There is nothing like the aroma and taste of fresh herbs. My dream would be to have a huge herb garden where I could go outside and just snip a few fresh sprigs of whatever herb I needed for a recipe. Every single herb that exists would be in my garden waiting to play its part in my next culinary creation. My reality, however, is that I have fresh basil, parsley and scallions and unless I buy fresh herbs from the supermarket, I use a lot of dried herbs. Dried herbs are great – they are convenient, last a long time and in some cases, I prefer the dried version of an herb to the fresh. Some people are reluctant to buy fresh herbs, whether it’s because they are not sure what to do with them, which herbs go with what foods or because they end up getting wasted. This guide is here to answer some of those questions and hopefully, make you want to use more herbs in your cooking.
Buying and Storing Fresh Herbs
When buying herbs, be sure to look for vibrant colors and fresh aromas. Avoid leaves that are limp, yellowing or have brown spots. You can buy fresh herbs loose, in packages or as plants. Having herb plants allows you to just snip off what you need and the rest of the plant continues to grow for months.
You can store fresh herbs for several days in the fridge. Remove the rubber bands and immerse the stems in a glass with one inch of water. Cover the leaves with a plastic bag and change the water every day. Alternatively, you can trim the root ends and wrap the herbs loosely in damp paper towels. Place them in a plastic storage bag and keep them on the top shelf of the refrigerator, in the front so they don’t freeze. If the herbs do become limp, trim less than an inch off the stems and place them in a glass of ice water for a few hours. They will spring back to life!
Herbs can also be frozen for up to six months by plucking the leaves, washing and drying them, and placing them in a sealed plastic storage bag. They will, however, lose their vibrant color. Hearty herbs can be frozen in ice cube trays using oil or vegan butter. Simply fill an ice cube try about 2/3 full with chopped herbs, cover the herbs with oil or butter, cover the tray with plastic and freeze overnight. Pop the herb cubes out of the tray and store in labeled freezer bags. The next time you are cooking, you can just throw a cube in your pan and let it melt.
Cooking With Herbs
Only wash herbs when you are ready to use them. Put them in a bowl or sink of cool water and swish them around to release any dirt. Lift them out of the water and dry them in a salad spinner or by blotting them with a dish towel.
Herbs can be chopped with a knife or snipped with kitchen scissors. I choose scissors when I need chives or don’t feel like picking leaves of parsley off the stems. Chop the herbs right before you will add them to the dish so they remain fresh.
If the herbs are being used as an aromatic, background flavor, add some at the beginning of the recipes, usually right after heating the oil or cooking the first few ingredients such as the onions. You can add the entire sprig of an herb into the pot and then remove it when the dish is done. Dried herbs should also be added early in the recipe so their flavors can be released into the food. If you want the full flavor of the herbs to come through, chop them and add them near the end of cooking. And of course, herbs are the perfect garnish to top your incredible culinary masterpiece.
12 Essential Herbs
Let’s take a closer look at a dozen of the more common herbs that we can use in our cooking to give our dishes amazing depths of flavor. As well as learning about these different herbs, we will also share recipes and ideas in which to use them.
If you have ever eaten pesto, you have eaten basil. Basil, or Sweet Basil, is a popular herb in France and Italy. Basil has a floral aroma, similar to anise and cloves, and is a bit spicy. It pairs perfectly with tomatoes so you often find it inside and on top of Italian dishes. It is believed that it is best to tear basil leaves rather than chop them as the metal from the knife can alter the taste. Basil can be bought dried but it is best when fresh.
Basil can be used in sauces, salads, soups, smoothies, sandwiches and even desserts. Try this Spaghetti Squash with Basil and Creamy Cauliflower Alfredo Sauce, this Green Strawberry Basil Banana Smoothie, Basil and Peanut Butter Cookies, and Cool Pineapple-Basil Pops. Of course, basil is the most common way to make pesto. Check out this article on How to Make Pesto Without Cheese (It’s Easy).
There is also Thai Basil which has a much stronger anise scent and is used in many Asian dishes. The leaves are smaller than those of Sweet Basil. Try it in this Stir-Fried Thai Basil with Tofu and Eggplant.
Bay leaves are Mediterranean herbs that are members of the laurel family. They are the leaves that were used to make wreaths for Olympic athletes before there were gold medals. Bay is robust, strongly aromatic and has a woody, astringent flavor. The smell is slightly minty and slightly clove-like. Many cooks think of bay more as a spice than an herb and bay pairs well with other spices such as cumin. Bay leaves are usually added to soups, stews, rice, sauces, beans and other long-cooking dishes that have moist environments. Bay leaves are available fresh or dried and both are fine for cooking.
Chives are related to onions and garlic. They have long, hollow green stems and are usually used fresh, though you can buy dried chives. Chives have a mildly pungent flavor that is not as strong as onion. They are usually used as a garnish by chopping or snipping them with scissors as they are delicate and heat ruins their flavor. Chives are found in many recipes including baked potatoes, salads and omelets. They are often mixed into cream cheese as a spread or into vegan butter to make a compound butter. Try chives in these Tomato, Chive and Chickpea Pancakes and these Spicy Mushroom Stir-Fry with Garlic, Black Pepper and Chives.
Chive plants grow edible purple blossoms that have a stronger onion and garlic flavor than do the stems. They are beautiful on a plate.
Cilantro, also called coriander, is an herb that brings out strong feelings in people. They tend to either love it or hate it. Those who hate it often say cilantro has a “soapy” taste while those who love it find it verdant and refreshing. It has a slight anise flavor. Cilantro comes from the coriander plant, specifically the stems and the leaves, but it is not the same thing as coriander seeds which are the dried seeds of the plant. Nor is it the same thing as parsley, though they are often mistaken for each other in the store. Cilantro does come in dried form but it is best used fresh. It is most often used in spicy foods and is a staple of Mexican, Indian and Asian cooking.
