During the spring, the flowers bloom; their smell is enchanting, refreshing, and in many cases, therapeutic. By the end of the summer, many of these plants start to dry out; they miss the sunlight and the warm weather of June and July. But what if we could keep the refreshing essence of these plants over the fall and winter? That way, we could have some of the greatest dishes of the summer, under a cloudy and chili sky in November.
The benefits of dried herbs have been underrated for many years now. With the movement of local, organic, freshly made food, there seems to be a misconception of what dried herbs are and its many benefits. Many people believe that fresh herbs are healthier than dry herbs, but the truth is that dry herbs tend to have more antioxidants than fresh ones, according to the National Institutes of Health.
First of all, dried herbs keep the same essence as the fresh herb. A dry herb is literally a herb with no water, but the nutrients, the essential oil, and the flavor are still there, and you can keep it in a jar for up to 7 months if you follow the entire process properly.
It is important to consider what herbs to dry, as they tend to lose a little bit of its flavor in the drying process. Delicate plants with light flavors are going to end up with little to none flavor. Still, heartier herbs like oregano, bay leaves, and thyme are great examples of herbs that you can preserve with its wonderful properties, benefits, and flavors.
There are quite a few processes to dry herbs, but before we get into that, it is very important that you wash them really well and make sure there are no bugs or dirt in the plants. If you leave any dirt in the drying process, that dirt will stay, and you might get sick if you end up using them for cooking, or it might deteriorate your plant quicker. So make sure to disinfect them before anything else.
A very common question is when is the best time to dry herbs? The flavor of a herb reaches its peak when it begins to flower, and the essential oils are very concentrated in the plant in the early morning before they get exposed to the sunlight and release it to the air. This can make a big difference in the end, as the herbs will end up more concentrated. Now that we know when to dry them and why to dry them, we are going to get into how to dry them.
The main factor in determining what drying process to follow is the type of herb you will be drying. The low moisture content herbs like oregano, rosemary, and sage should be air-dried. This method has been used for centuries, maybe even thousands of years!
For many people, this is still the preferred method for all kinds of herbs as it doesn’t require gas or electric energy, and it is the more “natural” way of drying. However, some other people reject this method as it takes longer.
The flavor of herbs can come from different parts of the plant, including the leaves, the stem, and the seeds of the herbs. All of them can be dried. To air-dry your herbs, you will have to make bundles. Gather 5 to 10 branches together and tie them up with a rubber band or a wire. The number of branches that you put in each bundle depends on the plant that you are using. If you see that the leaves overlap a lot, or the plant has many voluminous leaves, don’t put too many branches. If you are using a thin herb like cilantro, which has small leaves, and its stem is very narrow, you can add a few more branches. If you end up with very chunky bundles, the process will take longer, so don’t hesitate to add more bundles if you need to.
Hang them upside down for about a week in a dry room with no moisture. For instance, the kitchen or the bathroom are not ideal places as the steam of cooking or showers will interfere with the drying process. If your herbs have leaves, wrap a fabric bag around the bundle while still hanging it upside down, this way, the leaves will fall in the bag, and you will have all the pieces together when you store them.
The plants will shrink in the drying process, so make sure to keep them tight while you leave them hanging and replacing the wire or tight it again if you need it. The herbs will take from two to three weeks to dry. During this time, avoid moving them around, and before you unwrap the bundle, touch the plants to make sure they are entirely dry. If they are not, leave them hanging for a few more days until they feel nice and crisp. This is the traditional way of drying herbs that is very well known in many countries. However, there are other processes that have been used for the last decades, such as the oven-dry method.
Ideally, you should dry in the oven only herbs with high moisture. These include mint, basil, or tarragon. Drying herbs in the oven consumes a lot of electric energy, which is not good for the environment or for your gas bill. The idea of using the oven is to utilize the heat as a method to dry the herbs entirely. So if you are not drying herbs with high moisture, avoid using the oven.
To dry your herbs in the oven, wash them really well and take out all the excess water to have them as dry as possible. Then, put the herbs on a baking sheet. Make sure you use the space in the oven smartly, don’t overlap too many bundles because it will take longer to dry. However, if you have two racks, utilize all the space you have available, and don’t hesitate to dry two different kinds of herbs if you put them on different baking sheets.
Set the oven up at its lowest settings, and wait for about 20 minutes to see how your herbs are doing. Turn them over every 15 minutes and take them out only when you feel them completely dry and crispy. This process usually takes about an hour,
There is a controversy about oven-dry versus air-dry. Many people imply that air dry is the best way of drying herbs because it is the most natural one. They believe that dehydrating herbs with heat will evaporate not only the water in the plant but also its essential oils. Therefore, the plant will lose flavor and many of its nutrients.
Another important factor to consider is that there are only so many herbs that you can dry in the oven as there is limited space for racks and baking sheets. However, when you are making bundles, you can hang them on any wall of your house as long as there is no moisture, you can place them at different levels, and you can literally have hundreds of herbs air-drying at the same time if you want to.
It all depends on your needs, the time, and the space you have, as the oven-dry will only take an hour, and it will dry your herbs successfully.
This is the quickest way of drying herbs. For many people, it is the least effective one as there is a controversy about microwave ovens destroying food nutrients even though recent studies have shown that is not true. In fact, traditional ovens might destroy more food nutrients as the food is exposed to the heat for longer periods of time.
To dry your herbs with a microwave oven, clean very well your herbs as you would do for the previous processes, and lay them on a microwaveable plate without overlapping them. Microwave them using only periods of 30 seconds, turn them around after each period, and touch them to see how much they are drying. The entire process should take from 5 to 6 periods of 30 seconds, which is about 30 minutes.
It is very important that you don’t microwave them for more than one minute straight as the heat might burn your herb, and it might even catch fire. The herbs need that little break of heat every 30 seconds to achieve successfully the goal of having them nicely dried.
Many people tend to cover their herbs with a paper towel or a napkin before they put them in the microwave, to make sure the paper absorbs the moisture that the herbs release. Image Courtesy of Serious Eats.
When you are ready to store the dry herbs, put them in a jar but check them regularly over the following days. There should be absolutely no moisture; otherwise, it will start making mold. If you feel even a little bit of moisture, leave your herbs drying for a few more days until they are dehydrated.
The best way of drying herbs is the way that works best for you. Feel free to try all three processes and evaluate the result, the flavor of the herbs, and its texture. All these processes were done with trial and error, so it might be difficult for you the first couple of times. Don’t stress out and try to enjoy the process of drying them. You will be happy and grateful over the winter when you use your dry herbs for cooking some delicious pasta, sauce, or any kind of dish you like!