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The complete guide to drying herbs

The complete guide to drying herbs

Having fresh herbs at the ready is the dream of every home grower. The benefits of growing your own herbs are many: fresh herbs taste better, contain higher levels of nutrients, and are guaranteed to be organic. But what happens when herbs can’t be used immediately, or when an overabundance of herbs needs to be harvested, stat?

Much thought has gone into this dilemma,[1] but most agree that the easiest solution is to process fresh herbs into home-dried herbs. These dried versions of herbs will still be fresher than any available on grocery store shelves and will extend a herb’s life long beyond the growing season.

There are a couple of easy ways to dry your own herbs quickly and without any specialized equipment. You can hang small bunches or lay leaves out to air dry, or you can dry herbs in the oven, microwave, or a food dehydrator. No matter the method, keep them out of direct sunlight, maintain good air circulation to prevent mold, protect the herbs from dust and insects, and always use low temperatures to preserve their essential oils.

Close-up of dried peppermint herb

Different methods to dry herbs

The best way to dry herbs will depend mainly on the logistics and environmental conditions at hand. Some of the most common methods are air drying, oven drying, drying in a microwave, or using a food dehydrator. Different herbs will respond to techniques in different ways, so experimenting is always a good idea.

  • Air drying is arguably the easiest way to dry herbs, but it takes the longest. Drying herbs like this also exposes them to insect pests, and direct sunlight should be avoided, so it’s best if you have ample indoor space or access to a protected outdoor area.
  • Oven drying is effective but requires close attention and can ruin flavor if the heat is too high. It is ideal, though, for people without a lot of space.
  • Microwave drying is beneficial when you are pressed for time or have limited space. It does require close attention and may not yield the best results.
  • Using a food dehydrator is quick and useful for anyone working with a larger volume of herbs. It gives you control over the temperature, but dehydrators can be loud.

Regardless of the method used, herbs are done when the dried leaves easily crumble.

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Hang and air drying herbs

Air drying herbs on a tray or hanging them in small bunches is a fantastic way to dry herbs without special equipment if there is an appropriate space to do so. The best herb drying spot will be a dry place out of direct sunlight, that is clean and free of dust, smoke, or steam. Despite photogenic images of herb bundles hanging in kitchen windows, dark places like basements and closets are better for drying herbs.

  1. Harvest and rinse herbs only if necessary. Thoroughly pat dry if they are rinsed.
  2. Pluck leaves from the lower two inches of stems.
  3. Facing all stems in the same direction, bundle a small handful together tightly using twine or rubber bands. Alternately, place leaves or stems in a single layer onto drying trays like this one on Amazon or a paper bag with vents cut into it.
  4. Hang the bunches of herbs, leaves-down, securely attached to a rod, line, or hook to keep them off the ground. If you are tray drying, set up your trays where there is adequate circulation.
  5. Check on the herbs every few days, but know that it can take up to a few weeks for herbs to dry thoroughly.

To maximize space when air drying herbs or for keeping insect pests at bay, we recommend these mesh drying racks you can find here on Amazon.

Hang-dried thyme
Hang-dried thyme

Drying herbs in the oven

Oven-drying herbs is an effective way to dry larger batches than is possible in the microwave, but it can be a little aggressive and works best with hardy herbs like sage, thyme, and rosemary. Because the temperature of ovens varies wildly, it is best to use a thermometer and be prepared to do a bit of troubleshooting to find the setting that works best.

  1. Remove the stems from large leaves and lay the leaves in a single layer on an oven rack covered with a layer of parchment paper. For herbs with delicate leaves, you may prefer to leave them on the stems.
  2. Place the rack in the oven after you preheat it. Most ovens do not go below 100°F, which is the highest temperature herbs should be in for. An oven thermometer can help to find the sweet spot, temperature-wise.
  3. Leave the door cracked open—or place a wooden spoon in the door to create a crack—to let excess moisture vent out and to keep the temperature lower.
  4. After 30 minutes, turn your herbs over to the other side. Check to see how dry they are, and if needed, return to the oven for another 15 minutes. Repeat if necessary.
  5. Once the herbs have spent an hour in the oven, turn it off and let the herbs cool.
  6. Alternately, gas ovens with a pilot light may generate sufficient ambient heat to dry tender herbs left on trays overnight.

Drying herbs in a microwave oven

Microwaves work by heating the water molecules in food, making it an excellent device for drying herbs. This method will dry herbs faster than any other while still maintaining color and flavor. This method is best for drying small batches of delicate herbs, like dill or cilantro, but it will work for all herbs.

  1. If herbs have been rinsed, make sure there is no water whatsoever on them before you begin this process.
  2. Remove the leaves from the stems when applicable.
  3. Cover the surface of a microwave-safe plate with a layer of paper towel. Place herbs in a single layer and cover them with another paper towel.
  4. Set the microwave to high and microwave for 1 minute. Stay close by and, make sure you don’t smell any burning. If you do, stop the microwave immediately.
  5. Continue to dry herbs for 30-seconds at a time until they are crisp and crumble easily. Some herbs with very high moisture content can take up to ten minutes to fully dry.

