If you’ve ever been to a really good Italian restaurant, or if you’re lucky enough to have an Italian chef in your circle of friends, you’ll know the power and importance of using good herbs. I think we can all agree that there is a certain extra pleasure provided by well-seasoned dishes compared to ones without such carefully matched herbs and spices (I’m trying to carefully avoid using the word ‘bland’ here…) Whilst it’s not only Italians who value and respect the art of seasoning, it was they who have inspired the routine use of oregano, thyme and rosemary in kitchens all over the world. The smell of fragrant oils released when the various herbs are crushed between your fingers can bring the darkest, coldest autumn evenings back to the sunny feel of the summery garden, and transform an average meal into a work of art. There is a catch though – to get the best out of them, you need to search for herbs that were grown and dried in the proper ways. Or do it yourself!
You can see the difference with your own eyes; when taking a stroll down the aisles in the supermarket pay attention to the colour of herbs on the shelves. If their natural colour during their growing life is lush green, but when packed tightly in a jar they’re pale- straw colour, then avoid putting them in your basket as you won’t be getting a quality deal. What we want from our meal is to be full of flavour, which partly comes from the essential oils gathered in the plant. As well as flavour, these bring medicinal qualities to our meals, so it would be a shame to miss them out. The process of drying is extremely important, as these compounds are really versatile and easy to destroy when not handled well.
Why dry your own herbs?
The main idea of preserving through drying is to retain as many active ingredients as we can. Herbs like lemon balm, peppermint, thyme, savory (not just the opposite of sweet, but also a rosemary-like herb), oregano, marjoram, hyssop and sage have to be dehydrated below 35°C to keep their smell and colour. Higher temperatures and direct sunlight cause the delicate oils to evaporate, leaving pale, lifeless plant matter and no flavour behind.
If you’re growing herbs in your garden, there’s still time for one last cut before the cold weather sends the plant into winter dormancy. Herbs are best cut in dry weather, ideally a day or two after the rain so there’s no dust or dirt on them. Excess moisture on cut stems can bring problems with mould during the drying process. Gather cut stems in small bunches, tie a string around the base and hang them upside down in a warm, dark, airy spot; an airing cupboard, warm kitchen or an attic space is often a spot-on design for this task. It’s important to allow the air to move freely between the delicate leaves and stems, drying them evenly. It may be tempting to hang your bunch in a sunny window to speed things up, but the direct sun and the heat will deplete your precious harvests fast, so opt for a slow and delicate process. If you have pets or are in the middle of a house refurbishment that may bring extra dust into the space, protect your harvests and keep them behind closed doors, so your lasagne doesn’t accidentally have an extra ingredient you haven’t planned for. Although as a furry cat owner myself I have accepted defeat in this department many years ago!
How to dry herbs
Depending on the volume of your bunches and drying conditions, it may take anything from a couple of days to a couple of weeks to have a crispy, fragrant end product. You can strip the leaves from the stems and store the herbs in airtight containers – glass jars are ideal for this. As when drying, now also keep your containers out of direct sunlight to preserve the product for longer. Essential oils in plants are often stored in glandular hairs and are released every time these structures are broken down. Therefore if you’re storing, say, mint or oregano leaves, keep them whole until you need to use them, as they will be more fragrant.
How to use your dried herbs
Home grown herbs are not only useful in cooking, but can also be used as teas or in baths. Oregano and marjoram for example, contain antiseptic thymol and it has been noticed that it acts as an anti-inflammatory agent in the mouth, which makes it useful as an organic mouth wash. Oregano’s flavonoid and phenolic compounds are known to ease off the dry coughs, so sipping it as a tea or using in a hot bath may be beneficial to us during winter months.
If you’re lucky enough to have an abundance of fresh herbs throughout the summer, dry them and come autumn time, prepare home-made presents for your loved ones. Simple jars with dried herbs, bath salts or blends of organic tea are, in my opinion, a far superior present to another pair of socks or a gift card. In times when a lot of our food supply is dependent or large scale producers – who often cutting corners, decreasing quality – we all need to insure our food sovereignty and drying herbs is a great way to start.
About the Author
Martyna is an organic grower passionate about food and sustainability.
Through her work at Incredible Aquagarden she taught urban farming and permaculture techniques to students of all ages.
She believes the status quo of the traditional agriculture should be challenged and improved. The awareness of simple and effective practices should be dominant in the future of food sovereignty, supporting biodiversity and empowering communities in a sustainable way.