The Homesteader’s Herbal Companion (Lyons Press, 2018) by Amy K. Fewell helps beginners and experts alike make the most of their homegrown herbs. This guide takes readers through the basics of using herbs in their home. Fewell speaks from experience, after growing her own herbs for years. The following excerpt is her advice for drying and storing herbs.
Drying herbs is so much fun. My only dilemma is that I often don’t have enough room for the harvest that comes in all at once in the summer months. Oftentimes, you’ll have more herbs than you need to use at one time. I’m pretty sure my family would fire me if I spent an entire week cooking with only the large basket of oregano that I’d just brought inside. We’d be on oregano overload—so much so that we’d probably start smelling like it. Is that pizza I smell? Why do you smell like a lasagna?! I digress, even though I really love oregano and its cute little leaves.
So the option that best suits the homesteader is to preserve the abundant harvest. We can do this in many ways, but it always begins with dehydrating your herbs. This is important because you’ll most likely need these herbs throughout the winter and seasons when fresh herbs aren’t available.
Before you can create any type of tincture or product with your herbs, it’s always best to dry them. Because herbs are a living thing, they retain much of their moisture right after being harvested. It can take days to weeks for them to completely dry out. If not dried properly, the herb can ruin your product due to the moisture buildup. This can cause your remedy to go rancid or have impurities.
Mostly, though, we want to dry our own herbs to make teas and meals. There are multiple techniques and ways to do this, including hanging them to dry, drying them in the oven, dehydrating them with a dehydrator, and even laying them out in the sun to dry.
When to Harvest
Always harvest your herbs in the morning or late evening. Morning is always preferred. Never harvest herbs midday. Harvesting your herbs in the morning after the dew has dried keeps the natural essential oils in the herb intact. The flavor of the herb is also more potent in the morning.
Drying with a dehydrator: Wash your herbs thoroughly, pat dry, and place them on the rack of your dehydrator in a single layer. If the leaves are medium to large, you can remove them from the stem of the herb. If you are dehydrating flowers, remove the flower head from the stem.
Turn your dehydrator to the lowest heat setting possible (between 95 degrees Fahrenheit -125 degrees Fahrenheit). If there is not a heat setting, run the dehydrator for the shortest time possible, checking your leaves periodically. Depending on the herb, it takes between thirty minutes and four hours to dry them in a dehydrator.
Drying with your oven: I was too cheap to purchase a dehydrator when I first started growing my herbs, so instead, I used my oven. I do love my dehydrator now. The oven method is extremely easy, but it can make your house a little warm in the summer.
Simply place your herbs either directly onto the oven rack, on a drying rack (I use a cookie drying rack), or on a cookie sheet.
Set your oven to the lowest setting possible. Mine goes down to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure it’s less than 190 degrees Fahrenheit.
Place your herbs in the oven, leaving your oven door cracked a bit so that the air can flow. I use an old wooden spoon jacked into the top of the oven door. Check on your herbs in fifteen-minute intervals, as they seem to dry more quickly in the oven than in a dehydrator, most likely due to the higher heat. If using a cookie sheet, flip your herbs halfway through the process.
Drying with drying racks and the sun: One of the more common methods for dehydrating herbs is to use drying racks. You can make your own drying racks, or you can purchase them online or from your local farm store. Drying racks are simply racks with slats or mesh wire on the bottom. You place your herbs in a single layer and allow the herbs to dry naturally indoors or outdoors in a protected area. Drying racks are stackable as well.
Obviously, this method can take much longer, sometimes up to a week or more.
You can also place your racks outside in the direct sunlight, not stacked. This makes the drying process much easier. For tender herbs like mint, oregano, and thyme, I simply place them on a rack and set them on my back deck in the direct sunlight for the entire day, moving them with the sun. By the end of the day, I have dried herbs that didn’t take much work!
Drying herbs by hanging: The most popular way to dry herbs is to hang them to dry. This is a little more risky, as hanging too thick a bundle can promote lack of airflow, causing your herbs to mold quickly. However, it really is an efficient way to dry herbs that have less moisture content, like thyme, lavender, and chamomile.
