And although rue is not as common as it was in Shakespeare’s time (the bitter little herb causes stomach upset in many people), the availability of herbs in winter is just as attractive as ever.
But for those of us who don’t live in mild climates, there is another way to preserve the flavor of summer. Drying select herbs (and some spices) will not only save you money, it also increases the quality and quantity of your culinary herbs. But a word of caution before you begin: not all herbs dry well. Some lush and aromatic herbs become little more than tasteless dust when desiccated. Below are some choice herbs whose flavor and aroma remains true after the drying process. Also included are some helpful tips for a successful harvest once you have decided on your favorites.
Ten Culinary Herbs for Drying
Sweet Marjoram (Origanum majorana)
Another favorite of Shakespeare’s (mentioned in A Winter’s Tale), is sweet marjoram, a delicious culinary herb with a distinctive flavor that pairs well with chicken or fish. The plant is a close relative of oregano (Origanum vulgare), and in some countries, the two are considered interchangeable. When cooked fresh at high temperatures, sweet marjoram loses its flavor easily, but preserve the little leaves by drying and you will have captured its essence for months to come. A tender perennial in the garden, marjoram also comes in cold-hardy varieties (such as French marjoram—which is taxonomically closer to oregano). Start marjoram from seed, cuttings, or buy a plant for instant gratification.
Mint (Mentha spp.)
There are more than a dozen species of mint and estimates vary depending on the source. With names like “banana mint,” “macho mint,” and even “Kentucky colonel mint,” you can see that mint is a plant that hybridizes easily. The three best mints for culinary use include good old peppermint (Mentha piperita), spearmint (Mentha spicata), and the less common applemint (Mentha suaveolens). All dry well and hold a sweet, delicate flavor that enriches desserts, teas, and savory dishes. Chocolate mint is also another favorite for drying. Easy to grow in a variety of challenging conditions, (including full shade—although sunshine and rich soil will produce a better flavor), this plant multiplies by runners and often has invasive habits. Confining your mint to a small raised bed or pot is a good rule of thumb.
Thyme (Thymus spp.)
Another herb with multiple varieties (over one hundred kinds of thyme exist—and counting), thyme is a small, vibrant green plant with a rich distinctive fragrance. Its uses date back to ancient Egypt, where thyme was used as an embalming ingredient, but it remains a mainstay of cooking today. Soups, stews, meat, and fish dishes can all benefit from thyme’s earthy seasoning. But with so many options available, it’s easy to choose the wrong variety. Some species are intended for landscaping (e.g. woolly thyme) and lack the flavor needed for drying.
Culinary favorites include lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus), an evergreen that produces small, delicate flowers; caraway thyme (Thymus herba-barona), another evergreen; and French, English, or common thyme (Thymus vulgaris), an essential ingredient in dishes featuring ‘herbes de Provence’ or ‘bouquet garni’. Thyme is easily cultivated using cuttings or purchased plants and will last for many years depending on the variety.
Lovage (Levisticum officinale)
Lovage has an illustrious history as a culinary herb in Europe. Many have prized its versatility—the leaves, roots, and seeds all have culinary uses—though it is less frequently used today. Still, the pungent aroma of dried lovage leaves is an excellent addition to soups, stocks, and stews, akin to celery. The perennial is also easy to grow and adds height (four to six feet!) to your edible landscaping. If you are lucky enough to find a friend with a lovage plant, ask for a small division when growth first appears in spring. You can also grow lovage from seed with little effort, though it will take longer to reach full height.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
One of the few herbs that tastes better when dried, oregano is familiar to most people as a mainstay of Italian cooking. Pairing nicely with basil, parsley, or paprika (the latter in Turkish cuisine), oregano is a prolific producer of deep green leaves ideal for drying. The long stems are easily harvested, hung, and stripped, and the plant grows almost anywhere. Although not as aggressive a mint, oregano does well confined to a large pot to prevent its infiltration of multiple garden beds. Grow oregano from seed, or better yet, find a friend with a plant division—there is usually someone willing to split up a thriving oregano plant.
French Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa)
Well-known for its anise flavor, French tarragon is a popular ingredient in flavored vinegars, and adds a subtle licorice taste to salad dressings, meat dishes, and soups. The important thing to remember about this plant is that many people confuse the culinary variety noted here with its less flavorful Russian cousin (Artemisa dracunculus)—even nursery growers. If you are looking for the real thing, be sure to taste the leaves. The only way to propagate the plant is through cuttings or root divisions. Real French tarragon produces sterile flowers, so it cannot be grown from seed.
