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.
I divide herbs for drying into two basic groups: those such as mints (with the exception of apple mint) that are quick-drying and can be dried by the traditional bunching method, and those such as lovage, parsley and basil, which don’t dry well by bunching and should be chopped, then laid to dry on trays or screens. If followed correctly, this approach guarantees a product as green as the living plant. No more limp, yellowed parsley; no more brown, tasteless basil.
Those herbs that really don’t dry well, such as chervil and salad burnet, can be preserved in vinegars or only used fresh.
Timing is Everything
Success begins in the garden. The importance of harvesting herbs at their peak of flavor cannot be stressed often enough. Overripe herbs become stalky as the plants direct their energy toward flower and seed production at the expense of their leaves. The longer after their peak you wait to harvest most herbs, the less flavor they will have. The right time varies according to the specific herb and the part that is harvested. Foliage should be picked when the plant is beginning to form buds, at which time the leaves have the highest concentration of essential oils. Herbs such as German chamomile (Matricaria recutita), whose flowers are used for teas, should be harvested when the blooms are newly opened.
There are always exceptions: With lavender, it is the flower buds that contain the most flavor and fragrance. If you want to preserve herbs for dried flower crafts, the right time for picking also varies, depending on the desired effect. For more detailed information on preserving herbs for crafts, see The Complete Book of Everlastings: Growing, Drying and Designing with Dried Flowers by Mark and Terry Silber (Knopf, 1988).
A Bunch of Tradition
The harvesting and bunching method is used to dry herbs quickly. (See Page 38 for information on what part of the herb to harvest.)
On a sunny day after the dew has dried, I cut herbs with a stout pair of kitchen scissors or clippers to the lowest set of clean leaves. (See “Cool Tools” on Page 20 for a guide to some of the best tools for this task.) I grasp a small bunch in one hand and cut the stems with the other, quickly checking each handful for weeds, discolored leaves, debris and insects — all of which are easiest to discard at this point. Then I lay down the stems in my gathering basket so that they all point in the same direction for easy bunching. I secure bunches with a thick rubber band wrapped tightly about 1 1/2 inches from the end of the stems. Rubber bands are far more efficient than string, because the bands contract as the herbs dry so bunches remain intact. You probably want between 12 and 15 stems to a bundle, depending on the type of herb, the amount of foliage and the thickness of the stems.
I hang these bunches from hooks on beams in our kitchen. I prefer them in the kitchen not only for their looks, but because I can keep a close watch on them. You can hang herbs in any room as long as it is cool, airy and doesn’t get direct sunlight. (Light destroys an herb’s essential oils and color. To see what light can do, check bottled dried herbs on supermarket shelves.) Wherever the herbs are hung, they should have plenty of room so air circulates around the bunches to speed up the drying process. Some people tie a brown paper bag around each bunch to prevent dust from accumulating on the herbs. I’ve tried this and find it cumbersome, and with dubious benefits. Besides, I like the panache that herbs and drying flowers add to kitchen decor. Decorating with dried bunches is a legitimate way to enjoy herbs, so let them hang and don’t feel guilty. If you intend to use them, of course, the bunches should be taken down as soon as they are dry because they will collect dust and could take up moisture during a damp period.
Most fast-drying herbs are crispy dry within a week or less, depending on the moisture in the air. In a period of humid weather or if you’re in a hurry, you can finish drying the herbs by laying them out on a cookie sheet (don’t crowd them), then removing some of the stems to reduce bulk. Place the sheet in an oven on the lowest setting, no higher than 150 degrees. Stir them regularly. If you smell the herbs as they’re drying, the temperature is too high.
Once the leaves are crispy dry and the stems are brittle, it’s time to strip the leaves. On a flat surface, spread a double sheet of newspaper under a large, wide bowl. Hold the bundle of herbs over the bowl, pull off the rubber band, then, taking one or a few stems at a time, remove the leaves with a quick downward motion of your free hand. An alternative stripping method is to roll the whole bunch back and forth between the palms of your hands. I leave the herbs as whole as possible for herb teas, or rub them through a colander to produce uniform flakes for herb mixes. Store herbs in labeled jars in a cupboard away from light, where they keep in prime condition for a year or more.
Jo Ann Gardner is a gardener, writer and cook living in the Adirondacks of New York. One of her recent projects included serving as contributing editor to Flora: A Gardener’s Encyclopedia (Timber Press, 2003).
Quick-Drying Herbs for Traditional Bunching
Part to Harvest
Greenish flowers with stems
In bud with long stems
Cooking, skin-care products, crafts
Cooking, crafts, flowers for tea
Soft, not woody, leafy stems
Long or short branches, not too woody
Skin-care products, moth repellant
Tender, leafy stems (do not dry in kitchen, since aroma may be unpleasant
*Do not consume these herbs.
Dry These Herbs on Screens
To dry these herbs on screens or trays, harvest them and eliminate as much of the stalk and stems as possible. These herbs require more careful handling because they turn yellow or brown unless quickly dried. Cut up foliage in small pieces (chive leaves, basil), leave flowers whole (chamomile) or tear them into florets (chive flowers), and lay them out on drying screens for large amounts, or on cookie sheets set in a just-warm oven for small amounts. Stir daily, then crumble or put through a colander, and store.
Part to Harvest
Freshly opened flowers
Crafts or herb mixes
Fat early-season leaves, cut up fine
Skin-care products, crafts
Leaves on short stems
Fresh flower umbels with short stems
Chopped leafy stems
Cut-up leafy stems
Parsley, Italian or flat
Cut-up leafy stems
Small whole roses, or petals
Crafts, jellies, vinegars
Leaves with as few stems as possible
* Do not consume these herbs