Drying herbs is one of the oldest and easiest ways to preserve herbs. It’s so easy to learn how to dry herbs, even without a dehydrator or special equipment. Depending on the plant, you may be harvesting leaves, flowers or roots (or all three). All parts of most herbs can be dried.
How to Harvest Herbs
In order to have the best possible dried herbs, you need to harvest the plants optimally.
- Never take more than 1/3 of the plant, or you risk killing the plant. If the plant is an annual, or if you’ve grown it specifically to harvest the roots, then harvest the whole thing when it’s near the end of the growing season.
- For plants with tough stems, like thyme or rosemary, harvest small branches, rather than individual leaves. Use sterilized, sharp scissors or pruners and make a clean cut through the stem.
- For leafy plants, pluck off single leaves or cut off small sections. Only pluck leaves if it is possible to do so easily and without damaging the plant’s stems. Basil and mint are great examples of herbs with leaves that are easy to pull off.
- You can dry a large batch of herbs or just a single leaf. For efficiency’s sake, it’s best to wait until there’s a significant amount of herb to harvest before drying.
- Harvest herbs before they flower unless you it is the flower you wish to process. Once an herb has flowered, the leaves can become flavorless, or worse, bitter. Many herbs have delicious flowers, however, so if you’ve missed the window, you can always dry the flowers and use them.
- Harvest early in the day when the plant oils are most concentrated to ensure the best flavor.
Preparing Fresh Herbs for Drying
Once you’ve harvested your herbs, prepare them for drying.
- discard any wilted, diseased or damaged parts of the plant, as well as any immature leaves or flowers
- if the herbs have soil on them, they may need to be rinsed, if the soil won’t brush off. If they are grown organically, it may not be necessary to wash them and doing so can remove some of the oils and flavor. That is a personal choice, however, and you should do what makes you comfortable. If you have free-ranging poultry in your garden or lots of wild birds, I’d suggest washing your herbs.
- if you are drying roots, they might need to be cut into smaller pieces to facilitate drying. They should be free from dirt.
Decide how you’ll use the dried herbs so you can process them in a way that makes sense.
For example, if you’re planning to dry basil and oregano for an Italian seasoning mix, remove each leaf from the stems. You can then tear or cut the leaves up for a finer finish. On the other hand, you might choose to dry sage in bunches, still on the stem, because it’s easier to use in culinary applications like a bouquet garnish. Be aware that the further you break down the leaves, the more flavor they will lose.
If you aren’t sure what you’ll do with your herbs, then process them as little as possible. You can always strip dried leaves off a stem later or crumble dried leaves for a finer texture.
There are two ways to air dry herbs.
Hanging Herbs to Dry
If the herbs are still part of a larger plant or on their stem, then they can be hung upside down to dry. For herbs with slender stems, like lavender, the stems can be gathered together and tied to make bunches. Bushier herbs like sage can be harvested in small clumps and hung accordingly. Although this is a very efficient method, and can look quite charming, it can also lead to more mess as dried plant parts shake loose and fall to the floor. Not the end of the world, but something to be aware of, especially if you are drying bundles in an area where pets or small children may be. You can put the bundles in a paper bag to catch loose pieces if you want to hang your herbs.
Drying Herbs in Trays or on Screens
If you are drying small herbs or individual leaves or flowers, it would be very tedious to hang them all for drying! A better method is to lay the leaves or plant parts in trays or baskets, or spread them on a non-aluminum screen. The advantage of this is that you can dry a large amount of herbs in very little space, and there is less mess.
It’s important the herbs not be heaped up so deeply that air cannot circulate around them. I generally make sure the herbs aren’t deeper than an inch or so, but larger leaved herbs, like basil or lemon balm, can be piled a little higher. The herbs will need to be turned daily as they dry, to ensure all of the plant parts receive plenty of air.
For small batches, the lids of paper egg cartons make excellent drying racks. The stack up neatly and it’s easy to add a few air holes if needed. Air will circulate readily even when they are stacked on top of each other. If I’m using these for very small herbs, I put a piece of parchment paper in the bottom so I can easily pour the dried herbs into a jar. Another advantage of the carton lids is that the edges keep the herbs from blowing around. And, of course, they’re super frugal, which I love.
