I have been experimenting with a number of teas and herbal tea blends looking for useful (medicinal) and flavoursome teas. Of course, you can make lovely teas from fresh herbs and they look great in the cup.
The trouble with fresh herbs is that they are not available all year. The next best option is to dry them for using later.
Retaining the flavour
Because herbs get their scents and flavours from their essential oils you need to take care to dry them in a way that keeps that flavour and oil intact. Essential oils are extremely volatile and will evaporate easily when exposed to light and heat. This is important to remember when picking them and drying them.
You key aim when drying herbs is to do it:
- Quickly to avoid mould
- Away from light
- Without applying too much heat
If you are collecting herbs for drying from your own garden, harvest them in the morning when their oil content is at its highest. However, wait until any dew has evaporated. Overnight, the plants replenish the essential oils they gave up during afternoon heat.
Some herbs do not dry well and are best preserved by other methods. Herbs that do not dry well include parsley, coriander, rosemary, chives and basil. These herbs keep their flavours when made into herbal oils and vinegars which can be used in cooking rather than in teas.
Drying Leafy Herbs
During the winter our wood burner is going almost constantly. I have hastened the drying process by using a roasting tray on the top of the stove, but this is probably not the best option.
Above: New Zealand Kawakawa leaves drying out on the stove
A better way is to hang the herbs, leaves down, with stems held together with a rubber band. Hang the herbs where they can dry away from direct light or heat. After a week they should be crispy-dry and the leaves should crumble easily off the stems.
Strip the leaves from the stems. Crumble them in your hands before storing the dried herbs in tightly covered glass jars, again away from direct light or heat. You can use a mortar and pestle but be careful not to crush the herbs into powder. Just as some cheaper teas are unpleasantly dusty, herbal teas will also become ‘dusty’ if over-worked.
A mortar and pestle can be used to crumble herb leaves for teas. The leaves above are the dried tea made from the kawakawa leaves.
Using a slow oven
If you cannot wait for your herbs to dry naturally, or they are taking longer than a week to dry, put them in your oven on the lowest temperature for no longer than 5 minutes. Let the herbs cool at room temperature for 5 minutes before transferring to jars.
Drying Herbs in a Dehydrator
Drying herbs in a dehydrator has the advantage of being relatively quick. I have, however, found the dehydrator I bought took ages (and several hours of electricity) before the herbs were dried enough to be crumbled. Drying close to the fire was far more effective. However, here are some tips:
- Strip larger leaves from the stems (e.g. lemon balm, mint and sage)
- Leave small-leafed herbs on the stem (e.g. thyme)
- Make sure herbs are spread thinly over the tray so they dry evenly
- Dry at 95F/35C until crispy-dry. This will take 2-8 hours depending on the thickness of the leaves and the humidity in the air
- Check every 2 hours to see if the herbs are dry yet