Drying herbs is one of the easiest ways to preserve herbs for future use in cooking. Several techniques can be used.
Hanging: For centuries, people have dried herbs by tying them in bunches and hanging them upside down. Over time, the herbs gradually lose their moisture and become brittle. They remain flavorful, however, because the plants’ essential oils remain in their leaves.
The best herbs to air-dry are sturdy, low-moisture plants, such as bay, lavender, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, and winter savory. Always work with newly harvested plants. Use a rubber band, string, or twine to tightly fasten together several stems at their ends. (Keep in mind that as the stems shrink during drying, the rubber bands will tighten around them, while string may need to be retied periodically.) Bundle large-leafed, tender herbs loosely to speed drying and retain color.
To shield the drying herbs from light and dust, fasten a paper bag around the bunched herbs; puncture the bag with small slits for air circulation. Hang the bunches upside down in a dark, dry place where air can flow freely around them: from a rafter, ceiling hook, or on a rack. Do not hang them near a stove or furnace, as heat will speed the breakdown of the herbs’ essential oils.
When air-drying herbs such as lavender, choose a well-ventilated and shady spot so they will dry thoroughly their flavor. Try not to dry your herbs in a garage where chemicals or engine exhaust will affect their flavor or add toxic elements.
To dry herb seeds (caraway, coriander, dill, and fennel, for example), put the almost-ripe seed heads into paper bags, keeping different varieties in separate bags. Handle the heads carefully, as seeds fall out easily when ripe. Hang the open bags in a well-ventilated spot for 2 or 3 weeks, until the seed heads are dry and papery. Then spread the heads on paper or a tray covered with very fine mesh screening (available at hardware stores), and rub or shake them to separate the seeds from the chaff. Label and store the seeds in airtight jars.
Trays: Herbs can also be air-dried on trays. This approach works especially well for drying tender leaves, such as those of basil and lemon balm, and for drying herb roots, bark, and stems. Spread short-stemmed herbs or individual leaves in a single layer on racks or screens. An old window screen can be used, or make a drying tray by stretching steel screening or cheesecloth over a wooden framework. (Do not use galvanized metal screens; some plant acids can react with them to form toxic compounds.) You can stack the trays, placing a wooden block or other spacer at each corner to allow air to circulate between them. Keep the trays in a warm (not hot), dry, dark place until the leaves become brittle.
To dry the roots, bark, and sturdy stems of plants such as ginger, ginseng, horseradish, licorice, and marshmallow, first clean the plant parts; do not peel the roots. Chop, slice, or shred the roots and stems into small pieces; they can become extremely hard once dried, making them difficult to cut or grind later. Lay the plant parts on racks and turn them periodically until they are dry; this can take 2 to 3 weeks. When thoroughly dried, roots and stems become light and brittle. Store them in airtight tins or in opaque or amber glass jars.
When drying herbs such as tarragon and oregano in a warm (90°F) oven, check them after 2 hours. If they are not completely dry, return them to the oven.
To accelerate the herb-drying process, add heat. But proceed carefully; heating herbs too much or too quickly can cause the loss of essential oils, aromatic compounds, and flavor. Oven drying works great for lavender, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, basil, summer savory, parsley, lemon balm, mints, and tarragon. To speed-dry herbs using an oven, first clean the herbs and spread them on a cookie sheet or drying rack. Remove larger-leaved herbs (like basil, lemon balm, sage, and mints) from their stems and dry only the leaves.
Place the sheet in the oven, set at its lowest possible temperature, for up to several hours. Check the herbs every half hour and remove them when they are dry. It may not be possible to set older gas ovens to a low enough temperature, so try drying herbs in these ovens using the heat from the pilot light. Roots and tough stems can be dried at 120°F. Check the herbs regularly to make sure they do not blacken and shrivel.
Microwave Oven Drying
Another way to speed-dry herbs is by putting them in a microwave oven. First, remove the leaves from the stems. Spread a single layer of the leaves on a paper towel–covered plate, so that the leaves are not touching, then transfer the towels to a microwave oven. Microwave the leaves for 1 minute, using a low power setting, and then check them. If they are still fairly moist, microwave again for 20 seconds. If necessary, continue heating the leaves for 20-second intervals until they are crisp but not burnt. It might take a few trials to get this process right. Cool the leaves on a baking rack, then store them in airtight containers.
Dehydrators are appliances that blow warm air over foods, removing their moisture. Arrange herbs in a single layer on each tray of the dehydrator, and set the device to 90° to 100°F. Do not set the temperature higher, as the oils in the herbs may dissipate. The herbs will dry within several hours.
ARE THEY DRY ENOUGH?
To test the dryness of herbs, bend a leaf in half. If it cracks and crumbles, it is completely dry. If it bends, folds, or has a leathery feel, it still contains moisture and should be dried further.
Herbs can also be tested for moisture by sealing a small quantity of dried herbs in an airtight jar. After a day or two, check the contents. If condensation has formed inside the jar, the herbs are still moist and need to be dried for a longer period. It’s important to dry herbs completely because those stored with even a small amount of moisture will develop mold and spoil. If mold is visible at any point, discard the entire batch of herbs.
Dried Flowers And Foliage
By drying the cut stems of many herbs, you can create beautiful arrangements with echoes of summer: clumps of golden or burgundy blooms, tiny blue petals, silvery foliage, dark brown seedpods, and much more.
