How to dry herbs from your tasty herb garden

If you’ve ever tried to buy dried or fresh herbs from the grocery store then you know that getting flavor and spice into your frugal family meals can be expensive. With a tiny bottle of dried organic herbs running close to $10 at our local shop, it’s a wonder more people don’t start their own indoor herb garden and dry their own herbs.

Since I love fresh herbs in the summer and dried herbs in the winter, I’ve taken to growing basil, parsley, coriander, chamomile, mint, lemon verbena, and chives for soups (Recipe: Tomato Basil Soup), stews (Recipes: Easy Crock Pot Meals), and homemade herbal teas.

growing herbs herb garden

Anyfrugalspiceoflife, I’d love to share an easy way to dry herbs and spices. I tend to do most of my fruit and herb drying with an inexpensive Nesco Food Dehydrator. I also make frugal snacks using this handy device, like these Easy and Healthy Granola Bars or No Bake Cookies.

1. Getting Started: Growing Herbs

Before you can dry herbs and spices, you’ll need to start a little garden. If you’re tight on space, then consider growing herbs in a container or pot, like what I did in Going to Pot with Container Gardening.

recession garden
Our little recession garden filled with fresh organic herbs and vegetables.

For those with backyard spaces, Getting Dirty with Square Foot Gardening should be super simple. Both square foot and container gardens are great options for those into building a frugal recession garden.

2. Harvesting Herbs

When your fresh herbs have grown, it’s time to get harvesting! Pay close attention to the types of herbs you’ve grown, since the seeds, flowers, leaves, and stems of many herbs can be gathered, dried, and saved for seasoning. Here are a few harvesting herb tips:

Morning harvest: Leaves and stems should be harvested early in the morning, well before the sun’s heat dissipates the herb and spice oils.

mint plant herb growing herbs
Mint leaves almost ripe for an early morning harvest.

Snip at base: Gently snip stems at base, leaving plenty of foliage for the plant to continue growing. The newest leaves at the tip of the plant have the strongest flavor.

basil growing basil
Basil leaves are snipped at the freshest point.

Harvest leaves before flowering: Leaves should be harvested before the plant flowers and while the leaves are still tender. A bitter taste can develop when a plant begins to flower, leaving your herbs less herbilicious. :).

lemon verbena
Lemon Verbena getting lemony for medicinal herbal teas.

Harvest flowers when freshly open: If you’re into medicinal herbs for herbal teas (like Chamomile), you’ll make the best teas from freshly opened buds that are just starting to blossom.

3. Preparing Herbs for Drying

Once you’ve picked, plucked, and harvested your herbs, it’s time to prep them for drying. Here are a few simple steps:

1. Wash gently: Chances are your freshly harvested herbs are a little dingy from your garden. Dirt happens. So gently wash all leaves, flowers, and stems under cool water to remove any dirt or insects. Nobody wants a dried bug in their soup.

herbs medicinal herbs

2. Weed out the weird ones: Remove and compost all blemished, discolored, or dead herb pieces. Learn how to compost without raising a stink!

3. Prepare large herb leaves: Big leafy herbs like basil and sage need a little help to shorten the drying process. I cut my basil into pieces by removing the leaves from the stem and cutting them in half. Place prepared herbs on a dehydrator tray.

medicinal herbs

4. Dry flowers whole: Tiny petals can easily blow away in a dehydrator. So when drying flowers, just wash and separate the petals, removing the unsavory ones.

  • 5. Place herbs, leaves, flowers between a screen: You don’t want your food dehydrator to act like a leaf blower, spewing herbs around the room! So stick a special screen over your leaves, flowers, and pieces to keep them safely secure. Many dehydrators come with this type of screen.
  • how to dry herbs

    herbs organic herbs

    4. Testing Herbs for Dryness

    Drying herbs can take from a few hours up to a full day. Bigger herb leaves like basil can take up to 24 hours, while smaller leaves from thyme can take only an hour to dry.

    Whatever your herb of choice, it’s always a good idea to test your leaves and stems before packaging them for the winter using this crumble test:

    Crumble Test: Herbs are generally dry when they snap and crumble with ease. Stems should be brittle and break when bent. If your herbs don’t crumble under pressure, then keep drying.

    If you’re uncertain about the crumble factor, then stick your herbs in an airtight container for a few days. If condensation develops on the inside of the container, your herbs require more drying.

