I simply couldn’t imagine life without my herb garden. The abundance this small 4 x 10 foot raised bed lavishes upon me during the warm months is truly astonishing. Not surprisingly, I try to extend the season to the maximum. Every fall I collect fresh herbs to air-dry. I make little bundles of each herb and hang them upside-down, tying each bundle to a hanger. I place the hangers in the guest bedroom, open all the windows and let the dry fall air do its magic. Within a couple of weeks the herbs are ready to use.
It might seem like a very old-fashioned thing to do, but the aroma of air-dried herbs is unsurpassed. And of course the pleasure of using your very own herbs in your recipes makes every effort worthwhile — to me, at least.
Not every herb is suitable for drying, though. Many herbs do not retain their original flavor and spunk once dried. As a rule, annual herbs (parsley, cilantro, basil…) are not suited for air-drying. Perennial herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, winter savory, mint…), with their thicker leaves, are better candidates.
Of course, my dried herb collection wouldn’t be complete without the glorious herbes de Provence. Every time I open my little jar of herbes de Provence I am transported to the sunny, colorful hills of this magnificent land — intoxicating and totally delicious.
Traditionally, the mix of Provençal herbs that make up the famous blend is thyme, oregano, savory and marjoram. Since I am partial to other Provençal herbs, though, my blend is a bit different… (Of course you can make your own blend as well. It’s all the more fun!)
Following are the directions for making Herbes de Provence, as well as some ideas for drying other herbs you may have growing in your garden.
Picking the herbs
The best time of the day to pick herbs is either early morning or dusk. Harvesting mid-day, especially on sunny days, is not a good idea — the herbs wilt and are a bit stressed, and therefore will not have as much fragrance.
Preparing the bundles for drying
Rinse your fresh-picked herbs under cold water, remove all dead or blemished leaves and wrap the herbs in clean, lint-free kitchen towels. Let stand until all the water has been absorbed by the towels. Gather the herbs in small bundles and tie the stems together very tightly, making sure to leave a long piece of string to then tie the bundles to a hanger. Once all your bundles are done, tie them upside-down to the bottom bar of a suit hanger, making sure not to place them too closely to each other so that plenty of air can circulate around each bundle. Place the hangers in a dry, cool, well-ventilated place, away from direct sunlight. The herbs will dry within 1 to 2 weeks depending on the moisture levels in the air (I also like to air-dry hot chili peppers but they might need as much as 4 weeks to dry). The herbs should be completely dry and brittle before you proceed.
Herbes de Provence (my own blend)
Make a bundle of each of the following herbs: rosemary, sage, winter savory, thyme, lemon thyme, oregano and lavender. Rinse, bundle and hang the herbs as described above. Once the herbs are completely dry, crumble the leaves between your fingers or slide your fingers along each stem to dislodge the leaves. Place the lavender blossoms in a separate bowl. Pick out all small twigs and stems that might have ended up in your pile and place all the leaves (except the lavender blossoms) in a medium sieve. With your fingers, gently rub the leaves against the sieve. This will break them evenly as they go through the sieve. Add the lavender blossoms to your herbs. Mix well and place in a glass jar or tin. Store away from light in a cool dry place and use within 4 to 6 months.
Bronze fennel seeds
Bronze fennel is a magnificent herb and a cousin of the culinary fennel we know so well. This perennial herb is not grown for its bulbs, however, but rather for its fragrant foliage and its seeds.
To harvest the fennel blossoms, wait until the seeds are fully developed, but have not turned dark brown yet. They should be a pale-silvery color. Cut the blossoms with 10″ worth of the stems. Rinse, bundle and hang the fennel blossoms as described above. Once completely dry, the seeds will be dark brown and the stems brittle. Pull the seeds off their stems. The smaller seeds will come off easily just by rubbing them between your fingers. The larger seeds, however, will be well attached to their stems and will need to be pulled off. Pick out all small twigs and stems that might have ended up in your pile and place the fennel seeds in a fine sieve. Shake well to remove any dust or small particles. Place the fennel seeds in a glass jar or tin. Store away from light in a cool dry place and use within 4 to 6 months.
Hot peppers dry beautifully and spike up many recipes. They are a staple in my pantry and I use them all year long.
Pick peppers that are fully mature and firm, with at least 1″ of their stems still attached. Rinse, pat dry and tie each pepper stem to a string, not too closely together (see picture above). I do not grow too many of these so I don’t make the traditional clumps. Whatever technique you use, make sure to leave room around each pepper for good airflow. Once the peppers are completely dry and brittle, remove stems and crush the peppers between your fingers. I recommend you wear gloves for this task. Place the pepper flakes in a glass jar or tin. Store away from light in a cool dry place and use within 1 year.
Mint, lemon balm and lemon verbena
These herbs make for the most aromatic infusions and teas all winter long!
Rinse, bundle and hang the herbs as described above. Once the herbs are completely dry, slide your fingers along each stem to dislodge the leaves, or pluck leaves from their stems. Pick out all small twigs and stems that might have ended up in your pile and place the leaves whole in a glass jar or tin. Store away from light in a cool dry place and use within 4 to 6 months.