Herbal Basics: Fresh vs Dried Herbs
When using herbs for culinary or therapeutic use, one of the most common questions is ...
Which is better, dried or fresh herbs?
To be honest, when it comes to the question of which is better fresh or dried herbs, the answer is that one is not better than the other, they are “different.”
You can use fresh or dried herbs to make infusions. Except for water infusions (making tea), I would recommend that beginners used dried herbs for the best results and the longest shelf life. The moisture content of fresh herbs may cause mold to form in infusions, especially oils.
For culinary use, the choice of fresh vs dried herbs really depends on how they will be used.
Dried herbs are best if added during the cooking process so their flavors have time to infuse. Dried herbs are great for stew, soup, or braising.
The bright flavors of fresh herbs are best used to finish a dish such as sprinkling dill over steamed vegetables or adding basil to a fresh pasta dish.
For Skincare Products
When using herbs to make skincare products, I recommend that beginners use dried herbs for the best results and the longest shelf life.
Dried herbs have some advantages over fresh herbs when using them to make tinctures or herbal infusions for skin care.
- If properly stored away from heat, light, and moisture, the average shelf life of a dried herb is up to two years
- Drying not only helps preserve the valuable plant elements but also increases their concentration as a percentage of the weight of the herb--so you get more with less
- Fresh herbs can add unwanted moisture, especially to oil infusions, which can lead to bacterial or mold growth
We use dried herbs in our skincare products. Drying concentrates the herbs and actually liberates the nourishing components.
How To Keep Fresh Herbs Fresh—for a little while
As Autumn approaches I will be harvesting my herbs for drying. Even though dried herbs are great to use when roasting, I like to use fresh sage, rosemary, and thyme for many of my Thanksgiving dishes. So this is what I do . . .
• After cutting wet the herbs
• Wrap the wet herbs in a dry paper towel
• Place the wrapped herbs in your vegetable crisper and forget about them until Thanksgiving!
This method works really great for herbs like sage, thyme, and rosemary. When I want to save more delicate herbs like parsley or basil, I use the same process only I place the paper towel in a ziplock bag or plastic container. You want to keep these tender herbs in a moist, but not a wet, environment or they will become moldy.
How To Dry Fresh Herbs
Properly dried herbs (that are also properly stored) can be safe from bacteria and mold and should remain potent for 6 months to 2 years depending on the herb. The basic idea when preserving herbs is to remove moisture.
There are so many different ways of drying fresh herbs, but I am going to share the method that I use, which is simply based on air circulation.
This process works best with herbs that have a low moisture content, like Bay, Oregano, Dill, Rosemary, Tarragon, and Thyme. Although many herbs, especially annuals, have a peak flavor time for harvesting and drying, I tend to wait until autumn to harvest.
1. The best time to harvest leafy herbs is a sunny mid-morning after the dew has dried.
2. Cut sprigs from your plants and remove old, dead, or wilted leaves.
3. It is not necessary to wash herbs if they are grown without pesticides or other chemicals. If you need to wash them rinse with cool water, place them on paper towels, and allow them to dry completely -- wet herbs will mold and rot. Alternatively, if it is a sunny or breezy day you can give your whole herb plant a bath and let it dry before harvesting.
4. Remove some of the lower leaves from the sprig so there will be an area to tie.
5. Make small bundles of 4 - 6 sprigs, to assure good air circulation and tie them with cotton string.
6. Hang them upside down to dry, leaving a few inches between each bundle, in a dust-free place with plenty of ventilation and no direct sunlight. Drying Fresh Herbs
7. If you do not have a dust-free place, you may need to protect your herbs while they dry. Cut a small paper bag so that its length allows a few inches of the herb to peek out. Make a hole in the bottom center and fish the stringed herbs into the bag. Make sure the herbs are not crowded inside the bag. Poke several holes in the paper bag to allow for circulation. Hang the bag upside down.
8. Check herbs weekly until they are dry and ready to store.
Learning to tell when your herbs have dried can take a bit of practice. If they are not dry enough, they may still mold. If they are too dry, you will lose the volatile oils that add culinary flavor and therapeutic effectiveness.
When herbs are dried properly, the leaves will crumble easily into little pieces between your fingers. If the leaves turn to powder when crumbled, they are too dry.
If you are not sure that the herbs are completely dry, place a small piece in a tightly sealed glass jar and set the jar in a warm, sunny spot for a few hours. If there is still moisture in the leaves you will see condensation inside the jar.
When I first started drying herbs, I hung them all over my kitchen. It made the kitchen feel so rustic and natural. I soon learned that the kitchen is not a good place for drying herbs. Smoke, scents wafting from food preparation, and all the hubbub in a kitchen, can cause a residue build-up and affect the flavors of delicate herbs.
Storing Dried Herbs
When purchasing and using dried herbs, it’s important to understand that their potency and flavor will degrade over time. The more surface area that is exposed to air, the shorter the shelf life. That means that herbal powders have a shorter shelf life than herbs that are stored in larger pieces.
Very aromatic herbs may also have a shorter shelf life. The aromatic essential oils dissipate with time. If you are planning to store dried herbs for future use, it may be best to purchase whole herbs or those labeled “cut and sifted." Cut and sifted herbs that have been cut into small pieces and then sifted to remove the herbal powders. You can always create your own powder just before using it.
1. Store your dried herbs in airtight containers in a cool, dry place away from sunlight. I like to use small glass jars. You can also use plastic containers or zip lock bags. It’s a good idea to label and date your herbal containers.
2. I store herbs whole and crumble them when I use them. The larger the piece, the smaller the exposed surface area from which flavorful and therapeutic oils can evaporate.
3. If you notice the herbs are losing their color and scent, they are also losing their flavor and potency. Dried herbs are best used within a year.
A good rule of thumb for cooking:
Use 1 teaspoon of dried herbs in place of 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs.
Join us next time when we discuss "How to Judge Good Quality Herbs"