Dried herbs are a great way to flavor your food, create your own tea blends, and an excellent option for decorating the home. The art of drying herbs has been around for millennia and has been perfected through centuries of experimentation. New methods are available to the modern herb grower that can dry herbs in minutes as opposed to traditional methods that can take weeks or months. The old ways still work great, however, and are usually less expensive, healthier, and more rewarding.
Air Drying Herbs
Air drying herbs is the most traditional method for preserving garden plants. When attempting to air dry, the gardener has two basic options: hanging or rack drying.
Hanging herbs is the simplest method. Simply collect your plants, tie them in bunches, and hang them in an out of the way corner of your garden shed or home. The best areas are away from sunlight. The sun can dry out parts of your bunch faster than the rest. You also want areas that have somewhat constant temperatures and will always remain above freezing. One your herbs have been hanging a few days be sure to turn each bunch to allow for differences in air temperature and humidity. This will your herb bunches to dry uniformly.
Drying on a rack is another method that allows the gardener to air dry herbs. Simply place the plants you wish to dry on the rack and place it in a warm, dry area. As with hanging, be sure you place your rack in a dry area out of direct sunlight and avoid areas that will see freezing temperatures. Also be sure to turn your herbs over every couple of days to allow uniform drying.
Drying racks vary in size and complexity. You can build your own to your specifications or if you prefer you can purchase one. If you do decide to purchase an herb drying rack, the author recommends:
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Drying Herbs with Desiccants
Desiccants are substances that absorb moisture and they have been used for centuries to dry garden plants. Traditionally sand, borax, and cornmeal have been used, however modern alternatives have added substances such as cat litter and silica gel* to the herb dryer’s tool box.
To use your desiccant first spread about an inch (2.5cm) around the bottom of a glass or plastic container. Next spread what you intend to dry on top of this layer allowing a small amount of space between each piece. Take some more of your desiccant and sprinkle it on top of your herbs. Finally place your container in a dry, out of the way place. Be sure to check your herbs every few days to see if they have dried to your preference.
*If you decide to use silica gel, use it only on herbs dried for decoration. NEVER use silica gel on herbs you intend to consume. It is toxic and can cause health problems.
Drying Herbs with a Microwave
Microwave technology has allowed the modern herb dryer to speed up the drying process from weeks to minutes. Unfortunately, this method requires the use of silica gel desiccants and cannot be used for herbs intended for consumption.
To dry herbs in a microwave first spread your silica gel on the bottom of a microwave safe container. Place your herbs on top of this layer. Be sure to allow a small amount of space between each piece. Next sprinkle a small amount of silica gel on top of your plants. Microwave between 200 and 300 watts for about 2.5 minutes. Allow your materials to stand in the microwave for 10 minutes after the microwave turns off. This will give the silica gel time to absorb additional moisture from the warm herbs. Experiment with different wattages and drying times as different plants will react differently to this method.
Tips for Drying Herbs
No matter which method you use, it’s best to harvest the herbs you intend to dry during dry weather. Avoid times such as directly after a rainfall or when your plants are covered with dew.
Avoid harvesting herbs that show mold or insect damage. Both can slow down the drying process and can make the herb dangerous for consumption.
Harvest more than you think you’ll need. Most herbs will shrink during the drying process and sometimes the fragrant oils will dry out slightly causing your herbs to be less flavorful than when fresh.
Different plants have different drying times and some methods work better for some varieties than others. It’s a good idea to harvest more of a plant than you think you need and to experiment in order to find the best way to dry it.
When drying with a microwave or desiccants, be aware that herbs dried with these methods are sometimes able to reabsorb moisture from the air afterwards. Storing your dried herbs in the refrigerator is a good way to limit humidity from affecting your plants.
If you are interested in learning more about the art of drying herbs, the author recommends
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