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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Drying Herbs - Part 2

Earlier in the week I talked about air drying herbs by hanging.  That post was originally posted on my One Witch's Wonderland Blog, which I have closed and combined with this one.  When I wrote that post, I only knew of one way to dry herbs, and of course that is what I had wrote about.  But since then, I have found and experimented with a few different methods like drying racks and an electric dryer.  So I wanted to "update" the original post by sharing those methods as well...

Air drying methods date back most likely into pre-history, at least as long as herbs have been used for medicine and consumption.  And they are all fairly simple to master.  If you stick with the hanging method which I discussed earlier this week, the only real "equipment" you need is some string and a dry place to hang them.  But not all herbs do well when hung, so other methods have been developed to enable simple air drying for those herbs which have a fine plant structure or high moisture content...

The first of these methods which I would like to discuss is a "rack" system.  These racks can be purchased, or they can be homemade (such as the one pictured).  I will explore how to make these racks in a future post, today however I would like to simply discuss how to use them.

There are many different types of "drying rack" out there.  Racks may be stand alone, in a "drawer" system or hanging.  All of them however, are simply layers of screen stacked or hung a few inches apart.  This allows air flow to reach herbs from all angles and helps to prevent mold by keeping the herbs separated.
To use ANY of these systems simply clean your herbs (if needed), surface dry them using a salad spinner (or by swinging them in a towel) and laying them in a single layer on the screen.  Do not allow your herbs to touch one another.  And place your rack in a warm, dry area.  Check your herbs often and remove them from the rack as soon as they are dry.  As with the hanging method, thinner herbs such as dill, will dry very quickly, while thicker, hardier herbs like sage or borage will take extra time.

Another "air dry" method which I have seen growing in popularity is solar dehydration, which uses the heat of the sun to dry the herbs.  Solar drying has some benefits, and can be as simple as simply placing your herbs outside under a layer of cheese cloth in the heat of the summer sun. The cheese cloth is needed to prevent herbs from being "burned" by the sun - bleached of color and stripped of their essential oils.  BUT if you live in a moist area or if your herbs/foods have a high moisture content, this method can just as easily lead to mold.  So this isn't generally a great idea for most things and the added work of bringing your herbs inside at night and/or moving them to follow the sun around your property doesn't make this method as simply as it may sound.  If you're one of the few who live in a desert climate and have a property where herbs/foods can be placed in the sun without needing moved, this MAY be a good method for you to try.

However, just because you aren't able to get the simplest method to work for you doesn't mean you have to give up.  Although I have not personally built one, I have come across numerous solar dehydrator plans online, some of which are extremely simple.  All of which allow the heat from the sun's light to be captured and used to accelerate the drying process while protecting herbs from moisture and direct light which may burn them.

As much as I love the idea of being eco-friendly and relying on the sun and air to do the job, I have come to the point where I am finding myself using my electric dehydrator more than anything.   I do this mostly because it's faster than air drying and it allows me to dry large amounts of plant material in a small space.  I DO still hang herbs and flowers from time to time, but whenever I have large bunches, I prefer my dehydrator.

I use the Nesco American Harvest Snackmaster Express but all dehydrators work essentially the same.  Using a fan and a heating element, they pump a continuous flow of hot air in over your herbs.  Each dehydrator is different as far as how to use it, how to set temperatures and how much they can hold.  I suggest, if you do not have a dehydrator, that you do some research before your purchase.  Mine is extremely easy to use, has multiple temperature settings, has inserts for "fine" foods and for making "fruit leather"  and each layer is independent of the rest so you can add or remove them as needed. BUT it has a large foot print and takes up a large amount of space on the counter and cupboards, which is something to consider if you already have limited space.

Using these dehydrators is extremely simple.  You can dry herbs, fruits, vegetables, meats (to make jerky) and even to dry clay.  Simply place your items on/in the internal racks, set the temperature and walk away.  Make sure to check them often and, just like solar and air drying methods, remove them once they are dry to prevent excess loss of essential oils.

The final method I have tried is oven drying.  Like the dehydrator, oven drying uses heat to dry the herbs quickly. But like the dehydrator, it uses energy (electricity or gas) to do so. Unlike the dehydrator though it will heat your home up - which in the winter can be a good thing.  To use your oven for drying you just need some wire "cooling racks" and baking sheets or shallow pans.  Clean your herbs as normal, and place herbs on cooling racks atop or in baking sheets. Ensure your herbs are not over lapping. Turn your oven on low, around 140*F but not higher than 175*F, and place baking sheets in oven until all herbs are dried. Leave the oven door slightly ajar (1-3 inches) to allow proper air flow. Most herbs will dry in 3-4 hours, but it's good to keep an eye on them as (again) thin or fragile herbs dry faster and hardy moist herbs take longer.  You do not want your herbs to remain in the heat any longer than needed as they will become over dry as their essential oils deplete.

With ALL these methods, and any others, you'll want to place dried herbs in air tight containers, with labels, as soon as possible.  If you're using a drying method which uses heat, allow them to cool first.  Then place sealed containers in a cool, dry and dark area (kitchen cupboards are usually good) until used.

All of these drying methods have their pros and cons.  So you may wish to explore more than one method depending on what you're drying, how much and how fast you need it.  I suggest that everyone get comfortable with air drying methods, as you never know if you will be in a position without electricity for a period of time.

Below are some of of what I see as pros and cons for each of the drying methods I've discussed, I hope these help to give you a better view of all your options:

Air Drying - Hanging:
Pros:  Easy to do, Requires NO investment, No Cost, No Energy Use
Cons:  Slowest of the methods (some herbs take 6-8 wks), Mold, Mildew & Insects are a Risk

Air Drying - Rack:
Pros:  Easy to do, Small Investment, No Energy Use
Cons: Slow (some herbs take weeks), Mold, Mildew & Insects are a Risk, Racks Require Space for Use & Storage

Solar Drying:
Pros:  Relatively Quick (drying can take as little as a day), No Energy Use
Cons:  Requires Investment & Assembly, Requires Space for Use & Storage, Insects & Mold may be an issue.

Dehydrator:
Pros:  Easy to use, Easy to clean, Quick (drying can take hours or days)
Cons:  Requires electricity, Investment, Requires Space for Use & Storage, May cause over drying

Oven: 
Pros:  Fastest of the Methods, Little investment (none if you already have baking sheets & wire racks)
Cons:  Heats Home, Requires Energy (electricity or gas), Requires monitoring, Can easily over dry or burn herbs

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