If you’ve ever seen a herb garden, or grown herbs yourself, you’ll be familiar with the practice of hanging herbs upside down. But is there a reason for this practice beyond “it’s always been done this way”?
Hanging herbs upside down to dry preserves the essential oils in the plant and lets the oils flow into the leaves. This drying process retains most of the oils which give the herbs their unique flavor. Other equipment – like ovens or microwaves – strip the herbs of their oils and taste.
In the rest of this article, I’ll explain how to air dry herbs to preserve their flavor, where you should hang your herbs, and which herbs respond well to upside-down hanging. I’ll also discuss a few other methods you can use to dry and store your herbs.
Upside-Down Drying: A Time-Honored Tradition
The record of humans using herbs dates back as far as written human history allows. There are cave paintings of herbs dating between 13,000 BC to 25,000 BC and numerous written records from the ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Sumerian civilizations. The use of herbs is even mentioned in Genesis, the first chapter of the Bible.
Herbs have been air-dried for storage for at least several centuries. They’re typically used for medicinal or culinary purposes. However, for this article, we will be looking mainly at culinary herbs.
Understanding Herbs: Culinary vs. Medicinal Use
Herbs are defined as “a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities.” Herbs are used traditionally for preservation, medicine, and culinary purposes.
Culinary herbs differ from medicinal herbs in one key area. In culinary herbs, the leaves are the main part of the plant used, while medicinal herbs make use of almost every part of the plant. This difference is also why culinary herbs are always hung upside down to dry.
By hanging them upside down, the essential oils that carry the flavor of the herbs flow down into the leaves. Thus, the leaves become saturated with the flavor of the herbs.
Herbs are traditionally grown only during the warmer months, so they can be used fresh. For the rest of the year, they have to be dried for storage.
The traditional method of drying herbs is to let them air dry in a warm place with enough cross-ventilation. Although some herbs can be left outside to dry, it’s better to dry them indoors to prevent overexposure to the elements. In many cultures, herbs are hung upside down while drying.
Herbs gain their flavor through the oils in their cell walls. These oils are often contained within the stem and leaves of the plant, and crushing or cutting them releases the oils.
By hanging the herbs upside down, the oils can flow from the stem to the leaves, leaving the highest flavor concentration on the leaves. Once these leaves are chopped up, you can get the flavor and aroma of the herb.
The Process of Drying Herbs Upside Down
To dry herbs upside down, you tie them up in small bundles and hang them upside down on a line. Place a tray or cloth below to catch any dry parts that fall during the process. Ensure that the room you’re using has good ventilation and is free of moisture and dust.
Since air-drying herbs by hanging them upside down is so effective at preserving flavor, let’s look at how to air-dry your herbs effectively.
For Herbs With Large Leaves
The upside-down air-drying method works best on more sturdy herbs, like mint, thyme, or sage. Since herbs become fragile and crumbly as they dry, the ones with smaller leaves might crumble too much if left to air dry normally.
Here are the steps to take to properly air dry your sturdier herbs:
- Collect your herbs, preferably when they’re dry, and ensure they’re clean.
- Remove the smaller leaves right at the bottom of the stem.
- Tie a few stems together with twine or string to make a small bundle of herbs.
- Tie each bundle upside down onto a wooden line to hang.
- Keep a tray or soft cloth below to catch anything that falls as the herbs dry.
Make sure the room is free of dust or moisture when you dry your herbs. If you’re drying them in your kitchen, keep them away from the sink or stove.
For Herbs With Small Leaves
Herbs with smaller leaves are a lot more delicate. As they dry, they become crumbly. So if you leave them to air dry, there’s a good chance that they’ll fall all over the place or blow away as they become drier.
For the most part, the steps to dry them are the same as the ones for sturdier herbs. However, you can add one extra step to the drying process for more delicate herbs.
Place the bundled herbs in a paper bag with holes punched in it. This setup will prevent the herbs from falling everywhere or blowing away at the slightest gust of wind. The holes in the paper bag will also allow enough cross-ventilation to dry the herbs.
After placing them in the bag, hang the bag up to let them dry.
A warm, dry room with good ventilation is the best place to hang herbs upside down to dry. The room should be less than 100 °F (37.8 °C), or it will remove the flavor of the herbs. The room should also be free of moisture and dust and have sufficient cross-ventilation.
Typically, most people use attics, basements, sheds, or other extra rooms to dry their herbs.
However, if you’re using your kitchen, you should keep your herbs far away from the sink or the stove. If water drops from the sink splash onto the herbs, they could cause mold to grow before the herbs dry. Plus, the heat from the stove could completely suck out the flavor of the herbs.
Alternative Herb Drying and Storage Methods
Although air drying is the cheapest and easiest way of drying herbs, other methods are available to us now. For herbs with higher moisture content, like basil, these methods might even be better than air drying.
Microwave or Oven Drying
If you’ve only got a small number of herbs to dry, the microwave is easy and quick. Ovens can be used for larger amounts.
For the microwave, just place the herbs in a single layer between two paper towels. Since microwaves and ovens can get really hot, it’s important to keep the layer light so that heat doesn’t build up too much. If you shove in a thick pile of herbs, it’ll heat up too much and lose its flavor.
For the oven, place the herbs in a thin layer on a cookie sheet. Put them into the oven on low heat (less than 180 °F or 82.22 °C) for two to four hours.
You’ll know when the herbs are dry if they’re crumbly and flaky.
Although drying is a great way to preserve herbs, we have another preservation method available in the modern age: freezing!
Since most households have access to a cooler, freezer, or refrigerator, you can now freeze herbs instead of drying them.
Here’s how to freeze your herbs for storage:
- Wash the herbs thoroughly and pat off excess water with a paper towel.
- Store them in freezer bags and press the bag lightly to remove air.
- Store in the freezer and remove small amounts whenever needed.
Drying herbs by hanging them upside down is a practice that dates back centuries. By hanging them upside down, the oils flow from the stem to the leaves, allowing you to preserve most of the flavor. However, you can also use more modern preservation methods, like drying in the oven/microwave or freezing the herbs.
If you’re air drying your herbs, you should place them in a dry, relatively warm room with good ventilation. You’ll know when your herbs are ready for storage when they’re dry and crumbly.