As leaves change colors and gardens begin hibernating, harvesting and drying herbs is a time-honored tradition for the fall months
We all recognize the little bundles, hung with twine from our grandmother’s shed or pot rack. In a language all their own, spices and herbs convey so much about our lives and our loves. We put them into our foods, our medicines, our soaps and our lotions. With a tiny bit of know-how, you can carry on the custom of drying your garden’s herbs and spices at home.
Any recipe that calls for fresh herbs can be done with dried herbs. The trick is to dry the herbs and spices when they are at their peak. Many chefs say grinding the dried herbs and spices as you add them to the ingredients helps release their flavor into the dish.
Air-drying is the traditional way for most plants, but some are “high-moisture” and will need to be dried in the oven or set out individually on trays or screens to ensure complete air circulation. Each plant has its own drying needs. Which ever the method required, the drying process for all herbs and spices needs to begin immediately after harvesting.
Washing is only necessary if you have used spray pesticides or additives on your garden. If the plants were grown organically, keep them dry. Collect the herbs in the late morning on a dry day.
For herbs that can be bundled, tie them in small batches and hang upside down in a dry place with less than 60% humidity. Plants shrink as they dry. Use an easily re-tied knot or twist-ties to bundle the plants. It will make it easier to secure the stalks as they shrink.
Air-drying moisture-rich plants means cutting the stalks and laying the leaves out individually. If this takes too long (it takes days!) or it uses up too much space, you can dry most moisture-rich herbs and spices in the oven. A microwave works, too. Search for terms like “How to dry lavender” or “how to dry fresh basil” for advice for your specific herbs.
After the herbs and spices are totally dry, it’s time to grind and store them. A mortar and pestle is a handy set to have for grinding herbs. Getting the dried plants into a powdered state guarantees a soft touch for lotions and soaps. A food processor or dedicated coffee grinder can work, too. Ground spices and herbs can last up to 6 months. Store your herbs and spices in a mason jar with an air-tight lid or a dishwasher-cleaned, leftover spice jar. Your spice cabinet should have a solid door to keep sunlight out and the cabinet should be situated away from heat sources. Label all the herbs and spices with their name and the date. As you use them, check the aroma and the color. Replace any herbs and spices that aren’t as aromatic and full of color.