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If you’ve ever taken a tour through an old historic house, chances are that you’ve probably seen bundles of herbs hanging from ceiling beams in the kitchen. In earlier centuries, it was very common for houses to have some sort of kitchen garden, even if it was a small one, and these gardens almost always included herbs for culinary and medicinal uses.
While herbs and herbal preparations could have been purchased at an apothecary, many households of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century were far too frugal and economical to buy herbs that they could grow themselves, essentially for free, in their own backyards. By growing, harvesting, and drying their own herbs, they were able to save money and get the best quality herbs at the same time.
Why It’s Best to Dry Your Own Herbs
1) It’s Cheaper
Drying herbs yourself is much cheaper than buying bottle of herbs in the store, especially if you grow perennial herbs in your garden. It takes a little bit of time and effort to harvest the herbs and to hang them up to dry, but it’s not really much more time than it takes to drive to the store, buy the herbs, and drive back home again, when you think about it.
If you grow perennial herbs, you have a one-time expense, and then you have a supply of fresh home-grown herbs year after year. My oregano plant, for example, keeps coming back strong every year, and it’s at the point now where I don’t even have to buy oregano anymore because my own backyard plant produces all I need.
Even if you don’t grow your own herbs, you can sometimes find fresh herbs for a great deal at farmer’s markets, farmstands, etc. Just a couple of weeks ago, the farm where I get my organic veggies started having pick-your-own herbs for $6 a pound. I gathered a whole big bunch of sage and thyme that only cost me $3 dollars and with just a little bit of work to dry them and bottle them up, I’ll have good-quality, organic herbs for a great price.
For $1.50 worth of thyme, I ended up with a full 4 oz. (volume, not weight) bottle of dried thyme leaves plus some extra. It probably would have cost me twice as much to get the same amount of organic thyme at the store. Not to mention the fact that I had the fun of channeling my inner old-fashioned herbalist at the same time 🙂
2) You Can Control the Quality
When you buy herbs at the grocery store, you don’t really have any control over their quality. We all like to assume that the herbs we buy are good quality, but there can be a few problems with the typical grocery store bottled herbs that you don’t have with your own home-grown herbs.
First, many dried herbs are not organic, which means that they’ve been sprayed with toxic pesticides. Of course, some herbs are organic, which is great, but they’re also usually quite a bit more expensive, and there’s usually less variety in the organic herb section than there is in the regular section.
Another problem is that many of the dried herbs in those pretty little bottles on the shelf have been irradiated, which means that they’ve been exposed to gamma radiation to destroy any possible microbes or pathogens . . . along with a good portion of the vitamin and nutrient content, just like with the pasteurization process (source). While irradiation is supposedly done in the name of food safety, the question is why do they even need to do that in the first place unless the herbs were processed and handled in questionable conditions? Makes you wonder . . .
Sometimes store-bought herbs also seem to have a lot of extra twig fragments mixed in with the dried leaves, especially with the “twiggier” herbs like rosemary and thyme. It’s not a major issue, but if I’m going to pay the premium price for organic rosemary, I want to get rosemary leaves and not rosemary twig fragments that I’m just going to pick out and throw away. The reason why this even happens in the first place is probably the result of modern, large-scale, industrial processing. You end up with much better quality when it’s just you sitting at the kitchen table stripping the leaves off the stems and putting them in a bottle 🙂
How to Dry Your Own Herbs
Drying your own herbs is really easy. All you really need is some string or twine and a warm, dry place with hooks or pegs to hang them from.
Step 1: Gather your herbs. The best time to do this, if it fits your schedule, is in the morning before the sun is shining on them. It’s also best to pick the herbs before the plants start to flower.
Step 2: Wash your herbs and pat them dry with a towel. Or, if your herbs look pretty clean, you can just shake them gently to get rid of any residual dust or dirt. At this point, I also pick off any leaves that are yellowed, spotted, or discolored.
Step 3: If your herbs have a lower moisture content (like thyme, rosemary, oregano, sage, etc.), air-dry them by tying them in bundles and hanging them in a place that is warm and dry with some air circulation
If your herbs have a higher moisture content (like basil, lemon balm, mint, etc.), they could start to mold if they are not dried quickly enough. If you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace (I wish!), that would be a great, old-fashioned place to hang them near, but if not, you can use an oven at the lowest setting possible. Just make sure you don’t let them burn! (I’ve definitely made that mistake more than once!)
The way I dry my basil in the oven is to turn it on to 170 degrees (the lowest it will go) and then shut it off and leave the door open until it feels just warm, but not hot, when I stick my hand in. Then I put the herbs in and leave them there with the door shut until the oven has cooled down to the point where it’s back to room temperature again. And then I take the herbs out, re-start the oven, and do the process over again until the herbs are fully dry.
* Note: It’s a good idea to write yourself a note or tie a string to the oven door to remind yourself that the herbs are in there so you don’t accidentally pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees to bake a batch of cookies. (Yep, definitely made that mistake before!)
Step 4: Store your herbs. Once your herbs are completely dry (they should be able to crumble easily in your hands and have that crispy feel and sound like autumn leaves do), you can separate the leaves from the stems and put your dried herbs into old spice bottles, mason jars, etc.
The best place to store herbs in in a cool, dry place away from the light. This will keep the properties of the herbs as intact as possible and keep them fresh for the longest.
I like to keep my herbs in little cork-topped spice bottles because I like how old-fashioned they look, and any extras that don’t fit into the bottles I keep in larger Mason jars.
For times when you run out of your nice home-grown and dried herbs, though, or if one of your favorite plants dies and you find yourself herb-less (that’s a word, right?) your best bet is probably to buy organic herbs. Even though they might cost a bit more, when it comes to herbs and spices, you usually get what you pay for as far as quality goes. If you buy your herbs and spices online, though, sometimes you can get a great deal on good-quality herbs by buying in bulk.
For smaller amounts of individual herbs, this brand is one I buy that is non-irradiated, and you can sometimes find these in health food stores, too, in addition to online.
Want to Start Creating Your Own Homestead Right Now?
If you like growing your own vegetables and herbs, or if you’ve always wanted to live on an old-fashioned country homestead, I recommend checking out Your Custom Homestead by Jill Winger of the Prairie Homestead for some great tips for how to create your own backyard homestead no matter where you live. You don’t have to wait until you find the ideal location to be able to start living the homesteading life!
A Creative Way to Organize Herbs and Spices
Post image credit (C) Depositphotos.com/[viperagp]
This post is shared with: Party Wave Wednesday at Holistic Squid; Frugal Days Sustainable Ways at Frugally Sustainable, HomeAcre Hop at Oak Hill Homestead, Thank Your Body Thursday at Thank Your Body, Natural Living Link-Up at Jill’s Home Remedies; Small Footprint Friday at Small Footprint Family, Free to Talk Friday at Dreaming of Perfect, Real Food Friday at It’s Your Life.