Too much thyme on your hands?
As the temperatures dip into the 40’s at night, my thoughts turn to wrapping up the vegetable garden before the frost hits. Beets need to be harvested and canned, and the carrots are sized up but I’ll leave them in the garden for now because a few frosts will actually sweeten them up. The Swiss chard will also take a few light frosts but the tomatoes and peppers will need to be picked soon. The herbs are beautiful and now is the perfect time to harvest and dry them.
There are many ways to dry fresh herbs, all that you’ll need is warm, dry and circulating air for the best results. You can dry them in an oven or microwave, air dry them outside in the sun, dry them in bundles inside the house or on a rack or screen inside, on and on.
Many of these methods have their own unique set of challenges. Using the oven or microwave are the quickest methods, however, they both require constant attention. Dry the herbs out just a bit too much and they could ignite! Also, the minimum temperature settings on these appliances are just too warm. Most of the essential oils responsible for flavor volatilize at 85° to 110°F. You can try leaving the oven door open a bit to cool the temperatures down, but then you’ll have to turn and rotate the herbs frequently. And it wastes energy. Hanging them outside in the sun will also cause the oils to dissipate, lose their color and expose the herbs to dust, pollen or insects. Drying herb bundles inside the house is better if there is low humidity and good air circulation, otherwise bacteria or mold might become an issue. They will also get dust on them.
Also, herbs that contain a lot of moisture (basil, oregano, tarragon, lemon balm and mints) will get moldy if the conditions are not right. So, what to do?
My favorite method is to use a food dehydrator. Dehydrator drying is a fast and easy way to get high quality dried herbs because the temperature and air circulation can be controlled. You can purchase an adequate one for $30 – $40 and use it for other things like preserving slices of fruit, making beef jerky or sundried tomatoes. Here’s what I do.
I harvest the herbs in the morning after the dew has dried off of the foliage. If you harvest them during the heat of the day, you’ll encounter the same problem of losing a lot of the essential oils. Then I swish them around in a large bowl of water to dislodge any soil or insects. Next I put them into a salad spinner to get a lot of the water off and finally, I set them out on paper towels and pat them dry to finish the drying off process.
Before placing the on the dehydrator racks, I take off any damaged / yellow leaves and also remove unwanted large stems (parsley, basil etc). For herbs with smaller stems (oregano, tarragon, thyme) I leave them on the stem and then strip them off after they are dried. What a time-saver this is! The last step is to fill up the racks taking care not to overcrowd the herbs to ensure adequate air movement.
Drying times may vary from 1 to 4 hours depending on the specific herb. Put them on the lowest heat setting and check them every half hour or so. I know that they’re ready when they crumble between my fingers, and stems snap instead of bending. You can also check your dehydrator instruction booklet or go online for specific drying times. Any herbs that were left on the stems can be stripped off by running the stem through your thumb and index finger. The other herbs (just the leaves) should not be crumbled or ground up until you’re ready to cook with them. Just store the dried leaves whole and you’ll get a lot more flavor out of them.
Where you store your herbs is important. It’s best to put them into tightly sealed jars in a dark, cool spot or in the refrigerator or freezer, not in a cabinet over the stove where they will be exposed to heat. Dried herbs will retain their flavor for about one year. Remember that dried herbs are usually 3 to 4 times stronger than the fresh herbs. To substitute dried herbs in a recipe that calls for fresh herbs, use 1/4 to 1/3 of the amount listed in the recipe. Making your own herb blends (like Italian or seafood) can be fun!
Even if you didn’t grow herbs this year, you can still purchase some to dry at your local market and enjoy their fresh flavor all year long!