Gathering herbs for drying is one of midsummer’s most pleasant tasks. Using the heat of the season to preserve some of this bounty always makes me feel in tune with my garden. When sheared in midsummer, moist herb plants respond by growing bushier and more attractive; plants from which you take cuttings now will produce another harvest before frost. Drying herbs is not hard work, and you don’t need special equipment. A pinch of dried herbs can make a significant difference in stews, sauces, salads, and soups. You might also want to dry some mint or lemon verbena for teas, or prepare jars of dried herbs for thoughtful, personalized gifts.
- CUT THE STALKS For best flavor, pick herbs when blossoms first begin to form, but before they open—this is when their volatile-oil content is highest. Wait until late morning on a sunny day, after the dew has dried. The leaves should be dry when you gather cuttings. Use scissors or pruning shears to clip off the herb stalks. It’s better to cut than to break the stems, because breaking them leaves a harder-to-heal ragged edge on the remaining stem, and tugging on the plant may disturb its roots. In most cases it’s best to remove up to two-thirds of an herb plant’s top growth. (In the fall, as frost approaches, perennial herbs such as sage should be trimmed more conservatively—perhaps by one-third to one-half—because they may not survive winter if pruned too severely late in the season.)
- RINSE THE HERBS Now’s the time to remove any grit, dust, or other residues; you won’t want to wash the herbs after they’ve dried. Long-stemmed herbs are usually fairly clean, but creeping plants like thyme may have sand or mud clinging to their leaves. Hold muddy leaves under running water for a minute or two. If they’re just dusty, you can plunge them briefly into a bucket of clean water. Then shake off the excess water thoroughly and pat dry with paper towels, or whirl the cuttings in a mesh basket to spin off the water.
- DRY THE CUTTINGS The best drying spot is a hot, dark space with good air circulation. Herbs will dry more quickly at temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Likely places include a garage or a shady porch. Even a hot attic, where daytime temperatures might soar into the 90s or 100s, is not too hot. The heat dehydrates the leaves before they rot, darkness ensures good color retention, and moving air carries moisture away while discouraging mold formation. Twiggy or stalky herbs (such as rosemary, thyme, and dill) with small leaves that stay separate even when the stalks are bundled together may be hung in bunches from nails or wire. Working with one or two dozen stalks at a time, tie the stems tightly together with string or fasten them together with rubber bands. String may need to be tightened periodically as the stems shrink in drying, while rubber bands will continue to hold as the bundles lose bulk. If possible, hang the bunches of herbs where air reaches them from all sides—from a rafter or ceiling hook, for example, rather than on a wall.
If you don’t have a shaded place in which to hang your herbs, pop a brown paper bag over them. Cut small slits in the bag to admit air. Large-leafed herbs (such as basil or mint) may rot before they dry if they are bundled tightly together. Such herbs will dry more quickly and retain color better if their stems are grouped in small bunches or spread in a single layer on racks or screens, propped so that air can circulate under them. (Avoid using galvanized-metal screens; plant acids may react with the metal to form toxic compounds.)