There are some kitchen processes I do so automatically that I hardly think about them, until somewhere along the line, I become suddenly conscious that it is a principle I am using, and not a recipe.
When Essex Farm CSA delivered a LOAD of late-season nettles I requested for a medicinal tea, I found myself plunking the big bunches on racks on a sheet pan and throwing them into the oven, where the pilot light maintains a perfect-for-drying-just about anything 150′. Then I went back to writing and forgot about them.
The next day, I checked my precious cargo. The leaves were completely brittle and dry, ready to be stripped off their branches and crumbled into a jar. Once the jar is empty, I’ll do it again.
Over the years, I’ve used this simple, rather primitive method to dry many precious hoards of leafy edible treasures that came my way: nettles, chamomile, linden, unsprayed roses, exotic mints like orange or chocolate, rose geranium, and lemon verbena for herb tea; hard-to-find herbs like shiso, summer savory, true French tarragon and lavender for cooking. They are a joy to have on hand throughout the year.
Here’s the basic method done with lemon verbena, in season in July and August. I buy bunches of it to dry for tea all year long. It is perfect soothing tea for stressful times, and an elegant finish to a dinner party.
Simple Method for Drying Herbs and Flowers
Place wire racks on a sheet pan to elevate the herbs. Snip the rubber bands off the bunches, separate the branches and loosely arrange on the racks. You can use as many sheet pans as your oven will accommodate.
Place the rack(s) in the oven and close the door. If you have a gas oven with a ever-lit pilot light, the oven will be warm enough to dry the verbena. Or preheat to the lowest setting possible, 150 to 175’F. Add the racks and leave several hours. If they need more time, keep them going until they are.
Leave the racks in the oven overnight or until the leaves are perfectly dry and crumbly.
Place a sheet of wax paper on your work surface or simply dump the dried bunches right onto the sheet pan, removing the racks. Pick up a branch of dried verbena and, working in the direction of the leaves, strip the leaves off the branch with your fingers in one or two strokes. Try not to crush the leaves; whole ones look prettiest (especially for gifts), though it doesn’t really matter. (Crushed herbs take less space in a jar).
Transfer the tea to a clean dry jar and seal tightly. The tea will keep for a year.
Note: Washing Herbs Before Drying Them
Because over-washing herbs can waterlog them, I don’t always wash herbs IF I know their source and am sure they haven’t been sprayed with pesticides, they’ve been washed already, and are not sandy or gritty. Washing herbs and lettuces doesn’t completely eradicate bacteria like listeria. From what I’ve read, the exposure to heat is the best prevention, which is what we’re doing in drying.
If you want to wash your herbs for drying, after rinsing the herbs, you need to spin them as dry as you can (different spinners get different results). I do mine several times in my Zyliss, pouring the water out each time until they are dry. IF you feel the herbs are still dampish, just spread them out more on the racks, so they are not clumped together, and they will dry fine.
This method is very forgiving.