Harvest season is upon us, and it is one of my favorite times of the year! Summer’s heat starts to fade, and the crisp fall air is so incredibly refreshing. And, when you have a workshare on a farm, have your own garden, or have access to a farmer’s market, you get to harvest and preserve all of your dirt-fresh produce for the winter months to come!
Dehydration is one of my favorite ways to preserve food (see how I do it with fruit in this post.) It is super simple, fairly hands-off, and dehydrated products have an incredibly long shelf life. Adding the fresh tastes of summer’s abundance to winter dishes when local, in-season produce is hard to find is a great way to kick up the flavor of your autumn and winter cooking as well as adding a local ingredients to your DIY loose leaf tea blends! One easy way to do this is preserving fresh herbs like sage, peppermint, and chives (plus so many more.)
Tools You’ll Need
Successful dehydrating is based on four principles: time, temperature, air flow, and quality of ingredient preparation. Because technology has come such a long way since humans first started dehydrating food, a lot of the guess work has been taking out of the process and we have some wonderful kitchen appliances to help! Before anything else you’ll need a dehydrator, mine is a giant 9 tray Excalibur dehydrator that is super high end (and a bit pricey) but there are SO many different options to choose from, from the super small counter top dehydrators, a great sized medium variety or the industrial ones like mine. These dehydrators often have preset timers and temperatures that can make life easy, however, if you don’t have one in your arsenal, a timer, your oven, and drying racks can suffice.
Now, with herbs there are so many beautiful pictures of herb bundles hanging upside down from the rafters of warm, low light, breezy spaces. And while drying herbs like this can work, in my experience, I have noticed that mindfully dehydrated herbs retain more taste and a color and have less of a chance of spoiling. Think about it in the same way as produce that is flash frozen versus just being popped into the freezer- the less time you need to produce something the fresher it will taste!
Preparation for herbs is very simple, with the exception of rosemary and chives, all you need to do is snip the leaves off of any woody stems (for rosemary, keep the leaves intact and chives snip off the woody end and into pieces) and place the leaves in a single layer on your drying rack- in a dehydrator’s case the mesh shelves. Unlike fruit, you don’t need to add any acid to make sure the color stays. However, some herbs like the different types of basil and peppermint will brown a bit in the drying process and that is completely okay. With some very fragile herbs, like dill or thyme, you might want to pop a non-stick dehydrator sheet on the top of the drying rack so you don’t lose any herbs due to air flow!
Temperatures and Times
When it comes to herbs, the ideal temperature for drying is around 100 degrees which is the lowest temperature used for dehydrating any food. This is because herbs are heat sensitive- they are incredibly thin, can lose their color and taste easily, and when left unattended can spoil (RIP the extra cilantro in the fridge from making guacamole.) However, that being said, when you intentionally dry them they hold up really well.
When it comes to the number of hours needed to dry herbs it varies based on thickness and water content. Dill leaves, because of how small they are, have on of the quickest drying times- about 8-10 hours, mint and basil are on the opposite side of the spectrum, at about 18 hours each. Don’t try to quicken the process by setting the heat higher! When you increase the heat you can dry the external surface area quicker and it will create a barrier, keeping the rest of the water in. I most definitely do not have all of the drying times memorized- I keep my favorite dehydrator book on hand, The Dehydrator Bible, to look up the drying time!
You’ll know when your herbs are ready when they are dried completely through, and you can crumble them in your fingers. But don’t crumble them all! Storing the leaves whole and then crumbling them when you’re ready to cook preserves their freshness!
Let your dehydrated herbs cool completely before popping them into airtight storage container (I use mason jars or Weck jars.) Dehydrated foods don’t have a definite use-by date, and they generally maintain their freshness essentially indefinitely if stored correctly. Exposure to moisture, air, heat, and sunlight can all adversely affect your stored goods. So keep them in a cool, dark space and you are good to go. Also, time can be a factor- the longer your store something the less flavor it will have!
Dehydrated herbs can be used from everything from cooking (try these beet chips!) to loose leaf tea! I’d love to know what you like to dehydrate! Let me know in the comments below. Also, don’t forget to check out my Dehydrator Basics: Fruit post and my dehydrated veggies post coming soon!
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I like to preserve herbs for autumn/winter period, but I usually dry them naturally. Natural drying makes herbs brown, but herbs that are dehydrated in the dehydrator remain green.