Words & Styling by Amy Merrick Photographs by Parker Fitzgerald
Home-dried herbs are fresher and more satisfying to cook with, and the process is a nice way to welcome fall.
Cold-weather food demands herbs. Savory tarts, stews and roasts all beg for them in the same way a chilly night begs for an extra pair of socks. In early fall, herbs are rioting with growth and the kitchen’s demand for them also increases. The thought of winter’s first frost is all it takes for us to descend, clippers in hand, to save some of the bounty for the months to come. Home-dried herbs are fresher and more satisfying to cook with, and the process is a nice way to welcome fall.
Herbs can be gathered from a kitchen garden, a windowsill, a fire escape or a big container on the front stoop. Otherwise, they can be foraged, begged or bartered for or simply bought. We did a little bit of each when we turned the unused garage into an herb-drying shed during a rainy Portland weekend. Our lavender came from a massive, unruly planting in an abandoned parking lot, and bits of the rosemary were from someone’s street-side bush that had overtaken the sidewalk. Handfuls of mint came from the backyard, and a friend who helped with the hanging brought bunches of sage from her garden. The oregano and thyme and more rosemary were bought the old-fashioned way, cash in hand, from a grower.
It took two days to clean the garage; piles of plywood were removed, paint was scraped and boards were bleached. Windows were washed and spider webs swept. We made short work of it and strung up several rows of twine, nearly at the ceiling, pulled taught—the weight of fresh herbs will cause the twine to sag, so the higher the better. Bunches were rinsed and dried, with a few inches stripped from the bottom of each stem, and then bundled and strung along the rows.
The best part of the project, more than the herbs we dried or the photos we took, was seeing the potential in an unassuming space and creating something unexpectedly beautiful there with a friend. With our bunches piled high, the smell of rosemary and sage were strong to the point of distraction and we couldn’t help feeling like we’d been transported to a cottage in the English countryside. I’d catch him face-deep in a bunch of lavender and I couldn’t stop rubbing sage between my fingers. That weekend, every shirt pocket held a stray piece of rosemary and every canvas tote collected lavender buds. Even his truck’s rearview mirror got its own tiny bunch of thyme, and I couldn’t stop myself from crushing bits to smell every time we ran an errand. Meanwhile, Burnside Avenue still rushed past the front door, and we were surprised to find ourselves on a busy street in Portland when we stepped outside.
When the herbs dry (it takes just a week or two), they can be bottled up or left hanging, with pinches broken off as needed. Doing a bit of both is a good compromise; the bottles keep the herbs fresh and the hanging bunches keep a house cozy. Uses are as varied as the herbs that can be dried: teas can be brewed, treats baked, meats rubbed and vegetables seasoned. The usual suspects of rosemary, sage, thyme and oregano are all indispensable, but marjoram, dill, bay, chamomile, lavender and summer savory add variety to a kitchen throughout the colder months.
We didn’t have to fill the garage with dozens of beautiful bunches; we could have tied a small row of herbs across the kitchen window or dangled a single strand over the sink. We could have used the dregs from a grocery store bundle, after the bunch had been unceremoniously stuffed in a glass to keep from wilting. The act of gathering and saving, and the foresight it takes, is more important than scale or provenance. It’s a simple process: cut, hang, dry. And when you’re ready get to the heart of the matter, cook.