How to harvest, dry and store fresh herbs.

Herbs are very diverse plants that can be grown and utilized in many different ways. Popular uses include culinary, medicinal and even spiritual. Beginning gardeners may want to do some research before planting as some herbs can be quite invasive. Dill and mint are two examples of plants that can quickly overrun a garden plot. Fortunately, herbs can be successfully grown indoors or outdoors in pots, buckets and hydroponic setups as well. Whether you grow your own or buy from the grocery store or farmers market, you can preserve your fresh herbs for year-round use.

Many herbs are ready for harvest during late summer before the plant has had a chance to flower, unless you’re using the flowering part of the plant as with chamomile. The middle of the morning is the best time to pick because dew has dried from the leaves and the plants won’t be wilted from the late afternoon heat. The whole plant can be snipped or broken off at the stem, or snip individual branches to allow the plant to continue producing. Pick off any damaged, dried out or diseased leaves. Gently shake or brush with your hands to remove any stray insects or eggs, although this usually isn’t an issue. Rinse with cool water and gently pat dry. Wet leaves can be ruined by mold growth and rot.

Herb plants can be frozen as a form of preservation. The leaves do wilt upon thawing, but flavor remains intact. To freeze herbs, lay the branches out in a single layer on a cookie sheet and place in the freezer overnight. The next morning, remove the herbs from the freezer and place in a plastic storage bag. A simple freezer bag can be used as long as the air is sucked out of the bag with a straw. There are also bags that can be vacuum sealed to prevent freezer burn.

There are several methods for drying herbs as well. The method requiring the least equipment is to tie a few branches together in a small bundle and hang to dry. You can also sun-dry your herbs outside on cookie racks in hot weather with low humidity. Turn the branches over occasionally to prevent mold growth. Another method that can be used is to turn your oven on low (about 180 degrees). Spread the herbs in a single layer on a cookie sheet in the oven for 3-4 hours with the oven door cracked open. Rotate the cookie sheets and turn the herbs over occasionally. Using the microwave to dry your herbs can be quick and effective; however, it’s very easy to burn the leaves. Flavor and oil content also diminish rapidly using a microwave to dehydrate herbs. A food dehydrator is a popular method for drying herbs. Place the herbs in a single layer on the trays. Herbs are done drying when the leaves become brittle and crumbly and the stems easily snap.

There are many ways to store your freshly dried herbs. The easiest is in a plastic bag. Flavor is better retained if you again suck the air out with a straw or use a vacuum sealer. The herbs can be crushed and kept in an airtight bag or small jar, although the flavor is stronger if you wait to crush the herbs right before use. Whichever methods you select to grow, preserve, dry and store your fresh herbs, you can be sure that you’ll be getting the best flavor and health benefits.

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