Drying your food is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to preserve produce—especially herbs. It’s also a fine way to embrace a simpler, healthier and more eco-friendly lifestyle, as dried herbs retain more vitamins and minerals and contain no chemical additives.
When to Harvest Your Garden Herbs
It’s important to harvest herbs at the right time. In most cases, leaves provide the herbs’ flavors and should be picked before the flowers develop. Harvest them on warm, dry days early in the morning after the dew has evaporated. (Make harvesting even easier with DIY herb markers made of corks!) It’s best to pick and prepare one variety of herb for drying at a time. Discard any damaged or diseased leaves. Strip large-leaved herbs, such as sage and mint, from their stalks. But leave small feathery herbs, like dill and fennel, on the stalks until drying is complete.
Effective drying relies more on abundant dry, fresh air than on heat. A well-ventilated place out of direct sunlight is ideal no matter which drying method you choose. (Not sure what herbs to try in your garden? Check out this list of our Top 10 Favorite Garden Herbs!)
How to Air Dry Herbs
Tarragon, bay, mints, lavender, rosemary, lemon balm and small-leaved herbs, such as thyme, are suited to air-drying. Tie sprigs or branches into small bunches to allow adequate aeration. Large, dense bunches can develop mold and discolored leaves. Hang branches to dry, leaves downward, wrapped loosely in muslin or thin paper bags to keep out dust and to catch falling leaves or seeds. Do not use plastic bags, which can promote mold development.
Drying time depends on the size of the branches and on the humidity. On average, allow seven to 10 days. The aim is to remove 70% of the water content; when crushed, the leaves should sound like crisp cornflakes.
You can also air-dry the seeds of herbs such as fennel, parsley, caraway and coriander. Seedheads ripen unevenly; once most of a head is brown, harvest it with about 2 feet of stem or as long a stem as possible. Bundle four to five stems together, cover the heads with muslin or a paper bag and hang them upside down.
How to Dry Herbs on a Rack
You can speed up drying by spacing out individual sprigs or leaves of herbs on a tray. This method is well-suited to large-leaved herbs, such as bay. Then place the tray in an airing cupboard, in the warming drawer of an oven or in a warm, airy spot out of direct sunlight. Turn leaves or stalks frequently to ensure even drying, which should take two or three days.
How to Dry Herbs in the Oven
The leaves of herbs such as sage, mint, rosemary, thyme and parsley, stripped from their stalks, are ideal for oven drying. Space out leaves on a muslin-covered tray in an oven set to the lowest possible temperature. High temperatures will drive off the fragrant essential oils. Leave the door ajar to allow moisture to escape.
Turn the leaves over after 30 minutes to ensure even drying; they will be quite dry after about an hour. Leave in the oven until they’re cool. (Think outside the box with these 9 Little-Known Herbs to Grow in the Garden.)
The Best Way to Store Garden Herbs
No matter what method of drying you use, the packing and storing process is the same. Simply crumble the dried herbs with your fingers, and discard the hard leafstalks and midribs. Store in small airtight containers, preferably made of pottery or opaque glass. If you use clear glass containers, store them in a dark place so the herbs don’t lose their color.
Keep in mind that dried herbs are suitable only for cooked foods, and take note: Drying concentrates the flavors, so you don’t need to use as much in recipes. If a recipe calls for a specific measurement of fresh herbs, use one-third that amount of dried herbs instead.