Drying herbs in a dehydrator

A food dehydrator works by extracting the moisture from foods with a heating element and fan. Typically, there are multiple shelves, settings, and a timer– making this one of the most efficient ways to dry herbs. Various types of herbs can be dried simultaneously on different shelves, and with the timer, it is possible to set it up and walk away.

Herbs are preserved best under 100°F because the essential oils that give them their flavor are volatile and can degrade under high heat levels.

A dehydrator takes the guesswork out of the drying process by ensuring a consistent low heat with constant air circulation. Most herbs, however, will be dehydrated in 1 to 4 hours. If you’re in the market to buy an inexpensive food dehydrator, we like this one on Amazon.

  1. Prepare herbs as needed, removing leaves from stems if necessary. Lay the leaves or sprigs in a single layer onto multiple dehydrator trays.
  2. Keep track of which herbs are on which trays– they can be difficult to distinguish once dried.
  3. For drying seed heads or blossoms, line trays with cheesecloth to ensure that petals and seeds stay put.
  4. Place the trays into the dehydrator and adjust the heat and timer setting.
  5. Check on the trays after 90 minutes to gauge dryness. Make notes to track how long each herb takes to dry for future reference.

Why dry herbs in the first place?

Let’s face it, herbs are grown for their flavor, and the primary objective of preserving them for future use is to maximize that flavor.[2] Most herbs generally have the best taste when harvested just before blooming. Excellent results can, however, be achieved year-round.

  • For harvesting an entire plant at the season’s end, cut it to the ground.
  • For midseason harvests or harvesting from a perennial herb, never cut more than one-third of a plant.

Tips for drying herbs

  • Only preserve the best stems and leaves; toss out any parts that are dead or wilted.
  • To harvest herbs, start in the morning as soon as the dew has dried (for outdoor plants) and use scissors or pruning shears to cut the stems above the soil line. For herbs grown outdoors, rinsing may be necessary to remove any dirt or insects from the leaves. For indoor-grown herbs, rinsing is rarely required.
  • Herbs with high moisture levels such as basil, oregano, mints, and tarragon must be dried quickly after harvesting, or they risk molding. These do well inside a paper bag or dried with leaves removed from stems.
  • Using the sun’s heat to accelerate drying times may be tempting, but direct sunlight can be detrimental to the color and flavor of herbs. However, when done carefully in the shade on warm days with low humidity (less than 60%), solar drying may be preferable to oven-drying.[3] Just be sure not to leave drying herbs outdoors overnight, as dew can ruin them.
  • For air-drying, it is ideal to make small bundles of herbs, which can be quickly done by wrapping the base of the stems with natural twine and tying the ends securely. The bundles should be small enough that there is air circulation through the leaves– packing too tightly can lead to incomplete drying, which encourages mold growth.
  • If hanging herbs to air dry, you can set up an oscillating fan nearby at a low speed to accelerate the process.
  • Bamboo trays are great for rinsing and drying herbs with their woven bottoms. Ones that are slightly curved on the bottom helps encourage airflow since the trays don’t sit flat on the counter or table. These trays found here on Amazon is a great option.

For information on growing your own herbs in your garden, check out our comprehensive section covering a range of topics, including how to grow the best herbs indoors and the easiest herbs to grow.

Storing dried herbs

Once dried, preserving the flavor of herbs is a matter of storing them in airtight containers or glass jars out of direct sunlight. Storing herb leaves whole will preserve more flavor than grinding or powdering herbs, but they will take up more space. For best results, label and date clearly and use within a year. Most herbs will still be perfectly usable after a year but will have lost some potency over time.

FAQ

Are dried herbs as good as fresh?

Yes, dried herbs are as good—or at least as beneficial—as fresh, if not better. The drying process itself concentrates the polyphenols in the leaves, increasing the flavor.

How long do dried herbs last?

When properly dried, herbs can last one to three years on average when stored in airtight containers out of direct sunlight.

Can I dry different herbs at the same time?

Yes, you can dry as many types of herbs at once that you have room for. This is regardless of the drying method, whether air drying on racks, using a food dehydrator, or drying them in the oven. The flavor will not transfer from one herb to another.

Woman reading The Enthusiast's Guide to Herbs on her iPad

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  1. Bunning, M., D. Woo, and P. Kendall. “Herbs: Preserving and Using - 9.335.” Colorado State University Extension, March 6, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2021. ↩︎

  2. ​​Bramen, Lisa. “Saving the Flavor of Fresh Herbs.” Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian Institution, August 5, 2011. Accessed October 30, 2021. ↩︎

  3. El-Gohary, Ahmed, Khalid Ali Khalid, and Mohammed Salah Huss. 2018. “Effect of Drying and Distillation Techniques on the Oil Ingredients of Mint (Mentha sp.).” Asian Journal of Crop Science 10, no. 3: 151–59. ↩︎

Francesca Singer
About the author

Francesca Singer

A former Texan farmer & landscape architect, she can be found working in the garden, wrangling a toddler, or wielding power tools on her rural French property.