If you have space for them non-metal window screens or furnace filters are an excellent drying surface. These can be stacked and air circulates readily. Be sure they are stored someplace free from breezes, however. Large harvest baskets also make great drying spots for bigger pieces of plant.
Finally, there are some wonderful herb drying racks available for purchase, like this hanging collapsible rack. If you dry a lot of herbs or if you need to minimize the amount of space your drying set up takes, these can be quite compact and efficient. Another great space saver is this clip laundry rack. If you dry lots of herb bundles, it’s an efficient space saver and easy to use.
No matter how you lay the herbs out for drying, they need to be checked daily to ensure no moisture is accumulating. Turn or shuffle them each day and if they are in stacked containers, rotate the stack daily.
The Drying Process
This is the easy part! Simply put the trays or hang the bunches somewhere out of direct sunlight and wait. The drying area needs to have a good air flow and not be damp or cold. If you don’t have an area with good air circulation, you can improvise with an electric fan. Be sure your herbs are covered lightly with a piece of tissue or otherwise protected from the breeze blowing them away.
How to Tell When Herbs Have Finished Drying
Some herbs make it very easy to see if they’ve dried fully. Leafy herbs, like basil, will shrink and shrivel, and the absence of moisture will be pretty obvious. Small leafy herbs, like thyme, can be more challenging, especially if they’ve been stripped from the stem. The best way to judge is to pick up a leaf or a small pinch and rub it between your thumb and forefinger. See if it crumbles quickly and easily. If so, the herbs are fully dried. If there’s any resistance or if you feel even a hint of moisture afterwards, give them another day and check again.
How Long Does It Take Herbs to Dry
The smaller the plant part, the faster it will dry. Large bundles or bigger sections of plant will take longer to dry fully. Depending on the environmental conditions, some herbs may be fully dried in just a day or two, while other may take a week or more. If your herbs don’t show a visible decrease in volume after 24 hours or if the plants feel damp, their location may be too humid for drying. Try moving them somewhere less damp or put them near a fan (on low setting).
Using a Dehydrator to Dry Herbs
It’s possible to dry herbs in a dehydrator and doing so can speed up the process. I use a four tray Excalibur dehydrator and it does a fine job with herbs but it’s not my go-to herb drying method. When using a dehydrator, keep the temperature on the lowest setting so the herbs dry without cooking. On the Excalibur, that’s 95 degrees but some models don’t have a thermostat.
While it can be useful to process a lot of herbs quickly, one of the drawbacks to using a dehydrator is limited space. Another concern is that the air circulating can blow very fine herbs off the drying trays. I have personally found my dehydrator most useful for mid-sized, leafy herbs like basil or oregano. Larger leaves, like sage, can sometimes end up overdone before they get fully dry.
Finally, you can dry herbs in the oven. One big advantage in using the oven is that you can dry a LOT of herbs all at once. Unfortunately, it is very, very easy to cook them instead of drying them, especially if your oven doesn’t have a “keep warm” setting. If you opt for the oven, use the lowest possible temperature setting and check your herbs every few minutes. One of my favorite garden bloggers, Garden Betty, suggests preheating the oven to the lowest possible temperature, putting in the herbs and then turning the oven off. I haven’t had a chance to try this method, but it seems to be very effective!
How to Store Dried Herbs
If you’ve put in all that effort to dry herbs, the last thing you want is for them to get stale or breakdown from sunlight.
Put your herbs into an airtight container once they are completely dry. I use glass jars, either canning jars or repurposed pickle/salsa jars. Other options storage options include canisters or reusable food storage containers, or even plastic baggies. If the container is not opaque, store the herbs in a cabinet or other dark place. During the first couple of weeks, open the jars every day or so and let the herbs breathe for a few minutes. That will ensure the herbs stay fresh and flavorful.
As a special bonus, when you join you’ll receive Splendor on a Shoestring, my guide to finding silver, china, linens and other home items on a budget.