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.
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.
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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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?
- 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?