Drying Herbs for Tea & Culinary Uses
In my family home growing up, we always had herb bundles drying in the kitchen for soups. Rosemary, Thyme, Sage, Oregano. These were the staples of a hearty chicken soup stock my mother always had on hand.
Skip ahead 15 years and here I am, drying herbs in my kitchen for soups just like my mother. What I did not know until practicing as an herbalist is the summer humidity of Massachusetts is not conducive for preserving fresh herbs by air drying for more than a couple months.
Here is what I’ve learned about drying herbs so they last a year in your pantry, offering their medicinal properties long into the winter. These techniques don’t require equipment like a dehydrator, but if you are drying lots of herbs especially for sale, I recommend picking one up. They’re usually less than $200.
You’ve gone to the CSA, your garden or picked up a fresh bundle of herbs from the store and you have more than enough for the week so drying them for later use is a great idea.
Herbs have 60-80% water content when fresh. If you are not going to use them immediately, either put them in a jar with water like a bouquet to use within a few days or lay them out on a screen with air flow between the leaves.
In order to preserve the quality and strength of your herbs, they must be dried as quickly as possible, ideally within 2-4 days. Hanging them in your kitchen method is fine if you’re going to use the herbs within a month, but sitting exposed to the air and sun will eventually degrade the properties as the volatile oils in the herbs are released.
If you have a car, this can be your best friend for drying herbs quickly. Park it in a sunny spot, crack the windows on a hot sunny day, and wallah! You have a giant herb dryer. I learned this when I accidentally left a bag of nettles in my car for a few days only to discover it was perfectly dried.
Clean your car, vacuuming to remove dust and pet hair. Lay out your herbs on screen or on a cardboard box. Give them space to breathe. Cover them with one layer of paper brown bags to protect them from sunlight. Wait a few days (driving around is fine if they are secure) and your herbs will be dried to a crisp. If there is any moisture, or bend in the stems, give it more time or remove the stems to let the leaves dry more efficiently.
If you don’t have a car, a hot attic or closet (90-100 degrees) will work fine, too. Place a fan on low to keep air flow moving. Less than 90 degrees and you run the risk of them not drying 100% and they can grow mold when sealed in a container. I’ve had this happen to me and it’s a major bummer to grab some catnip tea and realize it’s growing fuzz.
If you have neither a car or a hot attic, you may want to invest in a food dehydrator. I like the Excalibur brand because they have variable temperatures and a timer. Herbs want to be no more than 100 degrees or they cook, so it’s important to be able to control the temperature.
At Sweet Birch Herbals, we had a large dehydrator custom built that is the size of a fridge, pictured above. It contains a small dehumidifier and fan. No heat needed because the motor in the dehumidifier warms the insulated container to reach 100 degrees.
Herbs last a year when stored dried, out of direct sunlight in a tightly sealed bag or jar. They will hold onto their volatile oils longer if stored as whole leaves rather than macerating them up first. If you want to get into tea blending, check out these handy screens for tea “garbling.” Garbling is the herbalist's term meaning processing the herbs, removing stems and “impurities” to be stored or used. I bought these two screens for garbling and they are a game changer for large amounts of dried herbs! Just rub them through the screens into a plastic bin and the stems stay on top while the leaves fall through in even pieces for tea.
The next blog will be about tea blending so stay in touch and sign up for my newsletter to get updates on recipes, blogs, workshops, and product sales. Check out our tea selection in the shop. We source most our blends from Full Kettle Farm in Sunderland because we use our dried herbs for custom made teas for clients. If you'd like one, shoot me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org