Tarragon, sage, marjoram, oregano, basil, thyme chives/photos by Donna Turner Ruhlman

The herb garden has gone wild from the heat and rain showers. It’s bursting with more herbs than I can handle or possibly use.  It’s like an herb party with too many rowdy guest showing up.  So now is exactly the time to start cutting them back and letting them dry for winter cooking.  This will both begin the supply of dried herbs and also encourage more growth during the next weeks of summer.  Herbs are roughly divided into two categories, “hard” and “soft.”  The soft herbs are herbs with soft stems, such as parsley and tarragon. The soft herbs are best used fresh; they’re fine dried, but they lose their magic, all the beguiling qualities that make them so powerful a la minute.

The hard herbs, those herbs that when allowed to grow develop tough woody stems, are fabulous dried.  The best as far as I’m concerned is thyme, also one of my favorites fresh.  Oregano and marjoram are excellent as is sage, which I have a forest of now.

To dry herbs, I simply put them in a large wooden bowl, making sure they have plenty of circulation, and leave them alone until they’re dry.  That’s really all there is to it.  I keep them in plastic carrier bags, grocery bags, and pull them out for roasted meats and sauces fall, winter and spring.  A great technique is to tie a variety of herbs into a bundle and hang them somewhere out of the way but in view.  Then, when you roast a chicken, take your bundle of dried herbs and shake it over the bird, letting the dried herbs rain down.  They’ll season the chicken as well as the fat with which you can baste the bird.

Fresh and dried herbs are so powerful they can almost be considered a cook’s secret weapon. But they’re expensive to buy which is why I love summer when my own grow in abundance and I have them fresh through the fall and plenty of dried for the rest of the year.

If you liked this post on herb gardens & drying herbs, check out these other links:

© 2011 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2011 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved

 

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48 Wonderful responses to “Herb Garden & Drying Herbs”

  • cheryl k

    A wooden bowl? I’ve tried 10 different ways to dry my herbs with mixed results but I’ve never heard of using a wooden bowl. I’ll give that a try.

  • Abigail Blake

    I love the oregano left on the stem, tied in a bundle, dried and then shaken over whatever you’re cooking. Neat trick. A question about drying your own sage…does it really retain its flavor? I’ve never bought any that wasn’t just sad.

    • Andrew

      Yes. One of the best sages is White Sage from the southwest; it is bundled up with hemp string, dried and then lit on fire to “purify” spaces. I’ve had a bundle for almost three years and it’s just as potent as when I picked it in the desert outside of San Diego.

    • DiggingDogFarm

      re: sage.

      The cultivar Extrakta maintains it’s flavor quite well in drying.
      A word of warning when attempting to dry sage on the stem…it can turn black!!! Blanching may prevent the blackening, but I remove the the leaves from the stem before drying.

    • Dean

      I’ve had very good luck drying the sage I grow at home. I’ve used it months after drying and found it retains a lot of flavor.

  • Joan Kessler

    Thanks for sharing — that idea of shaking a bundle of herbs over a roasted chicken is something I can’t wait to try!

    • Jason

      I usually dry the herbs in the article, but for herbs that lose some flavour/potency/aroma when dried, I finely chop add a little water and freeze in the segments of icecube trays. Usually cilantro/coriander leaves, parsley and basil. Just pop them out when you need them.

  • Kristen England

    I always hang mine in my kitchen from the stem. Keeps the air moving and the ‘insides’ from going all gooey…

  • Wilma de Soto

    Are there any herbs that do well in a garden that is mostly shade?

  • Mantonat

    Last year I grew tarragon from a seed packet and it tasted bland and grassy. Then I found out that it wasn’t French tarragon, which is grown almost entirely from root stock. This year I bought a tarragon plant and it is wonderful. Any tips for overwintering tarragon? I want to make sure it comes back in the spring.

    • DiggingDogFarm

      The tarragon from seed is Russian tarragon which is horrible stuff.
      You want the real deal, French tarragon which is only available as plants…from those plants you can make cuttings to produce other plants.

      • Dean

        Completely agree! My French tarragon has done will over the winter and come back strong every year. It becomes my “weapon of choice” every summer because it goes so well with everything.

    • Celia

      I live in the Chicago suburbs, and I have a tarragon plant that comes back year after year after year. It is now about 3 feet across. I have tried to bring some inside, but all it takes is forgetting to water it once. It also gets pretty scraggly. So I have been drying it instead of trying to grow it indoors.

  • Libby

    Great post! I’m one of those lucky few with a “drying” cycle in their oven. I just lay the herbs out on my pizza stone (which never leaves :) and set the oven to about 175 or so. Herbs dry beautifully in a few hours.

