by The Paula Deen Test Kitchen
To everything there is a season, but air-drying herbs and flowers extends their beauty and fragrance well beyond the days of summer.
In the off-season, fresh herbs can be costly and hard to come by. Air drying provides an easy and inexpensive year-round alternative. And rest assured, dried herbs do not diminish the flavor of a dish; by allowing moisture to evaporate slowly and naturally, herbs retain their essential oils. With their fragrance and flavor fully intact, air-dried herbs beat out the store-bought variety in every way. (Paula’s note: Substitute 1 teaspoon of dried herbs for 1 tablespoon of fresh)
Harvesting herbs for drying requires little more than timing. It is best to cut herbs as flower buds appear. This is when the leaves contain the most oil, which maximizes flavor and fragrance. You can harvest after flowering occurs, though doing so may compromise the quality. Cut plants in the late morning–after the dew has lifted, but before the sun is at its highest. Substantially cut annual herbs–1/3 to 1/2 of the plant–and cut as much as 1/3 of perennial plants, but avoid large harvests of these in the late summer or fall. Select only healthy branches and discard any dry or diseased leaves. Remove the lower leaves about an inch from the stem’s base. Rinsing the plant with cool water should remove any dust, insects, or pesticides, though it’s important to dry gently to prevent bruising but thoroughly to avoid molding. Mold spreads quickly and will destroy the entire batch of herbs.
Bundle 4 to 6 branches together and secure tightly with a string, keeping in mind that the stems will shrink upon drying. Then place the bundle upside down into a paper bag with holes for ventilation. The herbs should have ample space to allow for airflow, and they should not touch the sides of the bag, which could absorb their essential oils during the process. Tie the bag closed with the ends gathered and hang in a warm (70–80˚F), dry place. Herbs can dry outside if the humidity is low but they should be out of direct sunlight. Attics and linen closest are excellent indoor locations, and the aromatic scent nicely compliments any kitchen pantry.
Allow 2–4 weeks for herbs to dry completely. You can crush herbs before placing them in airtight containers, though whole leaves keep their flavor longer.
Drying flowers is a similar process. Harvest flowers just before or just as they begin to bloom because they will continue to open during drying. Remove all leaves and gather the stems into a small bunch about 1/2-inch in diameter. Secure your bouquets tightly with string and hang them upside down so the stems do not bend. Like herbs, dry flowers in a cool, dry place.
Flowers can take up to 4¬–6 weeks to dry, depending on the flower’s water content. Because of their long drying time, consider displaying your bouquets on an outdoor drying rack. As long as the humidity is low and it isn’t in direct sunlight¬ (which causes fading) a drying rack can give any home a rustic and quaint look.
Air drying works best with more sturdy herbs such as bay, dill, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, summer savory and thyme. Tender-leaf herbs that retain more water–basil, chives, mint and tarragon–are best preserved in a dehydrator.
Blue, orange and pink flowers best retain their color when dried. And a flower boasting a low-water content dries well (this includes cornflower, lavender, marjoram, pompon Dahlias, poppy seed-heads and roses).
If you’re only interested in drying flower heads, lay them on a window screen to allow air to circulate around them.