Saturday, August 6, 2011

Herb Drying

I like to grow herbs in my garden, but I find that I (almost) never get around to using them fresh.  (Partly because my garden is a few blocks away from where I live.)  So, in order to get maximum value from my herbs, I must dry them so I can use a little whenever I want to - in pasta, on potato stuff, (meat) sauce, dips, etc.

Last year I learned the art of oven drying my herbs.  You put your herbs into an oven at about 200 degrees Fahrenheit - or perhaps, after your cooking, you put in a pan of herbs and let them dry using the "leftover heat" while your oven cools down..  The latter option has the benefit that it uses what is otherwise waste heat/energy to accomplish something.  However, 1) it ties up a pan or two until you're done drying (if it takes multiple drying sessions), 2) it requires you to remember that you've still got those herbs to dry, 3) if the initial heat is high, you risk blackening the herb slightly and generally lowering the quality of your dried herbs.

There's another source of undesired heat that can be put to good use instead.  Your car - the one you have to park in the sun while you're at work.  Don't put sun blocking contraptions in the way, don't park under a tree, don't leave your windows rolled down part way:  put your herbs in there.  Even if it makes it to 50 °C (about 120 °F), that's plenty low enough for your herbs to be safe from serious flavour damage.  I suppose any container will do, but I have mainly used a box made of ripped 2x4s and covered with nylon screen material on bottom and sides.  If you want to one up that plan, put a cover or lid on top and you can dry the herbs outside in the sun too - safe from guano bombs.

Two shots of drying herbs - dill and parsley, respectively, or maybe just parsley:

Sweet Basil:

I've also dried a bit of mint this year, but I don't have a  picture to prove it.

It's a good idea to stir the stuff up a bit every day or two to make sure there are no areas that remain moist in the heat too long as this will promote the growth of bacteria.  By the end of 3 to 5 days of warm summer weather, you've got dry herbs.  When the herbs are dry enough that they are very brittle, put them in sandwich bags and squeeze several times (with bag open) to break herbs up into as teeny, tiny, little pieces as you desire.  Seal bag.  If you are confident in the cleanliness of your herbs, put them in the pantry, otherwise in the fridge, freezer, or cold storage.  Label bag using permanent marker.  You won't forget, but someone else will :).  Don't forget to vacuum your screen box out after you have removed as much of the herbs as you are able.  This will prevent you from getting dill in your next batch of parsley and lessen the chance of contamination in the current batch (if present) being passed on to the next.

If it's a bother to cart your herbs around in your car - or you don't want to be surrounded by the aroma of dill for a long trek (why wouldn't you?), you can always content yourself with regular sun drying outside.  With the right box and perhaps a bit of solar reflection using mirrors or other reflective surfaces, then cover it all with 6 mil clear poly(ethylene) to give yourself a sort of mini greenhouse, drying herbs in your backyard will probably do just as well as your car.

But for me, my car is a good "slow oven" these days.

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