It is ideal to harvest your herbs for drying when they are the most flavorful. Here are a number of ways to dry your herbs.
For most leafy herbs, the best time to harvest is just before the plant blooms. Many herbs increase their production of phenols and other compounds that we deem flavorful as they go into bloom – since it is a time when they really need to protect themselves from pests. Essential oil production is increased as well. While causing pests to avoid them, these oils and other compounds make the herbs more flavorful to us humans.
Overview on Herb Drying
Dry all herbs out of direct sunlight. Sunlight, especially in the Southwest, is too intense for the delicate chemicals in harvested plant parts. Yes, living plants have techniques for avoiding sun damage, but once harvested, the tissues can be damaged by light.
Science Nerd Shares:
The light that we see is just one tiny part of the electro-magnetic forces that are part of our universe. Visible light itself can have an effect upon biological organisms, but so can the other components of all that solar energy beaming out of the sky upon us – and upon our drying herbs.
Don’t be fearful, just be aware.
Air movement is good. The quicker the drying, the less breakdown of the chemical compounds inside the leaves, and thus the sweeter the herb flavor and less common any bitter background notes.
When you dry your herbs, a fan running in the room will help move air and dry them more quickly.
When to De-stem?
The absolutely most flavorful herbs are de-stemmed upon harvest.
When you purchase herbs in the supermarket, they have generally been harvested by a giant machine that chops them up – stalks and all. They are then tumbled and dried with hot air in giant machines that look like clothes dryers. When you buy “oregano” you are getting both leaves and stems – but you never notice it.
When you grow oregano (or parsley, or whatever) yourself, you will want to remove the leaves from the stalks, because a sharp stem in your pasta sauce is annoying, to say the least.
So it comes down to when. When do you want to de-stem.? Now or later?
When I am in a hurry – the answer is, “later” and I dry herbs stem and all. Then, once dry, I can spend the time removing the leaves and discarding the stalks. When I am not in a hurry, I like to do it the more flavorful way, and take the leaves off the stem for drying.
Dry Your Herbs
Flat on Paper
Spread your herbs – leaves or cut stems – on top of flattened paper bags. A cookie sheet or some heavy cardboard under the bags helps keep them rigid and less likely to spill the contents during handling. These trays can be placed out of the way on top of the refridgerator and the like.
In my home, with a cat that can easily elevate herself to the top of the refridgerator (and often does) this option is not ideal. I guess I’m picky, because I don’t want kitty-litter mixed in my herbs.
Flat in Terra Cotta Saucers
Terra cotta plant saucers are ideal for me. De-stem your herbs and place them one layer thick in the saucers. These saucers can then be placed on the books in the bookshelves. While Miss Shira will eyeball those bookshelves, she knows that the space is too small for her furry body.
The whole point of drying on screens is that in more humid climates the greater exposure to air is necessary to dry herbs without them getting moldy. Not exactly a problem in the Southwest. That said – if you wish to consolidate all your herb drying to one area, screen drying is optimal. I have stacked 3 old window screens between cement blocks and dried a years supply of oregano in two days. This means 12 cement blocks, and they have since been used in a homestead construction project. You can also build nice frames to hold your window screens parllel to the floor – or better yet, rig them to hang from the ceiling in some less used corner of the house, say in the laundry room?
Sure, bundles are picturesque as all get out – and if you only have a few herbs it works well. Bundles of herbs fall into the de-stem later category. Do make the bundles small enough for good air flow, and hang from the ceiling or pot rack or some such. Out of sunlight if you can.
Other Ways of Drying Herbs
Dry in a Dehydrator
I am not a fan of dehydrator drying for herbs – unless you can control the temperature. 110F is ideal for drying herbs. Most home dehydrators are warmer than that – around 150F. That’s too warm and can start breaking down the delicate herbal flavors.
Older oven with a pilot light in it? Perfect! The oven usually stays around 110F
Can your new-fangled oven with a computer to regulate heat go as low as 110? Then go for it. Otherwise – it’s not an option.
I refer to the option to dry herbs in your auto-mobile. There’s some set up because of that pesky sunlight issue – but it can be done. Also – this works really well in our arid Southwest climate. It might even work well “back East.”
We have all heard the cautions about how hot the inside of a car can get on a summer day – and why pets and children should not be left in closed cars. Yes 160F is a real possibility! In fact my thermometer said it was 170F inside my white Izusu Trooper. (Now I wonder what it might be inside a black one!)
How to Auto Dry Herbs
You will need: fabric car seats. Don't do this if you have leather seats! safety pins black-out curtain(s) – to completely cover the back seat area trays of herbs.
Safety pin the black-out curtain up in the air between front and back seats to keep the sun light off the back seat area.
Place your trays of herbs across the back seats and on the floor, under the blackout curtains. Close the doors and wait until evening to check.
In my experiment oregano and rosemary were both entirey dry in one day. I am thinking of trying making some fruit leather in this nice dehydrator next.
Do you have another way of drying herbs? We would love to hear what you have to share!
Thanks for Reading
The Southwest abounds in herbs. Herbs for flavor, for medicine, and for other household uses, like dyes. In my book Father Kino’s Herbs, I discussed 25 native and 25 imported herbs that grow well in our region. The book will be available soon on our Resources page.