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Monthly Archives: August 2012

Harvesting and Drying Mint

Mint is wonderful in the kitchen, medicine cabinet, and as a pest repellent.

Mint is one of those herbs that has a ton of uses and grows prolifically in the garden. Sometimes that prolific growth can be a nuisance (it has, in fact, take up residence in one of my raised beds and it’s definitely a battle between me and it). But like anything else in life, what can be seen as a hassle can also be take as a gift with just a slight shift in perspective: Instead of cursing your prolific mint, harvest it shamelessly and exploit it for one of its many uses! SHAMELESSLY!

There are many kinds of mint (spearmint, peppermint, chocolate mint, apple mint, pineapple mint, and others. They are all perennial, meaning they’ll come back year after year; you’ll have a never-ending supply of this tasty plant after sticking just one in your garden. But beware: if you don’t want it to spread everywhere make sure you plant your mint in an area where you won’t mind it getting a bit out of hand. However, flavored mints such as chocolate and apple are not as prolific as the straight-up peppermint and spearmint.

Mint does best in full sun to part shade with a soil that is slightly acidic, rich, and fairly moist, so if you live in a more arid environment, your mint won’t explode as it would in more ideal growing conditions. And, of course, you can grow mint in a pot for year-round fresh use provided it gets a southern exposure when indoors.

Mint not only serves as a valuable food and flavoring in the kitchen, it also has medicinal uses such as calming the stomach, assisting with gingivitis, helping relieve colds, and cooling overly warm skin, among others. It can also be used to repel pests in the home and garden, and lend a wonderful scent to washing linens when included with vinegar in the final rinse water of a wash. I’ll cover these uses in more detail in a future ‘spin.

HARVESTING

If your mint is a new planting, wait a year or two for it to establish a strong root system before you start harvesting it. You can clip fresh mint sprigs during this time for sure, but for a full-on, no-holds-barred harvest, wait until the mint is well established. With my established mint, I literally hack it back in late spring, mid summer, and again in very early fall until there is only about 6 inches of stem left; it grows back readily. Just make sure you don’t harvest too late in the fall; you want to give the plant enough time to recover before winter hits. Like any other herb, the best time to harvest mint is in the morning while the volatile oils in the plant are at their strongest.

After washing my mint, I lay it on a towel in several loose layers to dry thoroughly in the sun.

Before drying mint, rinse it clean under a spray hose in the kitchen sink, or outdoors if you have a lot of mint you’re processing in one batch. After cleaning, the mint must be thoroughly dried. I do this by shaking off the mint thoroughly, then laying it out on a few loose layers on a towel in the sun.

AIR DRYING

After my mint is washed and dried, I bundle it up for hanging and drying. I make my bundles loose to allow for the much-needed air to circulate around the herb and draw the moisture away. Air circulation is key when it comes to drying herbs; the air removes the moisture from around your plants and helps prevent mold from developing.

When making my bundles, I use rubber bands to secure the ends. Rubber bands have two main advantages over string: first, the contract as the stems dry out and shrink, thereby maintaining a tight bundle throughout the drying process and second, they can be used over and over. I save all of the rubber bands I end up with from the grocery store or anywhere else, and use them for my herb drying. I attached an unfolded large paper clip to my bundle and use the paper clip to hang the herbs from my ceiling. You can hang herbs from wall racks, or anything else you can think of as long as the location is warm and gets plenty of air circulation (i.e., basements are poor choices).

Rubber bands are the best way to hold herb bundles for drying. Here, a rubber band is first slipped over one stem, then wrapped around the bundle several times.

After wrapping the rubber band around the bundle several times, secure the end by slipping it over a few branches. This provides plenty of give for shrinkage.

You may have read that herbs should be placed in brown paper bags to dry. I believe this is nonsense. I think the only exception is when you are drying an herb such as dill and want to save the seed, then you’ll need to place a paper bag around the seed head. Otherwise,  unless you live in the driest of environments there is no way you’re going to get enough air circulation to draw the moisture away from your plants if they are suffocating in a bag. I am also lazy. Packaging herbs up for drying is just not something I am interested in spending my time doing since I see no detectable benefit from doing so, unless I am saving the seed. But I’m sure many will disagree with me, and that’s ok!

This re-purposed screen serves as a wonderful drying rack for herbs when hung from a ceiling in a warm, airy locations such as my front sun room.

Instead, I hang my herbs upside down from a drying rack I have hanging from the ceiling in my front sun room. The rack used to be a screen with rice paper lining, but the rice paper was torn at one point, so I removed all of the paper and the hinges, and hung it from the ceiling to serve as a drying rack. It also just looks kinda cool.

The ideal temperature to air dry herbs really varies; I’ve read anywhere between 70F and 120F. Frankly, whatever warm location you have available is the best location. So many guides provide supposed “rules” but ultimately the best environment is the one you have available to you. You just need to find a way to work with what you have. But with drying herbs, good air circulation is a must…without it your herbs will mold. If you don’t have good air circulation, consider placing a fan in the room in which your herbs are drying. And it’s best to keep your drying herbs out of direct sunlight; while my sun room is sunny, the herbs at ceiling level are protected from direct exposure.

How long does air drying take? It depends upon those unique conditions you are working with. In an 80F, moderately humid environment with moderate air circulation, bundles such as the ones shown above can take two to four weeks. Here in Colorado in my very warm sun room, it only took about 4 days to get crisp-dried mint.

OVEN DRYING

I encourage you to air-dry your herbs whenever possible; it just seems a lot easier to me if you have the space and if your environmental conditions are dry enough. However, if you live in a moist environment or don’t have the space to hang herbs, oven drying is a great option! Some people even prefer the flavor of oven-dried herbs to air-dried. Frankly, I can’t tell the difference.

To oven dry herbs, you also want to wash and either air dry or pat them dry before proceeding. Then you can either strip the leaves from the stems and place them in a single layer on a cookie sheet, or lay the stems on the cookie sheet themselves in a single layer. Place the herbs in a warm, 180F oven for 3 to 4 hours with the oven door cracked to allow moisture to escape. Then, crush the leaves and store.

COLLECTING AND STORING

Collect your dried mint by crushing the leaves off the stem.

The leaves are the edible portion of mint, so when it is thoroughly dry, you’ll need to remove them from the stems. I do this by taking one of my bunches, holding it over a large bowl or sheet, and simply pressing the stems. The leaves crush off cleanly from the stem, and any bit of stem that might break off and fall is easily removed after I have finished removing all of the leaves from my mint.

It is recommended that you store your mint in a cool location away from direct sunlight. I store a portion of my mint in a used tea tin and keep it in a cupboard by my tea kettle. The rest of my yearly supply is stored in a large air-tight mason jar in my pantry. Sometimes I just take the jar out and look at it…herbs that you harvested and dried yourself are not only fresher (and thereby tastier) than store bought, looking at them can also help us feel the summer sun on a cold winter day as we recall the harvest.

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