Sweet Bay Laurel (Laurus Nobilis)
Sweet bay is the only herb listed here that grows to the height of 15 feet. Classified as an evergreen shrub or tree, sweet bay can easily be pruned into a variety of shapes and sizes, and makes a nice ornamental container plant. Used commonly in Mediterranean cuisine, sweet bay leaves add an earthy aroma and flavor to soups, stews, slow-cooked meats, and pasta dishes. The leaf is sharp-edged and stays that way, so people usually remove them after cooking. Ground to a fine powder, however, the dried leaves are safe to ingest. Start sweet bay from a plant, but be sure to purchase the culinary variety. Like other herbs listed here, the bay laurel comes in many versions.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
‘Doth not rosemary and Romeo begin both with a letter?’ Juliet’s nurse asks Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The herb of choice for more than a few playwrights and deities (Aphrodite wore rosemary when she ascended from the sea for the first time), rosemary is a drought-tolerant, perennial herb used in cooking and landscaping. The needle-like leaves resemble a coniferous shrub, and in milder climates, will stay on the plant year round. In those regions where winter rosemary isn’t possible, harvested leaves dry very well, holding their flavor well into the spring. Rosemary’s fresh aroma is an excellent addition to meat, stews, stuffings, and roast vegetables.
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
The plant that produces coriander seed has many benefits. Not only does it self-seed easily and emerge early when spring comes along, it also provides the fresh herb known as cilantro or Chinese parsley. Possessing a strong astringent flavor some people liken to soap or lime, fresh cilantro is a mainstay in Latin American foods, particularly salsas. Popular opinion suggests it has chelation properties, helping to rid the body of heavy metals when eaten in large quantities. Whatever the case, the plant goes to seed quickly and sets multiple stalks abundant with coriander. Harvesting takes place after the seed heads begin to turn brown. Trim drying seed heads from stalks and place in a paper bag until fully dried. At this point the seeds should fall from the plant, leaving you with a fragrant harvest.
Sage (Salvia officianalis)
Perhaps best known for its aromatic addition to poultry seasoning, sage is another herb available in multiple varieties. Dried since ancient times for culinary and medicinal use, sage plants attract bees if left to flower. Sage also grows well in a variety of conditions, thriving in average to poor soil and resisting drought when mature. Although purchased plants will produce a quick harvest, you can also propagate sage plants, start from seed or cuttings rooted in damp sand. The most common variety for drying is the one listed here, though pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) is another alternative.
Growing herbs is no more challenging than growing vegetables, but watering schedules will be different. A separate garden bed for herbs works well, and herbs also make decorative plantings along the edges of perennial flower and shrub beds. Or you can grow herbs in a herb planter designed for this purpose.
Tips for Harvesting and Drying Culinary Herbs
- When to Harvest: When harvesting herbs for their foliage, the best concentration of oils is available after the flower buds have appeared but before they open. If you can’t sit around waiting for your herbs to flower, harvest as soon as they reach their full height. Some plants, like oregano and mint will send up flower stalks—a telltale sign they are getting ready to bloom. Others, like rosemary, sweet bay, lovage and sage, can withstand multiple harvests, so waiting for flower buds isn’t necessary. The time of day is also important. Once your plants have reached maturity, pick them in the morning after the dew has dried. Essential oils are at their peak, and the more oils present, the more flavor available for preservation.
- How Much to Harvest: Snip off the top six inches of stem. Many people prefer to discard flower buds before drying if present. If your herbs are clean, there is no need to wash them and getting them wet at this stage isn’t recommended.
- How to Prepare Herbs for Drying: Tie stems into bundles with string, thin wire, or elastic, and hang upside down in a warm, dry place out of the sun. (Sunlight will discolor herbs and reduce their quality.) One way to prevent dust settling on your herbs is to place the foliage portion in paper bags punched with holes. This can also reduce UV damage if your drying area is flooded with sunlight. Remember that as your herbs dry, their stems will shrink. You may need to tighten string or other materials periodically so the herbs don’t fall down.
- Other Ways to Dry Culinary Herbs: Drying herbs on window screens laid horizontally or in a low temperature dehydrator work well, particularly for herbs that are quick to mold, such as mint, or smaller sprigs and flowers that can’t be tied in a bundle. Distribute evenly across the flat surface so none of the foliage overlaps.
- Determining Readiness: Your herbs are ready when they feel brittle and crumble easily. That’s when you can remove leaves from remaining stems, crush to a desired size, and place in containers—to enjoy all year long.