Group your herbs in smaller bundles and tie at the very end of the stems with hemp rope or twine. Hang in a sunny window or in an open space in your kitchen, allowing ample airflow through the herbs. This drying process can, again, take as little as a couple of days to a few weeks, depending on your environment, location, and how thick the bundle is.
While there are different methods to drying herbs, you’ll know when they are dry only by look and touch. They will be crumbly, easily detachable from their stems, and won’t feel squishy or look wet. If you see dark-colored spots on the herbs, that typically means they are not yet finished drying. More time is necessary. If your herbs have molded, you will know immediately by the fluffy white stuff on them.
Make Your Own Herb Powder
Did you know you can make your own herb powder and salts for cooking and herb products? It’s easy!
• Herb of choice (garlic and onion are popular)
• Salt (optional)
1. Cut herb into very thin slices, and lay out on dehydrator mats.
2. Dehydrate herbs according to dehydrator instructions for that particular herb until completely dry and crispy.
3. Put herbs in a food processor and blend until powdery. Add salt if you’d like, for extra taste!
4. Store in an airtight container for 12–18 months.
Storing Dried Herbs
Once dry, store your herbs in airtight containers. You can use a vacuum sealer if you wish, but we do not. I like using mason jars with plastic screw-top lids. This allows me to see the herbs quickly, while still keeping them fresh. If you’re making something specific with them, like a tea, go ahead and mix the dried herbs into a dry tea mixture. Otherwise, they can remain separate for later use. You can even label your plastic screw-top lids with a permanent marker, as the marker washes away with a little soap.
After labeling your storage container, store your dried herbs in a cool, dry, and dark area, such as a pantry that doesn’t get sunlight. Sunlight can be detrimental to the shelf life of herbs.
Whole herbs last longer than crushed or processed herbs. If you can keep the herb intact, it will last much longer and prove to be a stronger product for you.
Dried Herb Shelf Life
Dried herbs can last anywhere from six months to three years. It will depend on the herb and the quality of the environment around it. Herbs never technically go bad, but they do begin to lose their potency after the twelve-month mark. If herbs become extremely dull or lose their aroma, toss and replace. Typical replacement shelf life is 12–18 months. This is why I don’t recommend keeping large batches of herbs on hand unless you use them daily. Small batches from your garden each year work just fine. Preserve them one step further by making salves, tinctures, and syrups.
Storing Fresh Herbs
Many times I’ll hold on to some fresh herbs when I’m drying. I might find that I need them in the next few days or couple of weeks. Depending on the herb, you can efficiently keep them fresh by using a few simple tricks.
Herbs like cilantro and other tender herbs need much more attention than others, but all are about the same. Once you’ve cut your harvest, place the stems in a jar of water as if you were placing flowers in a vase. Next, cover the tops of the herbs with plastic wrap or a plastic bag, almost making an umbrella or mini greenhouse for your herb tops. This keeps the moisture in your herbs and ensures that the herbs don’t dry out or become scorched by the cold air in the fridge. Place the herbs in your refrigerator until you need them.
This method works well for culinary herbs like parsley, cilantro, oregano, chives, and basil. Many times I find herbs like cilantro and parsley can last more than a week in the fridge if covered properly.
For thicker-stemmed herbs like rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sage, you can place them in a wet paper towel and keep them in the refrigerator until ready to use. Check them daily to rewet your towel if necessary. You can also simply place them in a jar of water, again, like flowers in a vase, and let them sit on your countertop.
Once your herbs become dull and extra limp, toss them to the chickens (if you have ’em!) and start all over again.
Your stored herbs, whether fresh or dried, can be beautiful and put on display in your pantry or on your countertop. No matter where you choose to put them, the aromatics will certainly be delightful, and you’ll be able to admire your harvest every time you walk into your kitchen!
See, drying and storing herbs isn’t so painful after all, is it?
More From: The Homesteader's Herbal Companion• Herbal Companion Planting
• Natural Herbal Gummies
• Using Natural Herbs for Dogs
• Mixing Your Own Herbal Blends
Reprinted with permission from The Homesteader's Herbal Companion (2018), by Amy K. Fewell and published by Lyons Press.