I recently gave a talk on cooking with fresh herbs, and thought the information I shared would be fitting here as well. It hadn’t really occurred to me that a lot of people don’t cook this way, as this is just what I was exposed to growing up and how I’ve always cooked for myself as well. For those who aren’t as familiar with using fresh herbs, this information could be helpful in feeling more comfortable to start experimenting. I really think that using fresh herbs can be one of the most significant factors in elevating the flavors of your food to another level.
First, a quick overview of using dry herbs vs. fresh herbs.
- Dried herbs tend to do best if they’re added during cooking so their flavor has time to infuse the whole dish.
- When to add fresh herbs depends on the herb and the flavor you’re trying to achieve. Adding herbs at the beginning will create a subtle background note, and then at the end if you want more flavor you can just add a bit more for reinforcement. More delicate herbs (basil, chives) do better if you use them at the end of cooking.
- Some herbs dry better than others do. Woody herbs like oregano, thyme, and rosemary all retain their flavor more than soft, tender herbs like basil and chives do.
I think we’re all probably familiar with basil in it’s top form, married to tomatoes. This is one of my favorite herbs to always have fresh, as it just does not compare in it’s dry form. Basil obviously pairs beautifully with fresh tomatoes and tomato sauce, but it’s also a delicious garnish for soups, chicken, pizza, salads, or a variety of cooked vegetables. It can sometimes even be paired with sweet foods, I love it with fresh berries from our garden in the summer. The delicate leaves are prone to bruising though and are best sliced thinly right before serving.
Mint is extremely versatile and can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. It’s often used as a companion to lamb, or in fruit and vegetable salads. In the summer when I grow mint I use it almost daily by chopping some up to put in my Greek yogurt every morning, or to make a berry mint gazpacho as one of our favorite summer desserts. Of course we always love muddling the leaves up to release their oils for mojitos all summer long too, and it’s a great garnish for many other fun cocktails if you’re into that. If you want to dress up a fruit salad, one of my favorite ways to do that is to throw in some mint leaves. There are many varieties, but if you plan on growing it, I would suggest growing spearmint as it is most easily used for both sweet and savory dishes.
Rosemary is one of the most aromatic and pungent of all the herbs. Its needlelike leaves have a pronounced lemon-pine flavor that pairs well with roasted lamb, garlic, and olive oil. If you ever have leftover rosemary – go ahead and infuse some olive oil with it for dipping bread into. Rosemary is also a nice addition to focaccia, tomato sauce, pizza, and pork, but because its flavor is strong, you’ll want to use a light hand with this one, and it’s best used in the beginning of cooking.
Out of all the herbs I’m talking about, I think oregano probably dries the best, but of course I still love it fresh as well! The Greeks love oregano sprinkled on salads, while the Italians shower it on pizza and slip it into tomato sauces. You can add chopped oregano to vinaigrettes, or use it in poultry, game, or seafood dishes when you want to take them in a Greek or Italian direction. Fresh oreganos ability to infuse a dish with flavor probably can’t be matched by any other herbs. It’s great for infusing olive oil, or for stuffing into fish or meat along with some garlic for some real amazing flavor.
Next is thyme, which is actually my favorite herb. It plays well with many other herbs- rosemary, parsley, sage, oregano. Its earthiness flavor is welcome with pork, lamb, duck, and it’s much beloved in Cajun cooking. Because the leaves are so small, they often don’t require chopping. I simply just slide them off the stems pinched between two of my fingers. Thyme can utilized in a savory or sweet way. One of my favorite cookies to make are lemon thyme cookies, which utilize fresh thyme of course. I find fresh thyme keeps very well, so I almost always have it on hand, and am always sprinkling it over a variety of dishes throughout the week thanks to it’s wonderful versatility.
Cilantro, also know as coriander, or as Chinese parsley is an interesting herb because most people either love it or hate it. If you hate it, it’s likely because you’re getting a soapy flavor when you eat it. You’re not crazy, scientifically some people’s tastebuds just taste cilantro this way. It can be used in the beginning or end of a dish, and it works wonderfully in spicy Mexican or Indian foods, which we eat a lot of at home. It’s also wonderful in vinaigrettes, salads, soups, or one of my favorite ways to use it: as a cilantro lime crema to top fish with.
