“What’s the best way to dry and store herbs from my garden for the winter? And any tips for how to use them?”
I’m a big advocate for drying garden herbs: Like any homegrown food, you know exactly what you’re getting, and, if you store them properly, they’ll last longer than store-bought ground dried herbs. Those can be old or exposed to heat and/or light during handling, and contribute nothing more than stale dust to a dish. And drying your own herbs is easy—especially this time of year, when we’ve waved goodbye (well, maybe) to summer’s humidity.
Rosemary, thyme, bay, oregano, marjoram, winter savory, sage, tarragon, lemon verbena, even fennel stalks are all good candidates for drying. For the very best flavor, choose your healthiest, most flourishing plants and cut the herbs in the “bud burst” stage—i.e., just before their flowers open, which is when their essential oils (translation: flavor) are at their most concentrated. You also want to harvest in the midmorning, after the dew evaporates but before the heat of the day, in order to minimize wilting. (For lavender blossoms, which are used in herbes de Provence, harvest them the same day the blossoms open and strip off the leaves.)
Rinse the herbs if they look or feel dirty or dusty, or if you suspect they harbor any hitchhiking critters. Spread them out in a single layer on clean kitchen towels and let them air-dry, turning them occasionally, until all surface moisture is evaporated. Remove and discard any bruised, damaged, or diseased leaves.
Strip the leaves off the lower inch or so of the stems, then tie the herbs in small bunches with kitchen string (which you may need to tighten as the stems shrink). Hang the bunches upside down in a well-ventilated room, attic, or shed out of direct sunlight; avoid a steamy kitchen, and keep in mind that the darker the room, the more color will be preserved. Although it’s not necessary, it’s nice to have an herb-drying rack; you’ll find various models at garden supply companies, Williams-Sonoma, and Amazon.
Depending on the moisture content of the herbs, they can take from a few days up to a week to dry. You’ll know they’re ready when the leaves are completely brittle and crumble very easily, and the stems break when bent.
The leaves will retain more of their essential oils if left whole. Strip the leaves off the stems and pack them in canning jars or other airtight containers, label and date the containers, and store in a cool, dark, dry place. They should stay potent for six months to a year. Crumble the leaves just before using them.
If you happen to have a dehydrator, that is another great way to dry herbs because you can easily control temperature and circulation. Or you could take the counter-intuitive approach popularized by Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay, pioneering herb gardeners (and mother and daughter) who wrote about preserving herbs in the cold, dry atmosphere of a frost-free refrigerator for Mother Earth News back in the early 1990s.
“Years ago, in a rush to get Thanksgiving dinner on the table, we found an easy way to dry herbs using cold instead of heat,” they explained. “Left over from the meal preparation was an extra plateful of fresh herbs—some chopped, some whole—that we stuck into the refrigerator and forgot about. There it sat for a few days, uncovered, hiding behind the leftover mashed potatoes. By the time we discovered the lost plate, the herbs were crispy dry but fragrant and still flavorful. Amazingly, the parsley, dill, and chives—herbs that don’t usually lend themselves to home drying of any sort—were still green and tasty and usable.”
Cooking with dried herbs
Unlike fresh herbs, which release their essential oils immediately, dried herbs release theirs more gradually, so they are most effective in braises and other slow-cooked dishes, sauces, and marinades. Because the essential oils are intensified in dried herbs, they can easily overwhelm a dish, so a judicious hand is key; if substituting a dried herb for fresh, use about one teaspoon crumbled dried herb in place of one tablespoon fresh.
It’s also a good idea to measure quantities away from the steam of whatever it is you are cooking; that will prevent any moisture, which can cause mold, from getting into the jar. Always discard dried herbs that show any trace of mold.
This recipe appears in Herbs & Spices: The Cook’s Reference, by the masterful Jill Norman. She writes that the blend is good with root vegetables and chicken, and in winter soups. “A clove of garlic and a little grated lemon rind can be used with the herbed pepper to good effect.”
1 tablespoon dried rosemary
1 tablespoon dried winter savory
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon dried marjoram
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon ground mace
Crush or grind all the herbs finely. Sift and combine with the pepper and mace. Store in an airtight container for 2 to 3 months.