How to Harvest, Dry and Store Herbs
What a pleasure it will be to grow the herbs of your choice for harvesting whenever you are in need of them to compliment that special dish. An herb garden of your own will enable you to enjoy those fresh herbs which you cannot always find in your local market. Fresh herbs are unsurpassable in taste and aroma but to ensure availability right through the year, they can successfully be preserved as well. Although there are numerous methods for the preservation of herbs they will vary according to the kind of herbs you choose.
The best time to harvest your herbs is when their essential oils are at its peak. It is this oil which gives the plant its special and distinctive aroma. The proper timing will depend on which part of the plant you intend to harvest and the way in which you want to make use of it. As soon as your plant has grown enough foliage that will ensure its continued growth, you can start harvesting. Annual herbs will recover even if you cut back as much as seventy five percent of the foliage. Be more careful with perennials; do not cut more than a third of its growth at a time. Always use pruners or a very sharp knife in order not to damage the plant. You need to make a clean cut every time.
The best time of the day to harvest your herbs is early morning before the temperature rises too much. Harvest before the plant begins to flower or else the production of leaves will decline. Remove the flowers as soon as they make their appearance to ensure that your plant keeps on producing new leaves.
Never use pesticides to spray on the herbs you are growing for harvesting. It may be harmful to your health. You can find many products for controlling pests and insects which are not harmful if digested, so make sure you use one of these if you want to use the leaves of your herb plants in your food.
Using Air or Low Heat
Traditionally herbs are either dried by using air or a low heat. Dried herbs are more concentrated so the essence will be stronger. Take this into account when you use them in cooking; you will probably use about a third less than the fresh herb leaves. Read your recipe well so you know whether it refers to the fresh or the dried product.
Carefully wash the harvested herbs under running water. Use paper towels to dry them completely. Inspect for any damaged or dead material and remove it. Now tie your herbs together in a loose bunch. If you tie them too tightly they will not have enough air circulation. Place individual bunches of herbs into a paper bag, with their leaves first and stems at the open end. All the bags should have holes punched in them for ventilation. Now your herbs will be protected from contamination like dust while they are drying. Hang your herb bags up in a dry, warm area that is well ventilated and not in the sun. The ideal places are sheds, garages, attics or barns. The process will take about a month before your herbs are completely dry.
A drying tray may also be used and works especially well for herbs with short stems or if you want to dry individual herb leaves. Construct your own trays with screen wire attached to a frame. Spread out the herbs in single layers on the trays and allow them to dry in a well ventilated, dry area. You might need to turn the leaves to make sure they dry evenly.
Using heat to dry out herbs is another simple, easy method. Use a conventional or dehydrating oven or a microwave and set at a low heat.
- A home dehydrator is easy to use and quite effective. Just follow the instructions in the manual.
- Conventional ovens are equally effective if you closely monitor the temperature. It is essential to use a very low setting otherwise the herbs will lose both its color and taste. The ideal temperature is between ninety and one hundred and ten degrees Fahrenheit and this temperature should be maintained right throughout the drying process. Leave the door of the oven ajar and check regularly to see if you need to turn the leaves or the herbs. The process may take up to four hours.
- A microwave oven is perfect for drying a smaller quantity of herbs. It is also much faster. Check the recommendations in the manual and be careful of scorching the herbs. Follow the instructions carefully as there may be a danger of starting a fire if you do not adhere to the specifications.
The herbs should be dried thoroughly after washing as all liquid will lead them to cook instead of drying out. Put the herbs between 2 pieces of paper towels. Microwave on the high setting for between one and three minutes. Check every thirty seconds while turning your herbs. You want them to dry evenly. When done, allow the herbs to cool completely before you store them.
Pick all the dried, cooled leaves from their stems and place in a sealed container or two. Store in a dry, cool area away from direct sunlight. Try not to crush the leaves while packaging them for storage as this will release some of the flavor prematurely. Most herbs will retain their wonderful taste for as long as a year if properly stored.
Drying Herb Seeds
As soon as the seed heads start to turn brown, cut the heads with the stems. Tie them together in bunches and then hang these small bunches in their paper bags as described above. When the seeds are dry, simply shake to remove them from the heads. Now use your fingers to rub them carefully, removing them from their capsules. You can also remove some of the hulls, chaff and debris by placing them on a tray and blowing on the seeds. Usually seeds will take longer than leaves to dry. Do not store the seeds before they are completely dry or they may become moldy.
Frozen herbs are really not suitable for using in salads or for garnishing. They work their wonders best in cooked food. This is probably the easiest way to preserve your excess herbs and will not alter the quality of their flavor one bit.
Start by rinsing your herbs. Now chop them up coarsely and place generous amounts in ice cubes filled with water. Once they are frozen solid you can transfer them to another container or a plastic bag and store in your freezer. Take out individual cubes as needed.
Another method which works well for herb leaves is to blanch them for only a few seconds and then to cool them quickly by submerging them in ice water. Now the herb leaves are ready to be stored in sealed plastic bags in your freezer.