The seeds, leaves, flowering tops, bark, and occasionally the roots of the different plants are used for flavoring purposes. Their flavor is due for the most park to a volatile or essential oil contained in small glands in the leaves, seeds, and fruits. The flavor is retained longer if the herbs are harvested at the right time and properly cured and stored. The young tender leaves can be gathered and used fresh at any time during the season, but for winter use they should be harvested when the plants begin to flower, and should be dried rapidly in a well-ventilated, darkened room. If the leaves are at all dusty or gritty, they should be washed in cold water and thoroughly drained before drying.
The tender leaf herbs -- basil, costmary, tarragon, lemon balm, and the mints -- which have a high moisture content, must be dried rapidly away from the light if they are to retain their green color. If dried too slowly, they will turn dark or mold. For this reason a well ventilated, darkened room, such as an attic or other dry, airy room, furnishes ideal conditions for curing these herbs in a short time.
The less succulent leaf herbs -- sage, rosemary, thyme, and summer savory -- which contain less moisture, can be partially dried in the sun without affecting their color, but too long exposure should be avoided. The seed crops should be harvested when mature or when their color changes from green to brown or gray. A few plants of the annual varieties should be left undisturbed to flower and mature seed for planting each season. Seeds should be thoroughly dried before storing, to prevent loss of viability for planting and to prevent molding or loss of quality. After curing for several days in an airy room, a day or two in the sun before storing will insure safekeeping.
As soon as the herb leaves or seeds are dry they should be cleaned by separating them from stems and other foreign matter and packed in suitable containers to prevent loss of the essential oils that give the herbs their delicate flavor. Glass, metal, or cardboard containers that can be closed tightly will preserve the odor and flavor. Glass jars make satisfactory containers, but they must be painted black or stored in a dark room to prevent bleaching of the green leaves by light.
Drying. After harvesting, hang herbs in loosely tied bundles in a well-ventilated room. You can also spread the branches on a screen or cheesecloth, or spread herb leaves on flat trays when only the leaves are needed. To keep dust off the herbs, use a cloth or similar protective cover that allows moisture to pass through.
It is generally best to dry naturally in a cool, dark room rather than use artificial heat. Experts can use artificial heat, but you may lose flavor and quality by attempting this drying method.
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