Garden column: tips for drying garden herbs

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Races, festivals, quilt shows and county fairs. Weren’t they all just a few weeks ago?

As I look at the calendar and my garden, I realize I need to start a to-do list to stay focused and meet the goals I have set for the fall.

There is nothing more frustrating in the fall canning kitchen than to start a canning or dehydrating procedure and discover you need to run out and purchase an item you thought you had plenty of.

I dry herbs and make seasoning mixes before the busy vegetable canning season starts. I prefer to store and to gift the mixes in small glass containers. First on the list is to check the container supply.

The key to success in drying herbs is harvesting them at their peak time for flavor and fragrance. That time is in the morning when the essential oil content is the highest. Picking late in the day will yield low concentrations of essential oils. Remember to trim off flower heads from basil, cilantro, parsley and any herb that you want for continued production.

There are many techniques to dehydrate herbs. Over the years I have used them all.

To air-dry herbs, the bundles are tied with string or rubber bands (stems will shrink as they dry), and hung in a warm, dark, well ventilated area as dust-free as possible.

Oven drying is a popular option but not for me. I usually would lose track of time and forget to check, resulting in over-dried herbs.

Then along came microwave ovens — and that is my method of choice. It’s quick and retains color and flavor better than the other techniques.

I use a spray bottle of water to rinse the picked stems, let them dry for a few minutes and then remove the leaves from the stem. I place the leaves on a paper towel and microwave the herbs in two-minute increments. I pull the herbs before they are totally dry, letting them finish by air-drying on the counter.

My list to dry this year will include rosemary from a prolific plant in the greenhouse, parsley, oregano, thyme, basil, tarragon and lovage. Lovage is a perennial herb that resembles celery but is easier to grow in Central Oregon than celery. The leaves are dried and are especially useful in low-salt diets. I recently read a suggestion of drying celery leaves, which I am going to try.

I grew tarragon for the first time this year in containers in the greenhouse. My intent was to dry it. After reading the tarragon section in “Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs,” I may do some experimenting. Although tarragon can be dried, the flavor is best frozen or preserved in white vinegar.

Salad burnet is another one of my favorites, and I was saddened to realize the plants didn’t make it through the winter. I will have to order seeds since it is not a common herb. The young tender leaves taste like cucumber. The older leaves are bitter and do not dry well. They become dark and lose the cucumber flavor. Best to be enjoyed fresh in the spring when we are craving garden-fresh flavors. Burnet spreads slowly sideways, forming an attractive low border to a vegetable patch.

I can’t help but wonder as we become more and more aware of the contents of sprays we use every day in our homes, will herbal recipes start reappearing for repellents and cleaning aids.

Growing and preserving herbs is another enjoyable aspect of gardening. It does take time, which is why I am putting it at the top of the list right now. Before you know it, the time will be here to process tomatoes into sauces, salsas and a new favorite, Tuscan tomato jam.

Time flies.

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