How To Dry Fresh Herbs At Home
A Rooted In Guide
With the abundance of spring comes the question of how to best store herbs. After all, unless you’re an expert kitchen witch or a culinary master—chances are that even one plant’s worth of material will be more than you need on any given day. So how can you dry herbs at home and store them for later use? We’ll dive into that in this week’s letter.
Why should I dry my herbs?
Drying herbs is quite simply one of the best ways to preserve wildcrafted or harvest plant material for a later date. You also might want to dry herbs before using them in certain herbal preparations.
For example, when making an herbal infused oil, it helps to use dried or lightly dried (“wilted”) plant material rather than fresh1. By eliminating some of the extra water content before infusing your oil, you’re much less likely to run into issues with mold.
How to dry herbs (step-by-step)
Drying herbs is a pretty easy way to preserve your favorite medicinal or culinary herbs and have them on hand throughout the year. Fresh mint tea during a winter snow storm? Yes please. Dried lavender bouquets that are still as fragrant as they were in August? Yup.
Here’s our tried and true guide to drying your favorite garden herbs.
Step 1: Know when to pick them
Having the most potent herbs dried and ready for use in your apothecary all starts with knowing exactly when to pick them. This means understanding when the plant is ready and at its most vital. Do a bit of research on the plants you’re growing and wildcrafting to understand what season of the year is best to harvest. Aerial parts (leaves and flowers) are generally harvested in early spring through late summer, while fruits and berries are plucked later in the season, and roots are dug up in fall or early spring.
Within these generalizations you can often find even more specifics on when to harvest particular plants. For example, nettle leaf should always be harvested in early spring before the plant begins to flower and becomes too fibrous. On the other hand, rose hips (the fruit of the rose) should be harvested in the fall after one or two frosts. There’s a lot of folkloric knowledge out there about the best time to harvest medicinals. So go ahead and dig in.
Step 2: Know how to dry them
Once you’ve determined the best possible time to harvest your favorite medicinal herbs, it’s time to get those babies dried and stored for later use. There are a lot of ways to go about drying your herbs, but here are two of my go-to methods.
Bundled & hanging
This might sound a bit BDSM (and who knows, maybe it is from the plant’s perspective?) but bundling and drying your herbs is by far one of the best and most space-efficient ways to get the job done. Especially if you have a relatively small kitchen like me! This method is also a good choice if you’re drying entire stems of plant material.
Start by picking off any brown or damaged leaves, and then separate out beer-bottle sized bundles of your harvested plant material. Once you have these bundles separated out, grab a few rubber bands* and Jumbo paper clips.
Use the rubber bands to tightly wrap your bundles at the base of the stems. Then take a paper clip and separate the inner portion from the outer portion to create an “S” shape. You can use this homemade hook to hang your herbs on a string or drying rack.
Be sure to provide enough space between your bundles so that they aren’t touching. You’ll also want to select a good spot in your house for drying them— with plenty of ventilation and away from sunlight. Some heat is fine as long as it’s dry. Remember, the goal here is to have preserved herbs (harvested at their most potent time) that are mold-free. Moisture, which can cause mold, or sunlight, which can degrade your herbs, are to be avoided.
*I prefer rubber bands over string since they continue to hold plant material even as it dried and shrinks in size.
Although it’s not quite as space efficient, laying herbs flat to dry is sometimes unavoidable—especially if you’re drying individual leaves, petals, fruits, or berries that can’t be strung up.
Fortunately, a lot of the same principles apply when laying your herbs flat to dry. You’ll want to pick a spot that’s well-ventilated and away from direct sunlight. Having a large table helps, but isn’t absolutely necessary. If space is tight at your place, consider investing in one of these mesh herb drying racks. These collapsible drying racks come in a variety of sizes, and can be hung in just about any corner of your home. I hang mine in our open hall closet behind the fire place where the herbs get lots of dry heat.
Regardless of whether you’re using a mesh rack or a tabletop, you’ll want to lay down some fresh cotton cloth or newsprint paper before spreading out your herbs. This will help keep them clean, make it easier for you to store them, and prevent any smaller pieces from falling and being wasted.
To dry your herbs using this method, you’ll simply want to spread them out on your prepared surface, allowing for some space between each piece. While it might be tempting to create multiple layers of plant material— you’re more likely to wind up with spoiled herbs this way. Keep it simple with one thinly spread layer of material for each surface. If you live in a humid climate, consider spreading them out a little more to allow for better airflow and avoid losing them to mold.
Keep in mind that you might be able to dry certain flowers and leaves by keeping them on their stems and removing them after they’ve dried hanging. I’ve successfully done this with comfrey leaf, mint, and lavender, among others. This is a great way to save space and really conserve your mesh net or table surfaces for those things that truly can’t be hung— like individual berries or flower petals.
Storing your herbs
After a few weeks, your dried herbs should be ready to be stored. When properly stored, dried herbs can last several months or even a year. You’ll be able to tell when they’re dry enough by performing a snap test—simply try to snap the stem/leaf/petal in question. If they break cleanly and easily, they’re ready. If not, give them a bit of extra time.
The best way to store herbs is in sealed glass jars in a cool, dark, dry spot. Cabinets work well for this, but if you have open shelves where your herbs will be exposed to light— consider investing in some amber jars for some extra protection. Label your jars with the name of the plant, as well as the date and location you harvested it.
If you’re short on glassware, clean paper bags will also work well (temporarily), but shouldn’t be used as a long term solution since your dried material will just degrade faster. Food-grade plastic bags are another option— but won’t look nearly as nice on the shelves of your apothecary as glass. Since canning jars can be so expensive, now’s a great time to start saving all those would-be recyclables, like your pickle and jam jars. Wash and sterilize them, remove the labels, and set them aside for your next harvest.
New here? Follow along on Instagram (@rootedintribe) for even more herby goodness.
There are exceptions to this rule—notably the beloved Saint John’s Wort oil that’s become so popular in recent years. Some herbs must be infused fresh to extract their full medicinal value. Be sure to read up on the best extraction methods for each herb in your apothecary.