peppers, vanilla beans); leaf (cilantro, parsley); roots (garlic, horseradish); seeds (coriander, juniper); and stigma (saffron).

To preserve your homegrown herbs, harvest them in midmorning before newly developed essential oils have been burned off by the sun, but after the dew has dried. Remove old, dead, diseased or wilted leaves. Washing fresh herbs usually isn’t necessary if they are grown organically.

When you harvest seed spices, the seed heads should begin to turn brown and harden, but not yet be ready to shatter. To harvest herbs for their flowers—such as chamomile flowers or thyme spikes—snip flower buds off the plants close to the first day the buds open.

Fully dried herbs and spices are safe from bacteria, mold and yeast, and will remain potent for at least six to 12 months. To remove moisture, all you need is air circulation. Some warmth can also help. The six methods detailed here fit the bill.

Indoor Air-Drying

To air-dry herbs on stems, tie stems in bundles and hang the herbs upside down in a warm, dry place (avoid the kitchen, a source of steam and cooking vapors). Use twist-ties or thin-gauge wire so you can easily tighten the bundles as the drying stems shrink. Wrap bundles with muslin, a mesh produce bag or a paper bag with several holes, and tie it at the neck. If you’re drying individual leaves, flowers or sprigs, make a drying screen from an old window screen or hardware cloth or mesh stapled to a wooden frame. Lay cheesecloth over the screen, and place herbs on the cloth. Once herbs are fully dry, which can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days, prepare them for storage as outlined in “Storing Herbs & Spices” on the last page.

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