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Drying Your Own Fresh Herbs: Cost-cutting and ConvenientBy Vicki McClure Davidson
If you have an herb garden or buy fresh herbs at the farmers' market or grocery store or health food store, drying them preserves them for future use. Not only is this convenient, but it is decidedly frugal because fresh herbs have short life spans. Nothing is sadder than reaching into your fridge to withdraw that lovely bunch of cilantro you bought last week, only to have it be slimy, blackened, or otherwise on death's doormat.
A lamentable mess and a direct hit to the family's food budget. Waste not, want not...
Buying dried herbs from the store can cost a great deal more than drying them yourself, especially if you have an inexpensive resource to get the herbs, such as your own garden or that of a friend.
Harvesting Your Herbs
If you grow your own herbs, there are a few pointers about harvesting them that you should know, if you don't already.
The best time to harvest herbs is during a rainy evening when everything is still wet, but before the sun beats down and draws out the herbs' volatile oils. Late morning is usually a good time as well for harvesting. In arid climates, like the southwestern part of the U.S., rainfall is not a frequent occurence, so watering them in the evening and harvesting in the morning is a good plan. Herbs picked under these conditions will retain their flavor longer and are less prone to developing mildew.
Once you have harvested your herbs, or bought them from the grocer, there are several methods you can use to dry them.
Air drying works well for robust, thick herbs such as dill, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sage. While delicate herbs, like parsley, basil, tarragon, and cilantro, can be air dried, you need to give them more attention because they are inclined to bruising and mildew. Be gentle when working with the fragile leaves and stems. Fragile herbs should to be checked frequently for the presence of mold.
To air dry your fresh herbs, first snip the herbs in small bunches. Gently wash them, shaking each bunch to remove insects and dead leaves. Remove any damaged leaves by hand.
Gather the branches by their stems and tie them with string into bunches of four or five branches. Be careful not to tie the string so tightly so as to cause damage to the stems, as broken stems encourage mold growth.
Hang the bunches upside down in a warm, dry, dark, well-ventilated area. The ideal temperature for drying is around 68 deg F/20 deg C. You can use an indoor clothes line, clothes hangers hung from a rod, J-hooks from the ceiling, or even wrap the string of the herb bunches over push pins or tacks in a bulletin board.
If you do not have a dark spot in the house, you can tie paper lunch bags over each bunch and poke a few airholes in the bag. This has the additional bonus of keeping dust and bugs off them.
If your herbs must be up against a wall while hanging, be sure to turn them every few days to allow uniform drying.
Leave the herbs to air dry for 1 to 3 weeks. If after checking them, you're unsure as to whether they are completely dry or not, leave them hanging for a few more days before checking again.
Your herbs will be sufficiently dry when they are crumbly to the touch.
When they are completely dried, remove the herbs from their stems. Discard any bunches that contain mold. Store in an air-tight container or zippered plastic bag in a cool, dark place.
Heat drying works best with those fragile herbs that may not survive air drying without turning moldy. While there are many dehydrating machines on the market that use heat to dry food, using your oven is just as effective.
To dry your fresh herbs using your oven (a toaster oven also works well), preheat it to 150 degrees.
Remove leaves from stems. Snipping with scissors or a kitchen knife is best, because the cut will be clean and precise. Discard the stems and any parts that show signs of mold or damage.
You can also dry celery leaves, carrot greens, and other flavorful greens in this manner. Carrot greens have historically been refered to as "poor man's parsley."
Rinse leaves under cold water and gently but completely dry with paper towels. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Spread the herbs over the baking sheet in a single layer, making sure that they don't overlap.
Bake the herbs until they are completely dry and crumbly, approximately 40-45 minutes. Remove them from the oven and let them cool completely. Store in air-tight containers or zippered plastic bags, in a cool, dark place. They freeze well for months, if properly protected.
Towel drying is another effective, although not as well-known, drying method for herbs. Lay a clean kitchen towel on the counter top. Lay another clean towel on top of this.
Snip the washed leaves of the herbs off their stems and arrange them in rows on half of the towel. Lay another kitchen towel, folded in half, over the leaves. Add another layer of leaves and bring the other half of the first two towel layers to cover this.
Leave the bundle of towels and herbs to dry for about 2 to 3 days, depending on leaf thickness. They will be suitably dry when you can crumble a leaf in your hand. When dry, place in a zippered plastic bag, plastic container, or glass jar for storage.
Some more tips and methods for drying your own herbs, from Expert Village.
Expert Village: Basic Gardening Tips: How to Collect & Dry Herbs from Garden
Expert Village: Organic Herb Gardening Tips: How to Dry Fresh Herbs
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How to Do Things website; (http://www.howtodothings.com/food-and-drink/a1748-how-to-dry-fresh-herbs.html).
Larsen, Linda, About.com Busy Cooks, "Get the Most Out of Dried Herbs,", (http://busycooks.about.com/od/quicktips/qt/usedriedherbs.htm).
WikiHow website; (http://www.wikihow.com/Preserve-Herbs).