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Whether you grow your own herbs in a garden in your yard or whether you are able to find a good deal on fresh herbs at a local farm, it can be a very useful skill to know how to dry your own herbs so that you can preserve the bounty of fresh herbs in the summer months to be able to use them all year long.
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 bottles 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, depending on where you are doing your shopping.
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 radiation to destroy any possible microbes or pathogens. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t like the idea of any food or herbs I am consuming to be exposed to radiation. Not all herbs have gone through this process, though, and if you want to avoid herbs that have been irradiated, you can check the labels on herb bottles to see if they say “non-irradiated.”
For times when I buy herbs instead of growing my own, this brand of herbs is one I buy that is non-irradiated, and you can sometimes find these in health food stores, too, in addition to online.
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 first step is to gather the herbs you want to dry. 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.
It’s a good idea to gather only the amount of herbs that you have the space to hang to dry. If you have four hooks that you can use to hang your herbs for drying, then it’s best to gather just four bundles of herbs, making sure the bundles aren’t so big and thick that the herbs in the middle of the bundle won’t have good airflow. Airflow is important to prevent the herbs from getting moldy during the drying process. 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
Wash your herbs and pat them dry with a towel. At this point, I also pick off any leaves that are yellowed, spotted, or discolored.
Step 3: Hang Your Herbs to Dry
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. Ideally it’s best not to hang them in direct sunlight if you can avoid it.
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 so other options for drying them could be using a dehydrator if you have one of those or using an oven on the lowest setting. I have successfully dried both lemon balm and mint by air-drying them, but if you live in a very humid climate and you can’t get them to dry without going moldy then you could use the other methods to dry them. Basil is one I would recommend drying in either a dehydrator or oven rather than air-drying unless you live in a very dry climate.
If you dry your herbs in a oven, one very important thing to remember is not to let them get so hot that they start to cook. (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 setting the oven will go) and then I watch it as it is heating up and when the temperature gets up to 110 I shut the oven off, put the herbs in and then let them stay in the oven until the temperature cools off to room temperature again. And then I take the herbs out, re-heat the oven again, shut it off when it gets to 110 degrees and keep repeating the process 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: Storing 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 Learn More About Using Herbs and Foraging?
If you’d like to learn more about the different types of herbs and how you can use them to make your own homemade herbal preparations, The Herbal Academy has some great online classes to teach you all about using herbs yourself at home. Sometimes they even offer free mini courses and/or downloadable free e-books on their website, too.
One of their short introductory courses that I’ve taken and would recommend as a good starting point for learning how to use the herbs that you forage is the Making Herbal Preparations 101 Mini Course. This 7-lesson mini course is a great introduction to working with herbs and it covers important basics like herbal safety, choosing which method works best for extracting the beneficial properties in the herbs you are using, and how to make common herbal remedies like infusions, decoctions, glycerites, tinctures, salves, etc. This course is a great way to learn more about using herbs at a much lower price point than some of the more advanced level courses.
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This post is shared with: Party Wave Wednesday at Holistic Squid; Frugal Days Sustainable Ways at Frugally Sustainable, Natural Living Link-Up at Jill’s Home Remedies; Small Footprint Friday at Small Footprint Family, Real Food Friday at It’s Your Life.
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The information in this post is not to be taken as medical advice and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease.