Preserving Garden Herbs for Year-round Use

Preserving Garden Herbs for Year-round Use

Jack Nutter explains how to clip herbs carefully, as the first step in the drying process.

Jack Nutter explains how to clip herbs carefully, as the first step in the drying process. Photos contributed

Many fresh garden grown herbs can be preserved and used year round by drying the herbs by air, in the oven, in special dehydrators or a microwave. In addition, some herbs may be frozen or put in oil for future use.

This is about air dying.


Jack Nutter, the avid gardener, with his wife Maggie McNeil, a superb cook, with herb plants, just-cut herb clippings, a hanging rack for drying and bottles of the dried herbs to smell the presence of the herbal oils in the dried leaves.

Harvest herbs from the garden. Use strong scissors or shears to snip the herbs. If the herbs are perennial (survive the winter) cut the stems at the base of the plant. Other herbs can be entirely pulled out at the roots. Cut all herbs used for drying in a way that leaves them with long stems.

Make sure the harvest is before they flower in order to maximize flavor.

Wash dirty herbs carefully. Use a gentle water spray to wash off dirt and dust. Pat them with a paper towel or shake dry to prevent mildew. Place them on rolled out newspaper to dry for several days, making sure to change the paper a few times to eliminate moisture, turn the herbs over to maximizing drying.

Dry carefully and thoroughly.

After initially drying the herbs in the open air for 2-3 days to get rid of all surface moisture, prepared for the final drying stage.

Less tender herbs: The more sturdy herbs such as rosemary, sage, thyme, summer savory and parsley are the easiest to dry and can be dried flat in the open. However, It is best to tie them into small bundles and hang them upside down in a cool, dry place. However, to protect the herbs better results are obtained in most cases if the herbs are placed in a bag or cone. Better color and flavor retention usually results from drying indoors.

Tender-leaf herbs: Basil, oregano, tarragon, lemon balm and the mints have high moisture content and will mold if not dried quickly. Hanging the tender-leaf herbs inside paper bags to dry. Tear or punch holes in the sides of the bag. Suspend a small bunch (large amounts will mold) of herbs in a bag and close the top with a rubber band.

In place of a bag, use newspaper to form an open-end cone. Twine and string makes hanging and bundling simple. The opening at the bottom provides airflow and makes it easier to check the pace of drying.

Leave the herbs to dry for 1-3 weeks. Check them every now and then to see how they are drying—thicker stemmed herbs will take longer. Check to see if the consistency has become crumbly by rubbing a leaf between two fingers. If they crumble, they are ready to be taken down.

Remove the leaves by stripping them off the stems and bottle them in airtight glass jars. Do not use metal containers for storage because they will adversely react with the herbs.

Pick out any fluff, woody pieces, stems and other foreign material as you remove the leaves. You can keep the leaves whole or crush them in your fingers to make a really fine ground mix for cooking. The finer the ground, the quicker the flavor is diminished over time. Label the jar and date it. Store the herbs for up to one year.

A special note for basil: It can be combined with oil, grated hard cheese and nuts to make a variety of pestos that can be stored in the freezer for months.

Other tips

Frozen herbs will not ever work as a garnish—they're only good for cooking.

If you want to cut the herbs twice in one season, only harvest small amounts for the first harvest. This will leave energy for the herbs to grow through to the last harvest, which should be more bountiful.

Dried herbs are more potent that fresh. As a rule of thumb, one teaspoon of dried herb equals one tablespoon of fresh herb. Don't overdo dried herbs as too much will change or even ruin the entire dish.

The best time to harvest is before the sun beats down and draws out the volatile oils. Late morning is usually good so the herbs will retain their flavor longer and are less prone to mildew problems.

Herbs used for their leaves are best picked before flowering because they contain the maximum amount of volatile oils prior to blossoming.

Prepared by Jack O. Nutter for the Great Falls Farmers Market, July 2013.