Most herbs for culinary use are ready to harvest just before flowers appear on the plant. If you harvest them after the flowers appear there will be a reduction in flavor.
Do not cut the herbs too close to the ground, if you leave some lower foliage you may be able to get several cuttings during the growing season.
The best time of day to harvest herbs is in the early morning, just as the sun dries the dew from the leaves. The oils are the strongest in the plants at this time. As soon as the herbs have been cut, waste no time in getting them ready for drying. If the foliage is dirty, wash the leaves, then shake off the excess water. The tops and leaves can be picked off heavy-stemmed herbs like basil. This practice shortens the drying time and gives better flavor and color. For herbs like parsley, leave most of the stems on until after drying.
The most common method of drying herbs is also the most picturesque. The mention of herb drying inevitably conjures up images of colorful bunches of herbs hanging from a nail in someone's kitchen. To dry herbs this way, simply gather the herbs and tie them in small bunches. These should be hung in a warm, dark and airy place for about two weeks until they are dry.
A variation of this would be to put each bunch in a perforated paper bag, then hang it up to dry. This method helps prevent the herbs from getting dusty, but will increase drying time by several days. This is a good way to dry the seed heads of coriander, dill and parsley. Gather seed heads in the early stages of ripening, just as seeds turn from green to gray or brown. Harvest them as soon as the dew dries in the morning for maximum flavor.
Another variation of air drying is to take the herb plants apart and spread those parts on screens to dry. A clean old window screen works well. Prop it up to permit the air to freely circulate through the screen. Place it out of direct sun, but avoid damp locations.
The fastest drying method is oven-drying. Heat oven to 150 degrees F or less. Place herbs on sheets of brown paper. Cut some slits in the paper to maximimze air flow through the herbs. Leave the oven door ajar to allow moisture to escape. In three to six hours the herbs should be crispy-crumbly.
Store your dried herbs in an air-tight container, such as a glass jar. Herbs must be thoroughly dry before sealing in jars. Check after a few hours and again after a few days to make sure there is no evidence of moisture in the container. If condensation develops, remove the herbs and dry them further to prevent molding in storage. Leave the herb foliage whole for storage. The flavor is retained longer when whole leaves are stored. Crumble the leaves when you are ready to use them. Keep dried herbs in a dark place. This preserves the natural color. Remember to label all containers before storage, especially if you're a novice herb user. It's hard to tell all those grey-green leaves apart, and you'll have to rely upon knowing the different fragrances of herbs to identify them.
The flavoring strength of a dried herb declines with time and exposure to air and light. Properly stored dried herbs should retain their flavor about a year_just in time for replacement with your new harvest!
Using herbs in the kitchen can transform an everyday, ordinary meal into an exotic experience for your taste buds. Adding herbs creates a spicy, tangy, and refreshing difference in a recipe. In addition to flavoring specific dishes, herbs add small amounts of vitamins and minerals.
KP, WA, entered 1999-12-17