Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How to Dry Herbs

While the snow covers the ground outside, I have herbs growing in little pots on the kitchen windowsill.  Even for those with no more gardening space than a windowsill, I highly recommend doing this, as it will bring joy to your life and to your cooking.  Starting from seeds is cheapest, or many stores now have grown plants with roots that just need to be re-potted.  No worries about having a green thumb or not, if the plant doesn't do well, just harvest all the leaves and get a new plant, nothing wasted. 

My friend Lori over at Feathered Thing has some great lemonade recipes (follow the link!) using these herbs and even Lavender Tea, so if you can't wait until summer check these out! 

Mint plants are probably the easiest to grow, and be careful about planting them outside because they might take over your yard and your neighbors' yards.  I haven't used it in anything yet but now have enough dried to make tea out of it, so I'll post and let you all know how that goes.  Mint can be harvested by cutting off a few of the taller stalks, or just the top half of them.  Make sure to leave plenty of leaves on the plant, as this is how it gets sunlight energy, so that it will keep growing.  I dry the stalks either as detailed below, or hanging upside-down in a bundle in the pantry. 

I have bought several of those rosemary trees at local stores and can't seem to keep them alive... but it is so much cheaper than buying pre-packaged rosemary that I just buy a new little tree whenever I need more.  Rosemary is one of my favorite herbs.  It is very woody so harvesting can require gardening clippers and gloves to protect yourself from sharp sticks.  I find it easiest to cut the sticks, then take the leaves off while fresh instead of drying on the sticks.

Lavender in a garden

Yes, it's an herb!  I picked up a huge bunch at a local farmers market last summer and hung it all up upside-down to dry.  English Lavender (Lavandula Angusifolia if you're into Latin) is recommended as the best for cooking, as other types are more bitter.  It is very important to get these from a trusted source with no pesticides.  To tide you over until I get my own posted, here is a Lavender Martini recipe from a fellow blogger.

My basil isn't terribly happy about the small amount of sunshine lately but, like me, it's doing its best to tough out the winter.  Basil has a much stronger flavor when fresh - I like it sliced into small ribbons over pasta.  Dried it goes into all sorts of recipes too, including my favorite ranch dressing and my husband's homemade spaghetti sauce.  I dry the individual leaves rather than cutting the stems/branches; the little groups of new leaves at the tops of the stems make beautiful garnishes so it's nice to keep those until I am serving something especially pretty.

How To Dry Herbs
Once the herbs have been clipped from the plants, wash them gently - even organic indoor plants can have dust that you won't want in your food - and dry with paper towels.  It's pretty dry where we live so I see no reason to waste energy using the oven for something that will happen naturally, so this is basically a "leave them on the counter" method.  I prefer the counter over the sun because the sun tends to bleach color in addition to drying, and I like preserving the little bit of color also.

Cover a cookie sheet or tray with parchment paper and lay the herbs on it, spread out and not touching each other.  Only do one herb per tray so they don't get mixed up when they are dried and it's much harder to tell them apart.  Check them often and turn them every day or two so they dry evenly on all sides.  Yes, even the basil, it takes a while but it is 100% worth the effort.  Once they are completely dry, leave them out for another couple of days to make sure, because even a little bit of moisture can ruin the whole batch.  Pop the dried herbs into ziplock baggies or glass jars for storage.

Dried lavender in baggie, half remaining on stems.

Mine went into plastic baggies, stems and all, and during the "please stop snowing" mood is a perfect time to take the leaves off the stems and put everything into pretty jars.  Lavender flowers and peppermint leaves are much easier to take off of the stems when dried than when fresh.

How to Use Dried Herbs
Some very helpful tools for working with dried herbs are a fine mesh strainer and a mortar and pestle.

The strainer I use with lavender for making simple syrup; the mortar and pestle is useful for all sorts of things but is especially needed for rosemary to break the woody leaves into powder for better food texture.  Dried rosemary is pretty tough even after cooking so it's best to grind it.  Dried herbs from the garden bring a deeper flavor than the jars from grocery stores, and you get the enjoyment of doing it yourself!  

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