The Low-Tech Art of Drying Herbs

The secret is individual attention. Know your herbs' needs and you'll preserve the freshest flavor possible.

| August/September 2005

  • Traditional Bunching Method

Harvesting herbs is an odd blend of glamour and strain.
Ultimately, there is great satisfaction in the large, filled harvest baskets.

-Margaret Brownlow, Herbs & The Fragrant Garden (1957)

A bumper crop of basil, lemon balm and savory is wonderful, but what you do with it after you bring it in is every bit as important as the harvest itself.

Although I preserve herb flavors in jellies, vinegars and pesto, air-drying is still my favorite way to store the major part of summer’s herbal bounty. I prefer this method over others because it reduces large quantities of herbs to amounts that are easy to store (10 pounds of fresh herbs equals about 1 pound of dried herbs) and easy to use. And my methods, as low-tech as you can get, are accessible to anyone.

Low-tech does not equal surefire, however. I often meet gardeners whose experiences drying herbs have been devastating. They harvested their favorites and dried them, and ended up with brown straw. I have devoted many years to refining the art of drying herbs and I maintain that a wide range of home-dried herbs — including those not usually recommended for drying, such as basil, retain their colors and distinctive flavors for a surprisingly long period of time if certain principles are followed.

The problem with most instructions for drying herbs is that they are too generalized and don’t allow for differences in herbs and how they’re harvested. The secret to success is to treat herbs individually according to their needs and to dry them as fast as possible after harvesting.

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