Friday, July 1, 2011

Drying Herbs

Since both oregano (above left) and thyme (above right) are perennial herbs, it makes sense to grow them among the perennial flowers.  For peak potency, culinary herbs should be harvested when the flowers are just budded up, but not yet open.  Cut your herbs on a sunny day, after all traces of dew have dried.  
Spread the herbs on cookie sheets and dry away from direct sunlight at about 90 degrees.  An oven with a pilot light is the perfect temperature.  Attic space may also be ideal, but be sure to check the herbs daily.  The texture, thickness, and density of the leaves determines how long they will take to dry. You will probably want to invest in an electric food dehydrator at some point.
After being in the oven for four days, the thyme (upper part of left cookie sheet) is completely dry... I pack it into a clean jar and label it. The oregano is not yet dry enough to pack away: it still has a rubbery texture. But it has shrunk considerably in size, so I consolidate the oregano all on one cookie sheet, and spread some freshly picked basil on the other one and return them to the oven.  (Green basil turns black when dried and is not too appealing, so I like to dry the purple basil and preserve the green basil by making it into pesto.)
Notice the bright green color of the freshly dried herbs.  (When shopping for herbs you can tell how fresh they are by their color.)  Notice also that I don't crumble the leaves into little bits at this point. The goal when packing herbs is to preserve the volatile oils that give them their characteristic flavors.  These oils are released when the leaf is broken, so it is best to crumble the herbs just before adding them to your food.

Two days later the basil is dry and crispy.
Notice how much it has shrunk in size.
Now it's time to break the basil leaves off of the stems and pack them into jars.  Screw the jar lid on tightly and store away from heat and light.  I like to collect recycled jars of different sizes and shapes from the recycle shelves at the local food co-op for storing my home grown herbs.

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