Homegrown herb production and a bonus recipe!

In Recipies, Shameless plug, Tips and Hints on September 4, 2012 at 10:24 am

It’s herb-drying time at the Phyne Dyning house. My window box herb garden has kept us in fresh herbs all summer. As the days grow shorter and winter begins to peer at America’s Ukraine (Iowa) from behind autumn’s leaves, thoughts of preserving Summer’s bounty permeate my thoughts.

Herbs are delightfully easy to grow. Just start them indoors in late winter and then transplant them to pots or window boxes after the threat of frost has passed. A bit of Miracle-Gro and regular watering will provide you with more herbs than you can use in a summer. Growing herbs is a great way to introduce kids to the joy of gardening and to the rewards that come with self-sufficiency.

In late August, I drag out my Nesco American Harvest food dehydrator and jerky maker. At just under $50, this little gem can dry an entire crop of herbs in short order. I also use the machine to dry onion, peppers, celery, garlic, tomatoes, and other vegetables which are then vacuum-packed for storage. (Never vacuum pack garlic, mushrooms, or onions that are not thoroughly dried. Doing so puts you at risk for botulism.) With those little 1/4 –ounce containers of herbs selling for a buck a piece at the market, the savings will pay for your dehydrator in no time. There’s no good reason not to grow and dehydrate your own herbs.

So, let’s go through the steps for preserving herbs through drying.

Pick your herbs early in the day. The flavorful oils that give herbs their character are volatile and are diminished by heat. Also, sunlight can alter the chemical structure of some herbal oils, giving them an off, uncharacteristic taste.

Next, carefully sort your herbs and pick off any damaged or wilted leaves. This is a good time to look for insects too. Spread a white towel on a table and sort away. After sorting, the herbs are ready to be washed.

I pick my herbs directly into an Oxo salad spinner because it holds exactly the capacity of my dehydrator. Then, I carefully (gently) rinse the herbs under cold (always use cold) water and shake off the excess. The herbs are spun at least three times and they emerge nearly free of beads of water that will drastically increase drying times.

The herbs are scattered (never crowded) on the dehydrator trays. Large leaves, such as basil, are clipped into 1-inch pieces to facilitate drying. Herbs on thin stems, such as mint and thyme, can be dried on the stem. If you like, you can cut heavy-duty window screen to fit your dehydrator trays for drying smaller herbs. Be sure to cut them a bit smaller than the tray to facilitate free air circulation.

Herbs dry best at 90-95F. If the heat is too high, the oils evaporate and you lose a lot of herb potency. Too low, and drying time is greatly increased and you end up with dry herbs that tend to be dark to black (a risk of regular air-drying as well). When full, my dehydrator will complete a batch of herbs in about 48 hours.

When the herbs are dry, carefully sort through them for leaves that are not dry. An incompletely dry herb will mildew or mold during storage. If you have a lot of herbs that are not fully dried, be patient and run the dehydrator for at least another day. If there are only a few leaves, simply pick them out and discard them. A properly dried leaf will crackle or break easily. Stems should snap when bent as well.

Package your dried herbs in sandwich bags. Press out as much air as possible. Or, use a vacuum-sealer to package them. I use both methods. Label each bag with the name of the herb and the year of harvest. Be sure to store all herbs, even store-bought ones, in a cool and dark location. NEVER store herbs on one of those decorative racks over the stove or in a cabinet over the sink.


Homemade Tuscan Sunset (a la Penzey’s Spice Co.)

We love the taste of Penzey’s Tuscan Sunset herb blend. It’s great as a dipping herb for bread and a good olive oil and, sprinkled on fried eggplant with a bit of garlic powder, it is simply irresistible. Toss it with salad greens and olive oil, and you’ll never miss dressings again.

The stuff sells for about six bucks per ounce. You can make it for pennies!

You can either use commercially available garlic powder, or you can dry your own garlic and smash it into powder in a spice grinder or by using a (stone) mortar and pestle. I buy my fennel seed from Penzey’s. I don’t grow fennel and a small jar, costing $2.69, will make many batches of Tuscan-style herb blend. I also toss in some dried pepper flakes or some of my store-bought Aleppo pepper (from Penzey’s). Either one works well.

Let’s make some Tuscan herb blend! You will need:

1 tsp garlic powder

½ tsp fennel seeds, crushed

1 TBS dry sweet basil

1 TBS dry Greek oregano

½ tsp pepper flakes

½ tsp dry French thyme

¼ tsp ground black peppercorns

Place the herb leaves in a sandwich bag and pulverize them, using finger pressure. Crush the fennel seeds in a stone mortar and pestle. Mix all of the ingredients in an airtight jar and store in a cool, dark place.


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