A good pasta sauce or roast is never complete without a selection of tasty herbs. The problem with purchasing herbs at the store… total sticker shock when your grocer wants to charge between $2 – $6 for the tiniest bottle.
Growing and processing herbs at home is a simple and fun do-it-yourself project for the whole family.
Growing the herbs
The first step is successfully growing a healthy plant. We have experimented with pots full of herbs on the patio, indoor potted herbs, and raised garden beds reserved specifically for herbs. The winner… raised garden beds with rich black soil fertilized with our own vermicompost! My handy husband built a small (2′ X 4′) raised bed in which we have planted basil, thyme, cilantro, dill, sage, and rosemary over the past few years. Dill was my least favorite – it totally took over – and basil is definitely my fave (pesto, yum!).
If you cannot grow your own, you can still dry fresh herbs purchased from the store or farmer’s market. (Find gardening supplies and seeds here.)
Harvesting the herbs
After your plants begin growing big and sturdy you can start harvesting. I snip my basil several times during the summer to promote new growth and to get the most out of it. Sometimes I forget about my poor thyme plant (a perennial!) and only harvest at the very end of the summer. Cilantro is so fragile and quick to go to seed that I normally only get to use it fresh. Each summer we use most of our dill to make homemade pickles, then I’ll typically get so irritated at the invasiveness of this plant that I rip it out to make room for the other herbs.
I try to stay on top of my herbs each summer, periodically cutting to promote new growth, and drying it out to use until the next growing season.
Drying the herbs
Preparing your herbs to be dried can be done in just a few minutes. Depending on my mood and the amount of time I have, I either shake dust/dirt off the herbs or rinse in cool water and pat dry very gently. The next step is gathering the herbs in small bundles and tying the ends together very tightly with yarn or string. (As the herbs dry the stems will shrink, so tie tightly to prevent stalks from slipping out of the bundles.) Hang herb bundles upside down in a cool dark room in your house. We have tied lines up in a dark basement or in a bright pantry, and both work well. Arrange bundles several inches apart so air can circulate more easily around each one.
Processing and storing the herbs
Herbs should be dried for about 2-4 weeks, then they’re ready to process. After taking herb bundles down from their hanging position, begin removing leaves/needles from stems. With most herbs you can hold the stem with one hand and run the fingers of your other hand in the opposite direction of growth to easily remove the usable part of the herb. Discard stems or save them for soup stock. Process herbs into small pieces using a food processor, crumbling with your hands, or just leave them large.
We prefer minimal processing so the wonderful fragrance and flavor of the herbs is not released before we cook with them. We then simply crumble the desired amount into recipes during cooking. Store your herbs in sealed containers and label for future use. I store our herbs in small mason jars or clean, repurposed glass spice bottles. Shaker tops from old parmesan cheese containers make the perfect lid for your own dried herbs.
Voila! Now you have dried herbs you can use in your kitchen, share with neighbors, or give away as gifts!
Do you grow and dry your own fresh herbs? If so, which favorites have you planted this year?