Use cilantro in this Cilantro, Lime and Black Bean Rice, these Cilantro Avocado Chickpea Salad Tacos and this Sweet and Tangy Green Chile-Chipotle-Cilantro Dressing.
Dill is a very pretty herb with feathery leaves or fronds. It has a fresh, grassy flavor that is often referred to as anise-like. Dill comes in dried form as well as fresh. A member of the parsley family, dill is sometimes also called dill weed. Dill is often added to seafood dishes, yogurt sauces, vinegars, potato salads and soups.
Try dill in this Spring Kale and Dill Soup, this Brown Rice Salad with Dill, and this Potato Salad with Cilanto, Dill, Tomatoes and Raw Mayo. Make Vegan Cashew Dill Cheese or a Horseradish-Dill Mayo to put on your favorite Tempeh “Crab” Cakes.
When you think of mint, you probably think of desserts. Mint is certainly used for sweet foods like these Mint Carob Walnut Brownies and this Raw Kiwi Tart with Ginger, Coconut and Mint. Mint is also used in savory dishes where it adds a cooling, peppery taste. It is often used in North African, Indian and Middle Eastern dishes. Mint pairs well with green peas so you will see these two flavors together as in this Raw Peas, Mint and Avocado Soup. Try mint in this Baked Falafel and Cucumber Noodle Salad with Mint-Tahini Dressing and this Chile, Mint and Bean Shoot Salad. Mint is delicious in sauces, jellies and this Mint Chutney. It also works well in beverages such as mint tea and this Slow Cooker Kahlua Mint Hot Chocolate. Mint comes in many varieties with spearmint being the type most used in cooking.
Oregano is my favorite herb. It is also the herb I prefer to use in its dried form rather than fresh as the flavor is more concentrated. Oregano grows in the mountains of Italy and Greece and its name actually means “joy of the mountain” in Greek. There is also a type of oregano called Mexican Oregano that is used in Mexican dishes. Oregano is earthy and pungent and closely related to its milder, sweeter cousin, marjoram. Oregano balances acidic foods which makes it the perfect herb to use with tomatoes. Oregano is used in sauces, vinaigrettes, salads and of course, on pizza.
Parsley is probably the most common herb. You most likely remember always having that sprig of curly, green stuff on your plates when you ate at a restaurant and you were never sure whether you were supposed to eat it or not (you could but you probably didn’t want to). Parsley has a light, peppery flavor and it gets used in almost every recipe. It adds a fresh brightness and never dominates dishes. Flat-leaf or Italian parsley is the one you want to cook with; the curly stuff is best left for visual garnishes. Add it whenever your dish needs some color on top.
Enjoy parsley in this Lemon-Butter Fettuccine with Parsley and Pine Nuts and in this Not-Too-Sweet Pear and Parsley Smoothie.
Rosemary is a Mediterranean herb that is tough and woody with spiky, needle-like leaves. The stem is so strong, you can use it as a basting or pastry brush when grilling. Rosemary can be used fresh or dried. Rosemary is very strong and pungent and a little goes a long way. Because it is so aromatic, it can easily overpower a dish. It adds a woodsy, pine flavor to foods. Rosemary is often used in stews, soups and sauces. It pairs well with tomatoes, potatoes, and strong hearty foods like seitan. Rosemary also works well on pizza and in breads such as focaccia.
Try rosemary in these Easy and Delicious Roasted Rosemary String Beans. Make a compound Rosemary Butter to spread on biscuits. Rosemary can also be used in desserts like these Rosemary Lemon Sandwich Cookies.
Sage is an herb from the evergreen shrub. It has woody stems and large, fuzzy, green leaves. Sage has an earthy flavor and a strong, woodsy aroma. It is often used in combination with other herbs such as parsley, rosemary and thyme. Sage is available in fresh and dried forms. Dried sage is much stronger than the fresh and it can easily overpower a dish. Many people don’t use sage except at holiday time but it works well in many recipes year-round. The leaves can be deep-fried until crispy for a delectable garnish.
Tarragon is a delicate herb with long, thin, pointy leaves and tastes like anise. There are two types of tarragon: French and Russian. French tarragon is the one most used in cooking. In fact, it is one of the signature herbs in French cuisine. Tarragon is available fresh and dried and both are fine for cooking. Tarragon does have a strong peppery flavor and can overwhelm other ingredients so remember that a little goes a long way. Tarragon is used in white wine vinegars, mustard dishes and it is a key ingredient of béarnaise sauce.
Thyme is my second favorite herb. It is very fragrant and smells lemony. Thyme has thin, woody stems and small leaves that you pull off by holding the bottom of the stem with one hand and running the fingers of your other hand up the stem, stripping the leaves off. Thyme is often used with other herbs such as rosemary, sage, oregano and parsley. It is a popular herb in Mediterranean and European cuisines. Thyme is available fresh or dried and both are fine for cooking. Thyme works well in any dish and is especially delicious with mushrooms.
Herbs, like spices, can take a dish to new, complex and delightful levels. They add flavor, fragrance and color to food, taking recipes from ordinary to extraordinary. It’s fine to keep a bunch of bottles of dried herbs in the pantry; I know I do. But the next time you have a chance to buy and use some fresh herbs, grab it. The aroma alone will invigorate you and motivate you to make amazing dishes.
Lead image source: Vegan Potato Salad with Cilantro, Dill, Tomatoes and Raw Mayo