We’ve all been there before: standing in the kitchen with a long-forgotten jar of dried herbs in hand, wondering if they’re still any good.
One of the basics of herbcraft is knowing how to evaluate the quality of dried herbs, whether they’re culinary herbs for cooking or medicinal herbs for healing. Over time, dried herbs fade and lose their flavor and healing benefits–even if they’re stored in ideal conditions. While it’s unlikely that using lackluster dried herbs will harm you, they certainly won’t help you either. Fortunately, it’s easy to learn how to evaluate dried herbs using nothing more than your senses: sight, smell, and taste. This is called organoleptic testing, and the great thing about this method is that you don’t need specialized training to use it.
Here are the three easy steps to evaluate the quality of dried herbs:
- Look at the color of the dried herb.
- Smell the dried herb.
- Taste the dried herb.
But before we delve into these steps in detail, let’s first talk about what kinds of plant parts we’re dealing with here–because it can make a big difference when you evaluate the quality of dried herbs.
There are hundreds of culinary and medicinal herbs out there, and with most herbs we only use the parts of the plant that are the most potent, or sometimes the least toxic. We use the leaves of some plants and the roots of others (and sometimes both from the same plant). Other plant parts used in food and medicine include flowers, barks, fruits, and seeds. Some of these plant parts are relatively delicate once dried–leaves and flowers, for instance. Others, like roots and seeds, are much tougher. This toughness, or lack thereof, is an important factor when deciding what kind of herbal preparation to use, but it also plays a part in the shelf life of an herb. The more delicate the plant part, the shorter the shelf life. Conversely, the tougher the plant part, the longer the shelf life.
The plant part you’re using also determines which of the three steps above will give you the most significant information. Brightly colored plant parts, like flowers and leaves, are easier to evaluate by color because they can fade visibly after just a few months of storage. Leaves and flowers that have high concentrations of volatile oils (along with a few fragrant roots like valerian) are the easiest to evaluate by smell. And while it’s difficult to discern a strong flavor from most dried leaves, chewing on a dried root or berry often yields a wealth of sensory input.
In general, the shelf life of dried leaves and flowers is about a year, while the shelf life of roots, barks, seeds, and fruits is 2 years. But the actual shelf life of an herb varies depending on how the herb was harvested, dried, and stored.
Keep in mind that the more you break down an herb after it’s dried, the shorter its shelf life. Whole leaves last longer than cut and sifted leaves which last longer than powdered leaves. Some herbs, like lemon verbena, lose their potency so quickly after being cut and sifted that it’s not even worth purchasing them in bulk dried form–they’ll be inert by the time they reach you.
These numbers above are a good rule of thumb for store-bought herbs or bulk dried herbs purchased online. But if you’re growing and drying your own herbs in a way that yields a high-quality product, they can last much longer than that. It’s better to rely on organoleptic testing to determine the quality of dried herbs rather than how long you’ve had them on hand, since some purchased herbs might be useless after only 4-6 months while homegrown herbs can still be in excellent shape 3-4 years later.
All right, let’s get down to business and talk about the 3 easy steps to evaluate the quality of dried herbs:
First, look at the color of the dried herb.
This step is most effective for evaluating the quality of dried leaves and flowers. Ask the following: What color is the dried herb and how does it compare to the color of the fresh herb? For leaves, are they still bright green or have they turned brown? For flowers, are they still vibrantly colored or have they faded?
Roots, barks, seeds, and fruits are a little harder to evaluate for color since they’re often shades of brown, but there’s still a difference between vibrant brown and dusty, old brown. If the dried herb is noticeably faded or its color is a lifeless brown when it should be rich green or another color, then compost it.
Second, smell the dried herb.
This step is most effective for evaluating the quality of dried leaves and flowers, and a few fragrant roots. Before you open a jar of dried leaves or flowers to smell, give it a little shake first. The movement will release some of the plant’s volatile oils, which are largely responsible for its fragrance. Otherwise you’re just smelling the air at the top of the jar and not so much the herb. Ask the following: What does the dried herb smell like and how does it compare to the smell of the fresh herb?
The smell of the dried herb should be strong (though not necessarily pleasant, depending on the herb!). If the dried herb no longer has any fragrance when it should, compost it.
Third, taste the dried herb.
This step is most effective for evaluating the quality of dried roots, barks, seeds, and fruits. Take a piece of the dried herb and chew on it. Ask yourself the following: What does the dried herb taste like and how does it compare to the taste of the fresh herb?
The taste should be noticeable and characteristic of the herb in question–licorice should be very sweet, echinacea should make your tongue prickle and numb, rosehips should pucker your lips, etc. If the dried herb doesn’t have a strong flavor when it should, compost it.
If you still can’t decide if the dried herb is worth keeping…
Try the herb out and see if it works! Use the dried herb in question to make a small amount of an herbal preparation–a tea often works well–and then use it and see if it’s effective. This can be a helpful method for evaluating roots, barks, seeds, and fruits that are difficult to assess by taste alone. As with all the other steps, compost the dried herb if it fails this test.