My family loves heavily seasoned food which I think I have mentioned here on more than one occasion. For some reason we just have always enjoyed all the flavors in our foods to be strong and “knock it to you”. No matter what we make…soups, stews, casseroles, breads, chutneys, jams etc…we usually cook with lots of mingled and strong flavors. Because of this, and because I prefer organic produce, I grow quite a bit of our own seasonings each year. This way I can be assured that not only are the seasonings I use organic but they are as fresh as they can be.
Now before you think I have some amazing herb garden out there besides our veggies, fruit and livestock (time, what time??), I will mention that there are seasonings that I don’t really mess with. Like celery seed. I use that in such small quantities during pickling that it just doesn’t seem to be worth trying to mess with celery (not my favorite plant anyway) to get that 1/16 th of a cup of seed at the most that will go through my kitchen. However there are some spices/herbs that we use so much of it IS worth growing. Some of those are dill, basil, cayenne, jalepeno, garlic, lemon grass, mints, thyme, oregano, tarragon….Obviously each persons eating habits and climate will dictate what they grow and store herb wise.
Once you have herbs in your garden or yard there are a number of ways to preserve them. Generally I use all of the preservation techniques for them, some more than others though. I can them in various forms to eat as a condiments like onion jams and relishes or recipes like Italian seasoned tomato sauces. I freeze some like basil and pesto so that I will have “fresh” to use—besides I have yet to find pressure canning procedures for pesto and/or a basil paste type recipe. Some I store in a cool location like onions or garlic, though as I mentioned these also go into canned condiments. Lastly I dry. Of all the forms I listed, drying is my favorite because it doesn’t require very much effort and as long as it is stored properly it will last until the next season. Generally I have a very good climate for drying things which makes it even more convenient —-and free.
You can of course dry most anything. Truthfully I can’t think of one single spice/herb that I have used that can’t be dried. Onions, garlic, basils, mints, thymes etc….all can be dried and saved for use in the winter when their not available fresh. Or in the case of onions and garlic which are more easily kept in their fresh form than say basil… they can be shaken into a soup or stew without the hassle of cutting them up. We use capacious amounts of garlic salt in our not canned salsas and pico de gallos. I have to admit though…I haven’t made it to the point of getting enough garlic or onions dried to be self sufficient in that. Those “herbs” are more aromatic (and understatement right?) during drying and must be done outside and in large quantities to make it worth while. Excellent when done though—very fresh tasting as all home grown food products are.
As many spices as there are there are almost as many ways to dry: racks and screens with light cloths to keep off bugs, solar “enhanced” units, hanging in bundles, electric units with fans and ovens with pilot lights. In some places even aga ranges and wood stoves help speed the process. All work fine, have pros and cons, and depend on what you have on hand and how low or high tech you want to get. I have used most all of the methods above (no aga for me though) but generally settle on screens in my truck, faced away from the sun, with the windows cracked slightly or my electric dryer when it is very humid or rainy and I have started drying something that can’t seem to finish because of bad weather. I consider my truck to be one form of solar “enhanced” drying—though I would love to have a real solar dryer with a solar powered fan. I do prefer my truck over my backup method because the downside of my electric dryer is that it uses electricity and is small compared to my screens. On the other hand the screens are a bit annoying because they twist and can sometimes sag a bit but hey…they work and it is free energy to dry with. As I said each has its place and pros and cons.
Basically in the spring when I get started I choose a block of my garden for each herb I will grow. Each block is sized for the amount I hope to get. I know that some people will plant herbs within other plants to protect from pests but I find it difficult to harvest later in the summer when time is tight. Using basil as an example, if I had it planted near my tomatoes I would have to pick through and make sure no tomato leaves got caught up in the product. In the block though I can come in and shear off as much as I want without worry of other plants being caught up — persistent weeding is encouraged to do this type of harvesting It is always easy to tell where I have harvested because portions of the bed will be just inches tall while other portions will be quite tall.
I then pick out any bad leaves I might have inadvertently harvested and just lay all of it out on a screen and dry it. After it is fully dried I strip it over a bowl or container. Stripping the leaves off the stems after drying is a huge time saver. I know stems can bog down the drying process on occasion but over all I don’t have a problem and find de-stemming after the fact easier, and way less tedious, than doing it before drying. I also de stem my peppers after drying since they just snap off—all except jalapeños which seem to get stuck on after drying and need to be cut off at the start.
If you decide to dry something like garlic or onions you will have to slice them first to facilitate drying…after that you can treat them basically the same as any other dried herb. And don’t bother trying those in your “improvised solar dryer” like your vehicle. Unless of course you want to smell like alliums when you get to your destination.
I store each of my herbs in a larger jar or container until I collect enough to grind. After I get enough to bother grinding (usually a full jar) I use a small coffee grinder to pulverize my dried herbs…you can see the picture of it below. It’s a Hamilton Beach with a mini food processor type blade on it. It was a cheap investment originally and since I use it ONLY for my herbs it has lasted a while. No nuts or seeds go in it….no salad dressing oils and vinegars….and absolutely NO coffee. Nothing that will leave a permanent oil/scent/smell that could transfer to my herbs. I usually hand wash it but do soak it or put it in the dishwasher after hot peppers—just in case.
After pulverizing in my grinder the powder goes into my “pretty” storage jars and extras go into canning jars to store in a cool, dry, dark space to keep as much of their freshness as possible. Since they reduce so much after grinding, your initial pre grind jar will be much much larger than your “after” jar. You can see that in the picture too. The reduced jar recently was about as full of leaves as the other jar in the picture. However don’t let that fool you—a little bit of home dried and ground herbs goes much much farther than store bought. They are just so much fresher that they can’t be compared to store bought and more of the oils are still in there waiting to excite your taste buds. Mmm…
When I first began doing this I started only with the herbs we use the most…then I added more. The reason I could add more is that as I became more practiced, and refined my technique, it no longer took me much time at all. I know to people who don’t do this it sounds very time consuming…but it’s not. It is a bit of a space consumer during drying, especially if you need or want a full quart jar or more of something like basil, but over time you will find, like I did, that it is quicker and easier than it originally seemed. Beyond that the flavors are so superior, and you may find yourself growing, drying and grinding the majority of seasonings used by your family. Talk about quality control!
P.S…that is the electric dryer behind the jars and the grinder. I like it…but I think it is drying less well this year. I have owned it about 4 years I think. So it’s o.k…but as I said not my favorite.