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If only you could bottle up a summer of delicious aromas coming from the herbs in your garden. Well you can! There are more reasons to dry your summer harvest of herbs than there are blossoms on the chives that bloom in the garden. Cooking with herbs embodies the goodness tiny thyme imparts to hot soup in the cold of winter. Fragrant uses of herbs such as a bowl of potpourri brings summer lavender back to the memory. Decorating with a wide array of dried herbs creates a sense of joy and personalizes home. Preserve your herbs by drying them using simple methods with a minimum time investment. . The basics of harvesting herbs, whether you're using air- drying, oven drying, or using silica sand to preserve them, are the same.
Herbs are usually ready to be harvested in July and a second cutting in September may be possible. While doing daily gardening tasks keep an eye out for plants beginning to bud, the oils of herbs are at their peak just before blooming and this is the time to begin harvesting and drying. Start by going out early in the morning before the sun has hit its zenith armed with a basket or bag to collect your herbs in and a pair of good sharp pruning shears or a knife to make clean cuts Cut annuals back severely, but leave a 4 to 6 inch stem. The life span of an annual takes place in one season so no growth is needed to store up energy for the next year. On the other hand, perennials require growth to maintain compact, lush plants. Cut not more than 1/3 off the top of a perennial. If you're collecting seeds from plants such as dill, wait until the plant is fully matured and the seed head begins to turn brown. Check leaves for damage or disease, removing leaves that show signs of distress. Shake the stems gently to disperse bugs and dirt clinging to the herb plant.
After checking the leaves for damage or disease, bundle 5 to 8 stems together using a rubber band. Place a paper bag poked with holes for ventilation over the leaves tying the ends with string. The paper bag keeps the herbs clean and dust free. Hang upside down in a warm, dark, well-ventilated area. An attic or a closet works really well. Hang the bundles of herbs from beams, if you have them. If not, a rope or wire strung from eyebolts in an attic works great, as does a wooden clothes dryer.
Using trays to dry is similar to hanging herbs upside down to dry. Old screens set on bricks or cement blocks make perfect trays for drying herbs and flowers. Wash the screen first removing dirt and debris and let them dry before placing plants on the screen. Tray drying works best for short stems or single leaves. Trays can be built using 2x2 wood and screens. Making the trays stackable uses less space and works wonderfully well. Store all trays in dark, dry, and warm places.
Gas or electric ovens can be used for quick drying and works well for herbs with fleshier leaves such as mint and lemon balm. Place leaves or stems on a cookie sheet lined with paper towels and place in a 180-degree oven. Leave the door open to allow moisture to escape. It will take 3-4 hours for the herbs to dry. I do not recommend drying herbs in the microwave. A microwave tends to cook the herb rather than dry it.
I have never dried herbs for cooking using this method. I have dried decorative herbs and flowers using silica sand. Silica sand wicks the moisture from plants and is great for fragile blossoms and foliage. Another popular desiccant is silica gel. Check the label and use as directed. Again, I would not use silica gel for drying herbs intended for culinary purposes. Use an airtight container with a thin layer of silica sand covering the bottom; place the flowers, leaves, or stems on top, but not touching each other. Add silica sand until the entire plant is covered. Place in dark, dry, warm area for 2-4 weeks or until plants are completely dry. Use a container that will fit under beds, tuck it away and forget it for 2-4 weeks. Follow the above steps once the herbs are dry.
Crush in your hand to release the flavor before adding dried herbs to recipes or cooking. A mortar and pestle can be used to make herbs finer before adding to cooking. Every pantry should be stocked with herbal blends easily put together using your harvested and dried herbs. Following are some all time favorites.
¼ cup dried parsley
4 bay leaves, crumpled
2 tablespoons dried thyme
2 tablespoons dried marjoram
2 tablespoons dried lovage leaves
Mix the herbs together in a bowl. Place 1 tablespoon of the mixture in a small muslin bag or in the center of a 4-inch square of fine cheesecloth, doubled. Tie the bag or gather up the corners of the square and tie with a kitchen string, leaving a long end that can be tied to the handle of the pot so it is easily removed from the dish before serving. Store the bags in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Makes enough for 10 to 12 bags.
2 tablespoons dried chervil
2 tablespoons dried chives
2 tablespoons dried tarragon
2 tablespoons dried parsley
Mix well and store in airtight jar. Makes about ½ cup.
½ cup dried oregano
½ cup dried basil
¼ cup dried parsley
1-tablespoon fennel seeds, crushed
2 tablespoons dried sage
1 tablespoons hot red pepper flakes
Mix well and store in airtight jar. Makes about 1 ½ cups.
¼ cup dried marjoram
¼ cup dried oregano
¼ cup dried savory
½ cup dried rosemary
½ cup dried thyme
2 tablespoons dried lavender leaves
2 tablespoons dried fennel seeds or stalks
Mix well and store in jar. Makes about 2 cups. *All blends from The Herbal Pantry by Emelie Tolley and Chris Mead a great book with ways to use and preserve the herbal bounty from your garden