Drying or dehydrating herbs is not so tricky as you might think. But why bother, you ask?
- dried herbs have a longer shelf life than fresh herbs
- infused oils are more reliably made from dried herbs than fresh, due to the lack of water
- many fresh herbs are not available at all or in sufficient quantity year round
There are some basic rules to follow when wildcrafting, harvesting or collecting, and drying herbs for storage. They're mostly common sense, but let's go over them anyway.
- Wildcraft or harvest from a clean place. When wildcrafting (collecting from the wild) or harvesting from a home cultivated crop, be sure to collect herbs that are not at all likely to have been peed or pooped on by a dog or cat. So don't collect red clover tops from the grassy patch next to the path through the village. Chances are, it's not the cleanest.
- Wildcraft or harvest in the morning. The cool of the morning is best, before summer (or desert) sun hits and evaporates some of that goodness out of the plant. Of course, now that I live in England instead of Arizona, cloudy days are sometimes reliable for afternoon harvesting, too. Use your discretion.
- Wash your herbs. The above picture shows a little egg sac attached to the underside of a lemon balm leaf. I often find egg sacs or rows, baby slugs, spiders, caterpillars, in the plants from which I'm collecting. Some can be shaken off, or relocated or disposed of if you don't want slugs in your crop, but the plant still needs washing. I don't stick with the "mm, extra protein" idea when it comes to homemade herbal medicines and remedies!
- Dry your herbs. Before storing in an airtight container -- ziplock plastic freezer bag, plastic tupperware with sealing lid, glass canning jar -- dried herbs will only stay fresh and good if they are properly dried. Sounds obvious, right? Well, I have "dried" herbs before that I thought were properly dehydrated, only to be met with a musty smell of leaf mould when I reopened that jar. One leaf that is not properly dry can lend enough moisture to ruin a batch. Ick.
There are a few different ways you can handle the washing and drying of your herbal ingredients. Largely, this will depend on your climate and humidity, but it will also vary as to the hardness or softness of the herb in question. Basically, what you need to achieve is a fully dry, hard root or berry, or a fully dry, snappable or crushable leaf. You do not have to powder your herbs once dried for storage, and the medicinal values of dried herbs generally last longer if the material is left in a more whole state, but a way I check most leaves and soft herbs for proper dehydration is by powdering a bit in my hand. If I can powder a leaf in my fingers and it isn't at all sticky, it it properly dry.
I like to rinse and spin my herbs in a salad spinner. The centrifugal force pulls a lot of the surface dampness off the plants and helps to reduce drying time. You can pat your plants dry the old fashioned way on a towel if you prefer.
Then, I prefer an electric dehydrating unit. This is my new one, in England. I had a black and white square one in the states that is pictured in my fruit leather post. This one has a heat source on the bottom; the old one had a heat source on the top. It doesn't greatly matter, so long as you can control the temperature for drying. I prefer to dry my herbs between 95 and 115 F, or 40 and 50 C. This temperature and the fan in the electric unit provides a consistent and dry atmosphere for even dehydrating. I did have success in countertop air drying herbs when we were in Arizona, but in England that doesn't work so well. Much more moisture in the air here, and I was disgruntled to ruin an entire bowl of rosehips last autumn before my blessed husband gave me this new electric dehydrator.
Oh, and this ought to go without saying, but sometimes these things don't! One forgets, you know? And by one, I mean me. I learn more by doing than anything else. When you go wildcrafting, take a few essentials along: a basket (for decent air flow and not crushing your harvest), a stout pair of scissors or sharp clippers, and a pair of leather gloves. Reaching through stinging nettles to harvest dock, or through brambles to reach elderflowers, can be a bit tricky barefingered.
Happy harvesting! Do share a pic of your own harvested herbs in the comment section below.