Fresh culinary herbs are becoming more available during the winter months. They come from faraway places along with everything else in the produce section. Fresh parsley and cilantro have always been mainstays, but, in recent years, dill, rosemary and basil have become more plentiful although they are not always in the best condition. Bruising and mold are the two greatest enemies of fresh herbs in route to the store.
If you grow your own herbs you can snip small amounts for cooking all season long. You can easily dry or freeze some for a year-round supply of good quality herbs. Your own preparations will probably be of higher quality than anything found in the supermarkets and of course, much cheaper.
For retaining highest flavor and quality, air drying or room drying is the easiest, most inexpensive method for preserving herbs. Moisture evaporates slowly and naturally during air drying, leaving the precious herb oils behind. Dehydrators are useful if you are drying large quantities of herbs or high moisture herbs such as basil. Use a microwave oven as a last resort for drying as microwaves literally cook the herbs producing very poor quality.
Sturdy herbs are best suited for air-drying. They are less tender, low-moisture varieties such as sage, thyme, summer savory, dill, bay leaves, oregano, rosemary and marjoram. Basil, tarragon, lemon balm and the mints have a high moisture content and will mold if not dried quickly. Enclosing herbs in a paper bag, with holes for air circulation, protects them from dust and other pollutants. Chives are best frozen.
The best time to cut herbs for drying is just before they flower. This is when the leaves have the most oil, which is what gives herbs aroma and flavor. Different varieties of herbs flower at different times of the season, so look for buds or newly opened flowers as your clue for harvesting. But, if your herbs have already flowered, they can still be harvested and dried. Cut herbs in mid-morning when the leaves are dry but before the hot midday sun.
To air dry herbs, follow the following simple steps:
1. Use a sharp knife or scissors to cut large stems or branches from mature plants. Gently shake each branch to remove insects. Examine each branch and remove old, damaged or diseased leaves.Store herbs in a cool, dry, dark place (away from sunlight). Dried herbs keep for years but for best results use within a year. Most herbs will diminish in flavor with age and a larger amount will be needed to achieve the desired flavor in cooking.
2. Rinse each branch in cold water and dry with towels or paper towels to remove all visible water. Wet herbs tend to mold which destroys the whole bunch.
3. Turn branches upside down and remove leaves along the upper stem. Lower leaves are not as pungent as the top leaves nearest buds. Tie five or six stems together in a small bunch. For high moisture herbs, use smaller bunches.
4. Place the bunch upside down in a large brown paper bag. Gather the bag around the stems and tie. Tear or cut several holes in the bag for ventilation. Make sure there is plenty of room inside the bag so leaves do not touch the sides of the bag. Write the name and date on each bag.
5. Hang the bag in a warm, airy room or attic. Leave undisturbed for about two weeks or longer.
6. When the leaves are dry, check for any signs of mold growth. Toss the entire bunch if moldy and try again. Strip dried leaves from stems and discard stems. Crush the leaves if desired, but keep in mind that whole herbs retain their flavor longer than crushed, ground or rubbed herbs.
7. Store dried herbs in small airtight containers away from the light. Zip closure plastic bags, colored bailing wire jars and ceramic crocks can be used for storage. Label and date each container.
Sage is the only herb that will grow stronger in flavor during storage. For making rubbed sage, place dried leaves in a wire strainer or sieve over a plate and rub against the side. Sage is a strong herb and rubbing creates smaller pieces for more even distribution in recipes.
To release the full flavor, crush whole herb leaves or use a mortar and pestle to grind, just before adding to the recipe. When using dried herbs, add to soups and stews during the last half-hour of cooking or follow recipe directions. Be creative and add dried herbs to flavor your favorite foods.
Source: University of Illinois
Drying Herbs, Seeds and Hot Chilies on a String
Bag Dried Herbs
The bag drying method differs from sun drying since it takes place indoors in a well-ventilated room, attic, car, camper or screened-in-porch. You don't have to have an herb garden to take advantage of drying herbs - buy fresh herbs at the farmers' market, roadside stand or even the supermarket. Although any herb can be dried using this method, sturdy, low moisture herbs such as sage, thyme, summer savory and parsley dry best.
Gather branches of herbs, cut with plenty of stem left. Strip away tougher leaves growing lower than about six inches on the stalk. Wash herbs by swishing the branches through cold water, holding by stem ends. Shake off excess water and lay on towels until moisture has evaporated (1 to 3 hours). Wet herbs will mold while drying, if this happens toss the entire bag.
Bundle 6 to 8 stem ends together and secure with string or rubber band. Enclose branches upside down in a large paper bag. Gather the bag around the stems and tie. Using a pencil or knife, punch about 10 holes all around the bag for air circulation. Label and date each bag. Suspend in an airy place for two to three weeks. Herbs will be crispy when dry. The bag protects herbs from dust and other pollutants during the drying process.
Oven Dried Herbs
Basil, tarragon, lemon balm and mints have high moisture content and will mold if not dried quickly. Remove the best leaves from the stems, wash and dry. Lay the leaves on a paper towel, single layer without allowing leaves to touch. Cover with another towel and another layer of leaves. Five layers may be dried at one time using this method.
Dry in a very cool oven (high temperatures will result in tasteless herbs).
The oven light of an electric range or the pilot light of a gas range furnishes enough heat for overnight drying. Leaves dry flat and retain good color. Herbs are ready when they are crispy dry. Store in airtight containers in a cool, dry, dark area to protect color, flavor and fragrance. Crumble when ready to use. Add dried herbs to cooked foods during the last 5 to 10 minutes of cooking time for best flavor.
Dried Pumpkin Seeds
Drying seeds and roasting seeds are two different processes. To dry: carefully wash pumpkin seeds to remove the clinging fibrous pumpkin tissue. Pumpkin and squash seeds can be dried in a dehydrator at 115-120°F for 1 to 2 hours, or in an oven set on warm for 3 to 4 hours. Stir them frequently to avoid scorching.
To roast, take dried pumpkin seeds, toss with oil and/or salt and roast on a cookie sheet in a preheated 250°F oven for 10 to 15 minutes.
Dried Sunflower Seeds
Sunflower seeds usually are left on the flower to dry. The flower may need to be wrapped with cheesecloth or old clean pantyhose to prevent birds and squirrels from eating the seeds. Seeds may be dried in the sun or in a dehydrator at 100°F for 3 to 4 hours (higher temperatures affect the flavor). When seeds are dried, they can be roasted in a shallow pan at 300°F for 10 to 15 minutes. Salt after roasting.
Hot Chilies (Peppers) on a String
Thin-skinned hot chilies dry quite nicely at room temperature. Select mature, red (ripe) Cayenne peppers or other thin-skinned variety. Wash and dry each pepper. Use a trussing needle or large sewing needle with white string or thread and tie a knot at the end. Push the needle through the stem/cap of each chili and string the chilies alternately left and right forming a long row. Tie a loop on the end. Suspend the chilies inside a paper bag with several air holes, gather top of bag around chilies with the loop exposed. Secure with a rubber band and hang the bag in an airy room. When dry the pods will look shriveled and deep red - about two to three weeks. Use peppers crushed or whole. They will keep their flavor and color for about a year to eighteen months. Wash hands with plenty of soapy water after handling fresh or dried hot chilies; their oils can irritate eyes, finger tips and/or sensitive skin.
Note: Thick-skinned and sweet peppers (bell, wax) do not dry fast enough on a string at room temperature. They will mold and decay. For these, use a dehydrator or freeze, no pre-treatment necessary.
Resource: So Easy to Preserve by the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service, Fourth Edition, 1999, Bulletin 989.