Our growing season is so short that I spend as much time thinking ahead as I do savoring fresh homegrown fruits, vegetables and herbs. One of the easiest, tastiest and most overlooked save-for-later projects is to dry herbs.
Even if you barely cook, you probably use dried herbs. And the less you cook, the more flavorless and ineffective those herbs tend to be. Prepackaged store-bought jars typically hold more than ambitious cooks can use and cost so much that we let them hog kitchen space long after they’ve lost their flavor. The most flavorful herbs are ones you dry yourself.
I dry most herbs in a dehydrator, spreading them on the trays to dry at the lowest setting. This encourages consistent drying and keeps away bugs, wind and rain. It’s so easy that my niece learned to dehydrate parsley, rosemary and thyme as Christmas gifts when she could barely spell their names. But if you don’t own a dehydrator, most herbs are dry well in open air.
These tips will help you successfully dry a range of fresh herbs:
• Harvest herbs midmorning, after the dew has evaporated but before the heat of the day starts to wilt the leaves. Cut woody-stemmed herbs, like mint and oregano, at their base, stripping off any yellowed leaves; harvest from plants with flexible stems, like parsley and basil, as you would for fresh use.
• Many herbs are easy to grow from seeds or starts, and it’s best to dry and harvest them on the same day. But you can dry fresh store-bought ones. They’ll have the best color if you dehydrate them before they wilt. Be sure to remove any spoiled stems and leaves first.
• When drying herbs passively, avoid direct sunlight, which dulls flavor and color. Instead, hang herbs like rosemary and sage from their woody stems in the shade. Spread individual leaves and flowers, such as basil, cilantro and chamomile, on a mesh screen and set it in a warm dry place out of direct sunlight.
• Check for dryness by grabbing a few leaves: herbs are completely dry when the leaves or petals crackle and crumble into small bits. If you used a dehydrator, let the leaves cool to room temperature before testing.
• Store each herb type in a cool, dry place out of direct light. I try to avoid crumbling herbs when storing them so that they hold onto their flavorful oils until the last moment. I typically give them lots of space in large jars in my pantry and then shift them a scoop or two at a time into small containers to keep in easy reach with my favorite spices.
• Dried herbs have a stronger flavor than fresh ones; you only need about one-third the amount, or a teaspoon instead of a tablespoon. Dried herbs hold the most flavor for about a year, so I try to dry each summer just what I’ll use or gift before the next growing season.
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