Drying herbs to add flavor to your meals

Add the summertime zip to your meals all year by drying herbs.

Oregano ready for drying.
Oregano ready for drying. Photo: Christine Venema/MSU Extension.

Growing, harvesting and drying herbs is one way to add a taste of freshness to your meals all year. Or maybe you were at the farmers market or the grocery store where there was a sale on fresh-cut herbs, and you bought more than you could use. Plan to preserve the rest.

To harvest herbs, pick them just before the buds open. Gather the herbs early in the morning just after the dew has left the leaves and before the sun beats down on them, this reduces the possibility of them wilting. Avoid bruising or crushing the fresh leaves because they will lose flavor.

The easiest way to preserve herbs is to dry them. There are four ways to dry herbs safely: air drying indoors, a dehydrator, an oven or a microwave. Sun drying is not ideal, as that process removes the herbs of their brilliant color and flavor.

Herbs that are less tender such as parsley, rosemary, sage, summer savory and thyme can be air-dried indoors. The room needs to be hot and well-ventilated. These herbs would be tied in bundles, put into paper bags with air holes in them (which allow air to pass through in the bags to reduce the chance of molding) and put into a dry, hot room. Use paper bags to catch any leaves that fall as the herbs dry. 

Tender-leaf herbs such as basil, bay leaves, lemon balm, mints, oregano, sage and tarragon have a high moisture content and will mold easily, so it is best to use a dehydrator, particularly in Michigan. A dehydrator is necessary in Michigan because the humidity is rarely less than 10%, which is ideal for air drying.

To dry using a food dehydrator, wash the herbs in clean, cool running water. Shake the moisture off the herbs. Throw away any bruised, discolored or imperfect leaves. Check the dehydrator manual for the specifics. Preheat the dehydrator to 95 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit. If the air humidity is higher, it may be necessary to increase the temperature to 125 degrees Fahrenheit. Arrange the leaves on the dehydrator trays in a single layer. Drying time will vary from one to four hours depending on the humidity. Check the herbs periodically for doneness. The herbs are done when the leaves crumble to a powder and the stems break easily when bent. 

For oven drying, a convection oven is great because it has a fan that moves the air. The process will be slower in a regular oven, as the oven door must be propped open and a fan used to blow across the opening. When using the oven, the temperature cannot be warmer than 140 degrees Fahrenheit or you will cook the herbs. Place the herbs on a tray and put into the pre-heated oven, using the oven set up previously described. The air circulation is vital for drying.

Herbs are the only food that can be “dried” in the microwave (in reality, the herbs are cooked and not dehydrated in a microwave). The drying must be done in small batches because there is no air flow. Follow the manufacturer’s directions. 

Michigan State University Extension recommends that when drying is finished, package the herbs in in glass jars after they have cooled completely. If glass jars are not used, the container must be moisture-proof with a tight-fitting lid. Since many herb leaves look alike, label the containers with the herb identity. Put a date on the container. Dried herbs will maintain their flavor for up to a year if they are stored in a dark dry location.

For more information on safely ensuring delicious food year-round, visit MSU Extension's Safe Food & Water website for the latest news, resources and events.

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