Fresh herbs and spices have a stronger aroma and flavor than commercial dried herbs and spices. They are prized by food lovers and gourmet cooks.
Dried herbs and spices are used more often than fresh because they are more readily available and convenient to use. Although some flavor is lost when they are dried, it becomes more concentrated because so much moisture is removed. Most herbs contain 70 to 85 percent water. Eight ounces of fresh herbs will yield about one ounce dried.
The flowers, seeds, leaves and stems of herbs can all be used for seasoning. Leaves and stems should be gathered early in the morning before heat of the sun dissipates flavoring oils.
Leaves should be harvested before plant begins to flower and while still tender. Snip stems at base, taking care to leave sufficient foliage for plant to continue growing. The new leaves at tip of plant have the most concentrated flavor.
Plants usually survive three or four major harvests and, depending on climate, may produce all year round. Cold frames extend growing season and a sunny kitchen window will allow potted herbs to produce all year long.
When plants have begun to flower, a bitter taste develops and leaves are not as aromatic because the energy has gone into producing buds.
The flowers of some herbs may be used for seasoning. They should be harvested when they first open and while still fresh. Seeds, such as caraway or mustard, are harvested when fully mature and have changed from brown to gray.
Leaves and stems should be lightly washed under cold running water to remove any dust or insects. Remove any dead or discolored portions.
To dry large-leafed herbs, such as basil and sage, strip leaves from stem, cut in half across leaf and place on Clean-A-Screen®- lined tray. Cutting allows dry air to get inside stem and will shorten drying time.
To dry small-leafed herbs, like thyme, place on Clean-A-Screen®-lined tray. This helps keep dried herbs from falling through tray. As small herbs dry, they may fly around inside dehydrator. If this happens, place another screen over drying herbs to keep them in place.
If flowers are to be used in teas, dry them whole. Wash and separate petals, and remove any tough or discolored parts. When seed pods have dried, their outer covering may be removed. Rub seeds between palms of your hands while blowing to remove husks. Place smaller seeds loosely on a Fruit Roll Sheet. Dehydrate until there is no moisture evident. If seeds are to be used for planting, dry at room temperature to maintain germination ability.
Testing for Dryness
Herbs are dry when they snap and crumble easily. Stems should be brittle and break when bent. Seeds should be brittle and usually need additional drying after they are removed from seed pods.
To be certain that herbs are sufficiently dry, place in an airtight container for several days. If condensation appears on inside of container, they need further drying.
Dark colored jars with airtight lids are ideal for storing herbs. They don't allow light in, which tends to fade and weaken herbs. You can use other containers as long as they exclude air, light and moisture. Air and light result in flavor loss; moisture results in caking and color loss or insect infestation.
As with any other dried foods, dried herbs and seeds should be stored in the coolest place available, preferably below 60°F (15°C), to maintain best flavor. Do not crush or grind until ready to use. Crushing exposes more surfaces to the air, resulting in flavor loss. With proper packaging and good storage conditions, dried herbs, seeds and spices should keep well for 6-12 months.
Using Dried Herbs & Spices
Since herbs and spices are usually 3 to 4 times stronger than their fresh counterparts, use conservatively. Their taste should be subtle and not overpowering. The zest of dried herbs is dependent upon storage condition and length of time stored. Sharpness of flavor deteriorates with age. Some herbs, such as mint or basil, lose their flavor more rapidly than others when dried. It may take nearly an equal volume of some dried herbs to replace the amount of fresh called for in recipe.