  • Charlotte

    I put mine in brown paper wine bags to protect them from the light, then tie at the stem end and dry. Granted, it’s MT so humidity isn’t an issue …

  • Kristine

    I have a growing question. I live in northern western Ohio and have tried to grow cilantro every year, with no success. It just seems to grow up and spindly with hardly any leaves, even when I pinch it off. Is there a trick to cilantro, or should I give up?? I have great success with all the others herbs I’ve grown.

    • Mantonat

      I usually have great luck with cilantro, but this year mine came up just as you describe. I really can’t say what I did different this year except that my pots are in a spot where the herbs get full sun first thing in the morning and then shade in late afternoon; the exact opposite of last year. Maybe cilantro prefers cool mornings and hot afternoons.

      • John

        Excessive heat will cause cilantro to go almost immediately to seed. The weather has been quite warm this year so that is probably the problem

    • DiggingDogFarm

      Cilantro loves to get leggy and/or bolt! (go to seed)

      Try a slow bolting cultivar such as ‘Defino’ (fine leaves) or the name says it all “Slow-Bolt” aka Santo.

    • ruhlman

      I too have had good luck and bad with cilantro. this year bad. seems to like moderation but it’s a temperamental herb.

      • Kristine

        Thanks all. I clicked on the Herb Gardner link above and it mentioned shade vs. sun. I think I’ll move it next year and see what happens.

  • Deanna P. Denk

    I grow a few varieties of sage, but the one that grows best in my garden and is best for drying is Berggarten. It’s a pretty plant too with large, lovely, oval gray-green leaves. I sometimes use fresh Berggarten sage like lettuce on hamburgers!

    I’d really like to have many, many more ideas for using tarragon. I love the stuff but am overrun with it every year. I live in the western suburbs of Chicago where many so-called perennials die in the harsh winters, but my tiny French tarragon plant has become two large, 3- ft. shrubs coming back year after year! BTW, I have tried freezing tarragon. I found the method much better than drying though it comes nowhere near to tasting like fresh. Frozen tarragon works in soups, stews, and other moist applications. I’ve tried both freezing whole leaves in a freezer bag and making a pesto of sorts with chopped tarragon and a little olive oil. I did not notice much difference in taste.

    • ruhlman

      if only i had such a problem. I’d use tarragon in everything. eggs, chicken, bearnaise, butter bastes, on seafood. Hell I’d even make a tarragon and orange ice cream.

      • Mantonat

        Tarragon ice cream! I’m definitely going to try that. (My wife is going to hate you though – she’s not too fond of tarragon.)

  • Kerry Shelby

    Growing herbs is extremely challenging in Key West. The hot nights and the periods of drought followed by tropical rain all make balancing the soil moisture quite a trick. I have had the best year ever by largely ignoring them unless they ask. If they are not wilted, I leave them alone. So far, so good!

    • allen

      I thought the Key West climate would be ideal for basil and temperamental herbs. Window sill is my basil home and it still needs a lot of tlc.

  • DiggingDogFarm

    I made 3 gallons of tarragon vinegar early on in the season….great stuff!

    I got my first lesson in how even the tiniest amount of certain things can overpower a dish when I was 16.. a tiny amount (I thought at the time) of dried tarragon completely overpowered a pasta dish….oh well…lesson learned!!! : )

    ~Martin

  • allen

    I was ready to take the weedeater to my Oregano and decided to trim it and refill my nearly empty dried container in the pantry. I did mine in a 125f oven at night, western Washington has been very cool this summer (sorry 3/4 of U.S.) I think a wire mesh rack on a hot roof top like the Italians do tomatoes is the coolest way if you have hot sun available.

    I used the dried stalks in the bbq to flavor chicken souvlaki (I honestly have no idea if they added anything) with lots of lemon, garlic and oregano. My wife said the oregano tasted good, I have chain smoked my taste buds away long ago and she rarely compliments anything so I’ll say it’s better than the stuff in the store, based on her opinion.

  • Cali

    Where I live in northern California (zone 9) we grow herbs like cilantro and parsley in our winter/spring gardens as it just bolts in the summer. In fact, most of the small leaved herbs don’t do well in summer. Rosemary grows virtually wild once it’s established and is one of the most drought tolerant plants I’ve ever seen. In fact, I know of a few abandoned houses where the rosemary is still just fine. I can get sage and sometimes chives to grow year ’round as long as it’s in the shade in the afternoon.