Chives are so easy to grow, my mom actually brings hers inside and grows them throughout the winter, and they’re great to add a little pop of flavor to a lot of basic foods. You’ll want to toss chives into a dish at the last minute, because heat destroys their delicate flavor. They’re great in dips, quesadillas, on potatoes, in mayonnaise, or even cream some butter with garlic and chives to spread onto your bread.
No refrigerator should be without parsley. It’s the workhorse of the herb world and can go in just about every dish you cook. Parsley’s mild flavor allows the flavors of other ingredients to come through. Curly parsley, on the left, is less assertive than flat-leaf parsley (often called Italian parsley), on the right. Flat-leaf parsley is preferred for cooking, as it stands up better to heat and has more flavor, while decorative curly parsley is used mostly for garnishing.
Dill is another herb I just love fresh. It goes great with fish, in egg salad, in greek yogurt to make a tztaziki sauce, or I also love it in potato salad. There’s a lot of everyday foods you probably make which dill would be a welcome addition to, and it’s easily used at the beginning or end of cooking.
Sage works best with heavier foods, as it can easily overwhelm a dish. You’ll want to use it at the beginning of cooking, with a bit of discretion. Italians love it with veal, while the French add it to stuffings, cured meats, sausages, and pork dishes. And of course we associate it with turkey and dressing. Thanksgiving is actually a perfect time to use fresh sage to really enhance the flavors of your feast.
Tarragon is another one of my favorite herbs, but unfortunately it’s one that is not as easily found fresh. It’s primarily used in French cooking, and pairs well with fish, chicken and potatoes. Heat diminishes its flavor, so you’ll want to add tarragon toward the end of cooking, or use it as a garnish, and a little goes a long way. If this isn’t one you’re familiar with, I think it’s a flavor worth experimenting with, and worth seeking out recipes that call for tarragon.One of my favorite ways to use it in the summer is as part of a sauce for grilled swordfish.
Tips for using fresh herbs:
- When chopping your herbs, you really only need to remove twiggy or woody stems. I’ve seen people tediously pulling the leaves off of cilantro and parsley – don’t do that! I always just chop the soft stems with the leaves, unless I need individual leaves for garnish. Now rosemary or thyme you wouldn’t want to do this with. Thyme I actually just slide the leaves off with my fingers, and they’re so little no chopping is necessary. Speaking of chopping things up, when cooking anything really, you need good knives. If you are serious about cooking, and are going to invest in anything in your kitchen, a good set of big sharp knives should probably be number one on your list. Followed by a big wooden chopping block to give you ample workspace. The finer you chop your herbs, the more oils are released and the more fragrant the herb will become. Chopping anything into a small dice is much more enjoyable when you have the proper knives to do this.
- Obviously feel free to use dry and fresh herbs together. Often this just makes more sense, or is what we have on hand. Dry herbs work best if used first in cooking to infuse a dish with flavor, and then often you can finish it off with fresh herbs. An example of this is how I’ll often make my red sauce with dried oregano to infuse in the beginning and add fresh basil last to give it another layer of flavor.
- When a recipe calls for dry herbs, but you’d rather use fresh, a general rule of thumb to start with is to use one n a half times the amount fresh you would dry. So 1 tsp dry equals 1.5 tsp fresh, then add more to taste. I almost always add more, because I like a lot of flavor. There’s some truth to the saying that cooking, as opposed to baking, is more of an art than a science. You can just adjust as you go, do it to suit your tastes, and you’ll most likely not screw it up. I personally think this is the best way to cook: taste as you go, and learn what you like.
Tips for storing fresh herbs:
- One big turn-off for people when it comes to using fresh herbs is that they don’t keep well. This is obviously solved first by growing your own. I don’t consider myself to have a green thumb and I still grow a small assortment of herbs every summer. The rest of the year I keep fresh herbs I buy from the store in an herb keeper. Or, you can just keep them wrapped in paper towels and stored in ziploc baggies in the fridge with a bit of air left in the bags.
- You should never wash them until you’re going to use them either, because water will quicken a fresh herbs demise.
- If you have leftover herbs, make a sauce out of them to freeze for later. Pesto and chimichurri are great examples.
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