I’d just about take a beating as to spend time preserving herbs. I have been drying my own herbs for about three years now. Oh, it’s rewarding. The dried herbs are rather beautiful in the jars. The taste is unmatched. I know they are organic, handled carefully and dried correctly so they are premium, and there is no question about the process. I did it myself. But oh, the boring and time-consuming task.
I even subscribed to “Herb Companion” for a year, hoping the beautiful photos and articles would inspire me a little more. Oddly, it ended up being my disappointment in the often tasteless herbs found in stores that finally prompted me to start drying my own, and has kept me interested ever since.
It’s a simple process really. One takes a nicely sharpened pair of kitchen scissors and heads out to the herb garden in the morning after any dew has vanished. I am not going to do an in-depth lesson on how to cut herbs. I learned the hard way. Probably everyone does. If you do it right, the plants continue to produce nicely. If you cut at the appropriate time of day and at a certain stage of growth, one acquires the most potent and fragrant oils in the herb. One can find all sorts of articles on raising and drying herbs online. Online references are always very helpful before one starts a project.
The cut herbs are then rinsed and patted dry. I use a salad spinner to aid in this process. Once cleaned, I cut away any damaged leaves or marred specimens. I often cut away the thicker stem and place the smaller leaf clusters or larger leaves on the drying trays. Of course various herbs are dried differently. Dill fronds, for example, can be laid out in large clusters. They dry quickly and can be stored without removing the main stem until used. Oregano leaves are left on the stem, being gently removed from the stem after the drying process. Basil is more difficult. One should leave the leaves attached to the stem during the drying process. I might add that drying basil is a time-consuming endeavor. One cannot simply crank up the heat in the dehydrator to speed up the process or the oils dry up and the end product is a dry, tasteless leaf with no fragrance. The leaves are pulled off the stem after the process. Most articles I read suggested plucking the leaves from the stem and drying the leaves singly. That surely didn’t work for me! I had loose leaves blown about in the dehydrator when the task was finished.
Depending on the herb, drying times vary. Humidity is a factor. Where you set your dehydrator matters. I set mine in a room with good air circulation. I used to put the unit outdoors on the back porch but the humidity caused a longer drying time. Herbs can be dried naturally outdoors in the sun too. I like the dehydrator because it’s enclosed where insects and birds will not have a chance to spoil my pickings. I suppose a minimum of 5 hours is normal, but some herbs (like basil) take at least twice that.
I have an awesome Excalibur Deluxe 9-tray dehydrator. It is a workhorse in my kitchen this time of year and a wise investment if one is into dehydrating for preservation. Unlike most dehydrators, the fan sits behind the trays, thus one does not have to rotate trays for even drying.
Once the herbs are dry, I place them in glass jars. I never crush the herbs until I use them. This retains the best flavor and fragrance. I do de-stem them and place the leaves only in the jars. This expedites food prep time in the kitchen. Who wants to spend time de-stemming leaves in the process of cooking or baking?
The disappointing aspect of drying one’s own herbs is the realization that 9 full trays of herbs only produces a small amount of crushed product. As with any experience, we must look for the silver lining, the lesson, the understanding of the situation; we pay a lot for herbs and spices in the stores because the process in attaining the finished product is time-consuming, labor intensive, and perhaps costly on a large scale. Drying one’s own herbs is often a thankless job, no less. How many times does one’s family say, “WOW!! Are these the herbs I saw you drying the other day? The taste is just superb!” They never see them go in the recipe, they have no clue the time spent producing them, no knowledge that they are organically grown. They never know what a labor of love it was.
It is my own satisfaction that keeps me after this process of drying. In winter, as I crush the herbs I dried during the spring and summer months, I tend to cackle like a chicken that just laid an egg. I offer up to FD or a guest in the house, “Just smell the aroma!! These are the herbs I dried this summer! Don’t they smell just wonderful?” Well, they do and I’m proud of my herbs. I suppose I tend to forget the drudgery of it all when months later I’m enjoying the fruits and “aromas” of my labors!
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