For thousands of years, drying was the only way to keep herbs from spoiling. Try it yourself—it’s easy, inexpensive and, when you do it at home, requires no chemical additives.
It’s important to harvest herbs at the right time. They should be picked before the flowers develop. Harvest on warm, dry mornings after the dew has evaporated. It’s best to pick and prepare one variety of herb for drying at a time.
Discard any damaged leaves. Strip large-leaved herbs, such as sage and mint, from their stalks. But leave small, feathery ones, like dill and fennel, on the stalks until drying is complete.
Tarragon, bay, mint, lemon balm, lavender, rosemary and small-leaved herbs such as thyme take well to air-drying, so they’re perfect for beginners.
Methods to Drying Herbs
Effective drying relies more on abundant dry, fresh air than on heat. A well-ventilated place out of direct sunlight is ideal.
If you live in a humid area, the process may be slower, and mold can be a problem. If you try air-drying and your herbs get moldy, we recommend using a small commercial dehydrator.
Tie sprigs or branches in small, loose bunches. Bunches that are too large or too dense are likely to develop mold and discolored leaves.
Hang the bunches up to dry, leaves downward, wrapped loosely in muslin or thin paper bags to keep out dust and to catch falling leaves or seeds. Avoid plastic bags, which won’t allow air to circulate.
Allow seven to 10 days for drying, depending on the size of the branches and the humidity. Herbs are fully dry when the crushed leaves sound like crisp cornflakes.
You also can air-dry the seeds of herbs and spices like fennel, parsley, caraway and coriander. Seed heads tend to ripen unevenly, so 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, then cover the heads with muslin or a paper bag and hang them upside down.
You can speed up drying by spacing out individual sprigs or leaves of herbs on racks. To make a drying rack, stretch muslin, cheesecloth or netting over a wooden frame and fix it in place. 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 frequently to ensure even drying, which should take two or three days.
The leaves of herbs such as sage, mint, rosemary and parsley, stripped from their stalks, are well suited to oven drying. Space out leaves on a muslin-covered tray in an oven set tothe lowest possible temperature. Higher temperatures diminish the fragrant essential oils. Leave the door ajar to allow moisture to escape.
Turn leaves after 30 minutes to ensure even drying; they will be dry in about an hour. Turn off heat and leave herbs in the oven until cool.
Microwaving works well for small quantities of herbs. Separate the leaves from the stems, rinse if necessary and let air-dry.
Place a single layer of leaves on a paper towel on a microwave-safe plate. Lay another paper towel on top, and microwave on high for 1 minute. Watch closely, and stop if you smell the herbs burning. If needed, continue heating for 30 seconds at a time until the herbs are dry.
Storing and Using
Use this process for all drying methods. Crumble the dried herbs with your fingers, discarding the hard leafstalks and midribs, and store in small airtight containers.
If you use clear glass containers, store them in a dark place so the herbs don’t lose their color.