The easiest way to dry herbs and flowers is just like Mother Nature does: Provide warm air, a light breeze, and a couple of days for it to happen.
How to Air-Dry Herbs for Arranging
Air drying is the simplest way to preserve herbs and flowers for arranging, but you must choose plants that will dry easily with this method, and you have to pick them at the proper stage.
- Goldenrod, pokeweed, and safflower: Cut stems before the flowers fully open.
- Chives, echinacea, lavender, mint, rosemary, sage, and witch hazel: Cut just after the flowers have opened.
- Tansy and yarrow: Pick only after the flowers have become very dry on their stems.
- Rue seed heads: Gather them either green or dry.
- Hops: Gather the female cones when they are still green.
- Artemisia species: Harvest and air-dry the silvery green foliage, which makes great filler, almost anytime.
- Bayberry, bay laurel, boxwood, juniper, and sage: Harvest the foliage sprigs anytime and use them as neutral accents or background.
If you plan to use only the flowers in your arrangement, strip the leaves from the stems before you dry them: The less plant material on each stem, the faster it will dry. Tie 8 to 10 stems in a bundle and hang them upside down in a dark, well-ventilated area. Air movement is key. During summer, flowers dry in about 10 days. As soon as the flowers are dry, pack them in labeled boxes (one type per box) until you are ready to use them.
How to Dry with Desiccants
Use a desiccant for drying finicky flowers such as carnation, delphinium, forget-me-not, hollyhock, larkspur, marigold, rose, and zinnia. Desiccants are moisture-absorbing materials such as sand, borax, and cornmeal. You can use pure, clean sand; borax mixed with sand (use a 2:1 ratio); or cornmeal mixed with borax (equal parts). The process usually takes 1 to 4 weeks, depending on the type of flowers you’re drying and the humidity level in your home.
Silica gel, another desiccant, is a chemical compound that resembles sea salt. Compared to other desiccants, silica gel works faster (in about 3 to 5 days) and preserves colors better. The fine granules are also less likely to damage delicate leaves and petals. Silica gel is reusable and widely available at craft stores. Wear a dust mask and gloves when working with it, and never use it to dry culinary herbs.
Here’s the basic drying process when using a desiccant.
- Pick flowers when they’re not quite fully open. Cut off the stem right below the blossom.
- Poke a piece of florist’s wire into the center of the flower. Then pull it through to form a wire stem. Bend one end of the wire into a little hook so it won’t pull out. (It’s important to do this now; the flowers will be too fragile to wire after they’re dried.)
- Cover the bottom of a wide, low container. Use a 1-inch layer of the desiccant, then nestle the flowers into it. Don’t let the blossoms touch. Gently pour in additional desiccant to completely cover the flowers with another 1-inch layer. Cover the container tightly, and store it in a warm, dry location.
- Gently remove the flowers. The time to remove them is when they’re still colorful but not so dry that they fall apart. If you’re using silica gel, check the flowers in 3 days; wait 1 week to check flowers dried in other desiccants. Flowers with thin petals will dry faster than those with fleshier petals. If a petal breaks off, reattach it with a spot of white glue.
Arranging Dried Herbs and Flowers
Here’s how expert florists make beautiful, long-lasting arrangements with dried flowers, foliage, and herbs.
- Work with dried plants on a dry day. On rainy days, the plants can absorb moisture and become difficult to handle. If you find the arrangement “wilting” as you put it together, just turn up the heat in the workroom, or set the herbs in silica gel for several hours, overnight, or until they recover.
- Consider plant shapes and colors. Vary the shapes. To achieve arrangements of rich texture, use some dried flowers that are spike-shape (like mints or lavender); some that are round and fairly large (like yarrow); and some small, dainty flowers (like safflower).
Choose two or three shades of the same color. For example, use a red and a pink, or three flowers of various shades of yellow. That range will make the colors seem richer.
- Fill the containers with sand. This will hold the flowers and give them some stability. For little finger vases, use plugs of florist’s foam.
- Arrange from the bottom up. Begin working with the low core of the arrangement. Dried flowers are fragile, so you don’t want to reach among the tall stems any more than necessary. Since dried flowers don’t have the substance of fresh flowers, make a fairly dense mass at the base for a more dramatic effect, perhaps with a lot of goldenrod or artemisia. After constructing a dense core for the arrangement, insert airier plant material higher up.
Dried Herb Wreath
Your imagination and flower supply are your only limitations in making this wreath. To vary the look a bit over the season, wire in several florist’s tubes so you can replace faded herbs and flowers with fresh ones.
MATERIALS: Straw or Spanish moss wreath base (available at garden centers or craft stores); florist’s wire and tubes; selection of dried herbs and flowers
- Choose a “base” plant. This should be something you have in quantity and that will go well with the other flowers you intend to use. ‘Silver King’ artemisia, for example, makes an excellent background. Insert it in the wreath base, stem by stem, until the whole wreath is covered.
- Add the accents. These could be little bunches (about 3 inches across) of colorful dried flowers; use florist’s wire to make bunches of the smallest blooms. Space them around the wreath, alternating with larger spaces of a more neutral color. For best results, keep the composition simple, using no more than three main colors, such as gray (artemisia), purple (lavender), and pink (rose).