    Basil is particularly easy to grow in summer. I usually plant it in window box type planters right next to my tomato patch. For preservation I pull the leaves off the stems and pack it into my food processor and give it a whirl with a little olive oil and a bit of salt and then freeze it in ice cube trays. A couple of cubes tossed into some tomato paste and canned tomatoes can make even January taste like summer. While we don’t have the kind of “frozen wasteland” winters you have in the east, we still miss the sunny, warm weather (and great summer foods) in winter.

    • Mantonat

      I have rosemary envy. I always have rosemary in my garden, but I have to pot it and bring it inside in the winter. Sage and oregano (and sometimes lavendar) will come back in the spring though. I remember seeing hedge rows of rosemary in the street medians in Phoenix and wondering why anyone would pay $4 for a little pack of it in a grocery store.

  • Garden Fresh Personal Chefs

    Alton Brown’s method has you put fresh herbs between layers of home air filters and bind them with bunji chords to a box fan. That’s worked well for me, but I’ve never tried the wooden bowl method. It seems pleasantly hassle-free.

  • NYCook

    Any word on Andrew Carmellini’s new cookbook? Used to cook for the dude, The Dutch is phenomenal.

  • Saffoula

    My Greek grandmother’s method, which works great too, is to put the herbs in a paper grocery bag with air holes poked through the bottom and sides about 1/2 or so of the bag and to leave them to dry in a dark and ventilated space, like a basement. Once dry, the leaves are cleaned from the stems and put in airtight spice jars to preserve flavor. Some sprigs are also put int airtight jars for use in braises, stews.

  • Dan at FoodieLawyer

    Brilliant post, as always. I never even considered trying to dry out our extra herbs! With the insane heat we have been having in Texas, most of our herbs are pretty sorry right now, but our sage is growing like a weed, and we are excited to try to dry some out for the winter. Thanks, Michael!

  • DiggingDogFarm

    NYCook
    Tarragon is so CIA early 90′s it’s all about Marjoram

    Marjoram?
    That’s so 19th century Poland! It’s not like that’s a bad thing though.
    :)

    • Mantonat

      Dude, European herbs are so over! It’s all rau ram, culantro, and shiso these days. ;)
      Speaking of, has anyone had luck growing shiso? I can’t even get the damn things to sprout. I think I read that the seeds need to go through a period of cold before germination.

  • Carolyn Z

    Our weather has been cool and mild, then warm and hot. We planted herbs and a lone cherry tomato plant. Everything is doing fine except for the thyme. Maybe too much water. As the hubby says, hope you like parsley!! I do, but I’m not sure quite what to do with it all.

    I’ve already made two tubs of parsley pesto for the freezer . . .

  • allen

    Pssssst……”lil secret for ya”. I’m drinking a mojito made with simple syrup from last years mint harvest. At the end of summer or early fall when the mint is about ready to go down I harvest it and make a simple syrup on low heat over and store it in an old wine bottle. Still holding up great and ready all year, lemon verbena syrup and ginger syrup are all in the side of my fridge ready for whatever: margarita, ice cream, gin and earl grey tea martini or sweeten anything.

    And lets not forget lavender, in abundance in my area for a few more days, I sew up small cloth bags to give as gifts for scenting your linens at the end of the drying cycle and a little bit for limoncello from Michael Chiorello recipe or strawberry jam.

  • Dean

    Another way to “preserve” herbs is to make flavored vodka’s with them. Steep bay, basil, tarragon, lemon verbena, or thyme in vodka for 2-4 days. You can make some creative cocktails with them, of course, or add them to sauces. I made a chive vodka and used it to make a tomato sauce. The vodka helps bring out new flavors from the tomatoes and the chive was a really nice addition to the sauce. Chive vodka is has a very strong taste and doesn’t work well in a cocktail – take my word on this one.

  • jdw

    Those of us in milder climates don’t have to bother with drying “hard” herbs at all — last year was the coldest I’ve ever seen, here in western Washington, but my rosemary, thyme, and sage all lasted through the winter, remaining green the entire time. Sure, their color was a bit less vibrant than it is in summer, and their stems were harder than in summer, but the flavor was as fresh as ever.

    This is fortunate, because our summers of late are not really encouraging a great deal of growth.

  • Lucy

    Sage and fennel have overtaken my herb garden. Will have to try the wooden bowl method. Should I save the fennel fronds?

  • Elyse

    Tried Thai basil for the first time this year. When the plants were ready to harvest I tied the stocks and hung them in a very dry closet – the water heater closet. Worked great. I love basil and I also am fond of anise but I’m not certain I like the two together. I didn’t realize when I purchase the starts that Thai basil is also called licorice basil. I have a pot of tomato sauce simmering with the basil as the main seasoning. Time will tell. Maybe it’s an acquired taste.

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