    5. Packing and Storing Herbs

    Now that all the work is done, it’s time to seal in all herby freshness by
    packing and storing your herbs wisely. Nobody wants decayed or stale herbs, do they?

    dried herbs

    • Packing dried herbs: Air and light are not your friends when it comes to freshly sealing your herbs. Both of these menaces can result in flavor loss, and even insect infestation. Nothing says yummy herbs like an army of ants marching off with your aniseed. To prevent this herb hardship, find yourself a dark jar with an airtight lid — they don’t allow light in! I’ve been using Zip lock freezer baggies for a few years with decent results, but this year I’m trying the jars.
    • Storing dried herbs: Dried herbs, flowers, and spices can last 6-12 months when stored correctly. Store in a cool place, below 60F or 15C to keep flavor freshest. Never crush or grind herbs until ready to use. Crushing exposes more surface area to air and light, leaving you with less flavor.

    5. Using Dried Herbs

    The best part about having organic herbs on hand is using them in your soups, stews, and various other frugal recipes. The trick to cooking with dried herbs is remembering they can be up to 4X stronger than the fresh.

    Most fresh herbs contain around 85% water. So 7.5 ounces of dried herbs may yield only one ounce dried — so be careful when adding that dried basil to your spaghetti sauce. 🙂

    Recipes using fresh or dried herbs:

    More great gardening stories:

    Your Two Cents: Do you grow herbs? How much money do you save?

    Your two cents:

    1. Sherri Kruger March 29th, 2010

      Hey Kerry,

      This is fabulous! I love using fresh herbs in the summer and plant them in the garden. Since we live in Winnipeg we’re out of luck for having them year round unfortunately. This article will come in very handy this year! Thank you.

    2. Jenn @ Frugal Upstate March 30th, 2010

      I grow several of my own herbs each year. I have Chives and Lovage (a celery flavored herb) which are perennials, and then I usually plant basil, parsley and oregano. I’ve been wanting to branch out into some herbal teas-I should find an innocuous spot to plant some mint where I wont care if it goes wild 🙂

      Last year I used an interesting method (and of course blogged about it) for drying my herbs-I used an old window screen laid across the back seat of my car, then parked it directly in the sun for a few days.

      It’s a free herb dryer, and the car smells fabulous for days!

    3. marci357 March 30th, 2010

      I store them inside snack sized ziplocks – but then put all(of the same kind) the small baggies inside an old plastic or glass mayo jar, and that in side the cool canning cupboards. The little bags mean I can just grab one and go, and the rest stay sealed. Just don’t put different bagged herbs in the same jar 🙂

      For fruits, small baggies and then in a tin. Stays even darker.

    4. Chiot's Run March 30th, 2010

      I dry all kinds of herbs, for cooking and for tea. I don’t usually use a dehydrator, I simply hang them in bunches in the laundry room. The more delicate ones like chamomile get set out on a plate until they’re dry. I also grow pots of some herbs inside throughout the winter. Lemon thyme, rosemary, lemon verbena, chives and a few others live around the house in front of various windows.

      Here are some of my herb growing/harvesting adventures:
      http://chiotsrun.com/2009/10/15/harvesting-herbs-for-tea/

    5. Kerry March 30th, 2010

      @Sherri Perhaps start an indoor herb garden! Super easy to do!
      @Jenn Ha! I bet your car smelt minty fresh!
      @marci I use the baggies too, and I love the idea of putting them in a tin. Perfect.
      @Chiot’s Run How long do you have to hang your herbs for? I use the dehydrator out of habit and it’s fast.

    6. Ryan March 30th, 2010

      I love your photos. Feels like spring.

    7. Stacie Shepp August 13th, 2010

      I just hang in my herbs in the window to dry and they add wonderful flavor.

    8. Gaye May 15th, 2011

      Thank you for all the ideas. I dried some lemon thyme last night and it only took a few hours, I was supprised. I like your web sight.

    9. Heather January 14th, 2012

      I grow and dry all my own herbs. I use them year round and give them as gifts to friends and family. I simply wash the herbs, spin the excess water off in the salad spinner, and then put them on paper towels or clean light tea towels in small wicker baskets. I make sure they are completely covered but that there is also lots of air circulation. I place the baskets on the top of my cupboards in my kitchen and leave them there for several weeks. Every so often I give them a little shake. When they are completely dry, I put them in jars with silica gel packets and store in darkness in a drawer. I’ve done it like this for years and they seem to have more flavour than when dried in a dehydrator or oven. They also stay cleaner than if left to dry in the open air.

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