Drying Herbs: Saving Thyme in a Bottle

Picking Oregano Leaves

The best time to begin picking your herbs for drying is long before they flower. I always seem to miss that date when they are hearty enough to have a good supply of leaves, but not so hearty that they’ve begun to set flowers and seed. This year I was a little late, especially with my thyme which was blooming profusely when I finally got around to harvest.

For best flavour I pick my leaves early in the day before they get too warm. I put out a stool, sit down with my basket and scissors and start clipping away. Depending on the herb, my technique varies.

For oregano, I grasp the stalk low and pull up slowly to tear off the leaves, leaving a bare stalk behind. Usually the stalk breaks near the tender top, and I pick those leaves off by hand, avoiding any of the blossoms. I wash them in a salad spinner and place them in an even layer in my dehydrator.

I dry them at somewhere between 105C and 115C for as long as they take to become crumbly. Depending on the moisture content and relative humidity, that can be anywhere from a few hours to a few days. If the leaves are overlapping here and there, it’s good to move them around every once in a while to get more even air distribution.

The slower you dry the herbs, the more flavour they retain, so some patient people dry their herbs at room temperature. This may be impossible in humid parts of the country where mould would take advantage of yummy herbs sitting out on a counter or hanging in a dark corner.

To pick individual leaves off of thyme would be unbearably tedious so I cut the stalks whole, trim off the flowers and bring in the entire bunch to wash. Once they’ve been dried in the dehydrator the leaves are easy to separate from the stalks.

It takes a lot of thyme (and patience) to collect a small amount of the herb

Basil, parsley and sage are simple to harvest if I just patiently sit and pluck off the foliage, trying not to take too much of the stem along with the leaf. If I save any chives at all for drying (and I sometimes don’t bother), I’m careful only to take the freshest youngest leaves.

I love coriander seed, although they aren’t ready to harvest just yet. When the time comes I simply pull the ripe seeds off in my hand and leave them to dry for a few days on the kitchen counter in a wooden bowl. The leaves (cilantro) don’t keep very well, but I put a few in the freezer for soups and winter casseroles.

Rosemary I primarily use as a fresh herb, but whatever is left at the end of the season will be harvested similarly to thyme, stalk and all, then separated after drying.

For those without a dehydrator (heck, mine’s borrowed from my sister-in-law), herbs can be dried in the microwave. Use two layers of microwave-safe paper towel under the herbs and two more on top. Dry for thirty seconds at a time, and most will be done in under two minutes. It’s easy to over-process herbs this way, so be careful.

I find that some years my oregano produces ample leaves, while my sister-in-law might be drowning in basil and a neighbour may have more rosemary than he knows what to do with. Exchanging and bartering herbs is a custom that goes back centuries, and who am I to argue with tradition?






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