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Picking, drying and preserving herbs — here's how it works

Summer: rosemary, thyme and co. exude an intensive aroma on the balcony. Winter: depressing absence of smell. The solution is to dry herbs. Because this means you can preserve the Mediterranean freshness and continue to season your dishes right into winter. But you can use them in other ways, too.

Herbs the whole year round

Your joyful balcony herb oasis won't last forever. When the summer draws to an end, your herbs wilt and you have to resort to buying (usually less aromatic) varieties from the supermarket. Or step in at the right time and dry your herbs. If you do it right, you can capture the full intense flavour of the herbs. Because through the slow drying process, the heat-sensitive essential oils, to which we owe the unique aroma of laurel, oregano, dill and so on, are preserved in the best way possible. You can also preserve your herbs in oil or put them in salt. But more on that later.

Harvesting herbs — the right time

Of course before you can dry your herbs, you have to pick them first. The right timing is crucial here. Timing varies depending on the herb. It is best to harvest the bulk of herbs before the flowering stage, because that's when the ingredients and flavours are particularly valuable. This is the case for sage, rosemary and hyssop, for example. But there are some exceptions. Savory and oregano remain aromatic even after they have bloomed.

Always harvest your Mediterranean herbs on sunny days. Cold and damp really diminish the aroma of the plants. The best time to get to work is after the morning dew, when the leaves are dry once more and the midday heat is yet to come. Cut the stems with a sharp knife or scissors and remove yellowed leaves. Sometimes insects hide between the branches so you should give the branches a good shake before continuing to work with the herbs. If there is dust or dirt stuck to the plant, carefully rinse it away then pat the plant dry. Alternatively you can carefully clean the herbs with water the day before picking; try using the fine spray of a garden hose. The leaves will have dried again by harvesting day and it won't be necessary to clean them again.

Drying herbs — here's how it works

There are several ways to preserve herbs. The most common method is to dry them. Not a problem, put the plant in the oven? Stop! Huge mistake. Your herb might dry faster, but it will taste of nothing. So opt for the slow-drying process. It is best to hang the small-leaved species such as thyme and lavender to dry. Remove the lower leaves from the stem base, bundle up four to six branches and tie them with raffia or string. Hang the bundle up in an airy and as dark a place as possible. Blazing sun and draughts will have a negative impact on the aroma. If you can't find a suitable place, protect the bundles by putting each of them in a paper bag, put a few holes in the bag and hang the bags up. This way, no UV-light will get to the stem and the bags will catch the dried leaves.

For large-leaved species such as sage and laurel, picking the leaves and placing them to dry on a kiln will suffice. A wooden frame makes a good underlay which you cover with gauze tissue or wire mesh. After no more than two weeks, if the parts of the plants break easily and crumble between your fingers, your herbs are dry.
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Storing herbs correctly

There's still work to be done. You should store the herbs accordingly so that you can enjoy of the intense aroma of your herbs for a long time. If you want to use the herbs for seasoning or for herbal teas, it's best to wrap them in paper and stow them in a dark drawer or a dry, dark pantry. Or keep the dried herbs in air-tight and opaque glass or porcelain containers. Plastic containers are usually less suitable because they have a distinctive odour which can affect the aroma of the herbs.

Freezing herbs instead of drying them

Not all aromatic plants lend themselves to being dried. Basil, chives, dill, coriander leaf, parsley, tarragon and chervil, for example, lose a great deal of their inimitable fragrance when dried. No need to despair, because you can freeze the plants as well. Here's a quick run-through of the process: wash the herbs, pat them dry and chop them up finely. Then spread them out on a tray before putting the tray in the freezer. Later, when the herbs are frozen, place them in practical freezer bags or containers.

If you would like to use the herbs for sauces, stews and soups, it's worth preparing herb ice cubes. To do this, place the chopped herbs in ice cube trays, pour in water and store the trays in the freezer. When the cubes are frozen, pop them into appropriate storage containers. Now you can simply stir the practical cube into warm dishes when cooking.

Placing herbs in oil or vinegar

You can also place your herbs in oil or vinegar in order to be able to enjoy them in winter. The aromatic flavourings diffuse through the oil or vinegar over time. This old method of preservation is suitable for herbs such as tarragon, rosemary, lemon balm, thyme, dill and hyssop. Note: Take 100 grams of herbs that have been carefully washed and patted dry and add them to one litre of vinegar (such as wine vinegar) or oil (such as olive oil or safflower oil). First add the herbs to the bottle and then pour over the liquid. The liquid should completely cover the herbs and the bottle should be sealed air-tight. Then place the herb mixture on a sunny window sill and give the contents a good shake once a day.

  • Herb vinegar is ready to use after two to three weeks,
  • herb oil is ready to use after four to six weeks.

Now you just need to filter out the liquid using a gauze cloth and a large funnel. The herbal elixir keeps in a tightly sealed bottle for a good year. 

Making home-made herbal salt

Salt is also an ideal herb preserver. Refine your salt with dried herbs such as lovage, parsley and tarragon. Mix the herbs at a ratio of 1:1 with sea salt and pour the contents into dark screw-top jars. Opening the containers after a certain amount of time releases the smell of summer. Hand-made herbal salt also makes a nice gift for family and friends.
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