Drying herbs and Chillies
Drying is a very easy and efficient method of storing herbs. It doesn’t deplete the herbs of their oils and works best with low-moisture containing herbs, like Bay, Dill, Marjoram, Oregano, Rosemary, and Thyme.
However, herbs with high-moisture content, such as Basil, Chives, Mint, and Tarragon must be dried quickly otherwise they may mould and discolor. Freezing is considered the most efficient method for preserving such herbs.
Picking the herbs
The first step to drying herbs is picking them at the right time. Herbs must be picked on a sunny day, after the morning dew has evaporated. A good time for picking herbs is just before flowering time when they are at their peak flavor. When picking the herbs, try and remove damaged leaves, soil and insect visitors! It is better not to wash the leaves, but if necessary, wash quickly and thoroughly. Ensure they are completely dry before you go on with the drying process. Perhaps you can pat them dry with a paper towel. Herbs are not to be left unattended or in the sun after picking them.
Drying – Air drying (the most popular technique)
To air dry, tie together 4-5 sprigs of the herb and hang them upside down in a dark, well ventilated, warm room. You can put them into large paper bags which have holes punched into them and then hang them upside down. The paper bag will catch anything that might dry and fall off. This also keeps the dust away. It would take around 1-3 weeks to dry completely. Check occasionally, if a leaf crumbles easily between your fingers, then it is time to take your bunch down.
Using paper bags is a great way to dry seeds. Seeds can be collected after flowering when the flower heads turn dry and brown. Basil seeds are often collected by this technique. Though leaves can be picked and dried at any stage, new buds and mature leaves are the most preferred ones for drying. Screens are another convenient way to dry herbs. Homemade screens can be made quickly and easily by stapling sheer curtains to a frame. Spread the herbs in a thin layer on the frame to dry. Screens are a great way to dry leaves and loose blossoms.
Other drying techniques
Other herb drying techniques are oven drying and microwave drying.
To oven dry, sprigs or individual leaves, if the leaves are large are picked and blanched in boiling water, tied in a muslin cloth. This is done for a minute before excess water is shaken off and the leaves or sprigs are placed in trays. This is then placed into an oven at temperatures between 45°C/110°F/Gas Mark 0 and 55°C/130°F/Gas Mark 0. They should be ready in an hour.
To microwave dry, spread leaves or sprigs between paper towels and run for 2 or 3 minutes in high heat. If the herbs are not ready yet, heat again in bursts of 30 seconds. Note that microwaving does to some extent cook, so, this method is not preferred.
The next step is to pack away the dried herbs. The leaves are to be removed and stored away in any airtight container, preferably glass jars. The jars should be stored in a cool, dry, dark area to protect color and fragrance. Label containers. To remove the leaves, hold one end of the bunch and move your hand in a swift downward motion. They can be crushed and stored as a powder or as a whole. Remove any foreign material. The seeds are to be left whole and crushed before use. A tip, leaves stored whole retains flavor best. Discard any bunch that shows signs of mould.
Know that the method of drying herbs is different for different herbs. Herbs that dry quickly can be dried by the bunching method and those that don’t dry well have to be sliced and arranged on trays to dry them.
Sun Drying Chillies
During a week, which by weather reports holds sunny days, slice your chillies in half and remove the seeds. Place them on a sheet out in the sun for eight hours before you turn them over to dry the other side. Cover at night to keep the bugs off. Repeat the process the next day. Leave them to dry until the chillies break easily between your fingers.
Hanging chillies to dry
Use a heavy thread; string or fishing line to stitch through each of the chilli until three quarters of your thread has chilli strung through it. Knot both ends. Hang this up in a well ventilated, dry place. In a few weeks time your chilli will be ready and dry.
To have your dry chilli ready in a few hours, bake at 50-70 degrees centigrade. Check once in a while and turn the chillies as required. Heat them through until all the moisture is gone, at least 90 minutes required.