Using Culinary Herbs
What follows is a companion to Pat Chadwick’s article on how to grow, harvest, and preserve culinary herbs in last month’s issue of The Garden Shed. That article provided the nuts and bolts of herb cultivation. This article offers additional background, benefits, and practical suggestions for cooking with herbs, plus a few yummy recipes for you to experiment with in your own kitchen.
What are culinary herbs?
The word “herb” comes from the Latin root “herba,” which means green crop. That makes perfect sense, as the term “herb” refers to the green leafy parts of plants, including stems, leaves, and blossoms, that grow in temperate climates. Herbs are different from “spices,” which come from the roots, dried bark, buds, seeds, fruits, or berries of plants and trees that grow in tropical climates. The focus here is on culinary herbs, those used for flavor in cooking.
In the words of Jeff Cox, author of The Cook’s Herb Garden, “I always think of culinary herbs as the champions of the kitchen garden.” Marie-Pierre Moine, co-author of that same book, echoes this sentiment by saying, “As a cook, herbs are my best friends.” Indeed, any meal would be rather bland without these aromatic wonders and taste bud heroes that turn simple, everyday foods into tantalizing gustatory adventures.
Why cook with herbs?
You might be pleasantly surprised at the remarkable benefits of culinary herbs. Of course, they contribute distinctive flavors to meals, but herbs can also stimulate other senses, from delightful aromas to colorful visual appeal and unusual textures. For those concerned about weight gain, herbs are a dream come true; they help create memorable dietary fare without piling on calories. In addition, herbs are excellent replacement ingredients for cooks who aim for healthier dishes by decreasing the amount of salt, sugar, and fats in standard recipes.
An extra benefit of cooking with herbs is that flavorful dishes can be more satisfying. As a result, tasty dishes tend to slow down the rate of food consumption. As people take their time to savor delicious meals packed with culinary herbs, overall intake is often reduced. To top it off, many herbs are full of phytochemicals, known for their disease-fighting properties, and antioxidants, substances that delay or prevent some types of cell damage. Three cheers for culinary herbs that support improved health, which is a priority for all of us these days.
Historical and Cultural Context
Wild and cultivated herbs have been an integral part of food preservation and preparation for centuries, including prior to recorded history. For example, 3000 years ago in ancient Egypt, special schools were established to promote knowledge of herbs for culinary, medicinal, and cosmetic use. Herbs are mentioned throughout the Bible, and in the Middle Ages, herb gardens appeared throughout Europe. Looking back at their practical value, herbs played a critical role in preserving foodstuff long before the dawn of refrigeration. For instance, salting or pickling can prolong the shelf life of meats, fish, and vegetables.
Unique cooking styles and flavors are often associated with particular cultures, and certain herbs are a prominent feature of traditional cuisines the world over. Think about Italian food and basil, garlic, sage, and rosemary come to mind. Consider French recipes and that conjures up images of tarragon, thyme, and bay leaves. Imagine meals in the Middle East and notice the taste of parsley, mint, and lemon on the tip of your tongue. In a sense, culinary herbs are power players in cultural legacy. Over many generations, herbs deliver the noticeable bouquet and flavor attached to favorite recipes that represent renowned cooking traditions. After all, many of us cling to special dishes that reflect our own cultural heritage. Herbs also remind us of beloved relatives who may have had a flair for baking or cooking. For example, anytime I make a big pot of tomato sauce, my dad’s spunky Italian “Ma” seems to be standing right beside me.
Flavor Scale, from Mild to Pungent
When considering which herbs to use, keep your own taste preferences in mind, as well as the palette of those you are preparing food for. You might love spicy dishes, but your spouse or children might reject meals with flavors that are too intense, hot, or peppery. Look at various options and ponder where common herbs fall on a scale of mild to spicy. Jill Norman’s book, Herbs and Spices: The Cook’s Reference, groups culinary herbs into flavor categories such as mild, sweet, tart, and pungent. This helps with meal planning and when choosing new recipes for kitchen experimentation. The following list groups well-known herbs of familiar cuisines, identifies their flavor, and suggests culinary possibilities.
Parsley – Fresh, tangy taste; leaves and stems can be chopped and used to bring out the flavor of other seasonings. Chopped parsley should be added at the end of cooking for freshest flavor and greatest nutritional benefit. It’s quite versatile and widely used in sauces, salads, and stuffing recipes. Parsley pairs well with fish, eggs, rice, and just about every vegetable. From my point of view, this herb is a “must have” for anyone who loves to cook!
Purslane – Fresh, lemony taste; leaves and flowers can be added into salads. Purslane is a fine accompaniment for meats and other dishes from the Mediterranean, such as lamb and veal stew, yogurt garlic dressing, and Lebanese fattoush.
Sweet basil – Aromatic with warm, peppery flavor; use fresh leaves (if available). Basil is an excellent companion for tomatoes, poultry, and seafood, and it’s the main ingredient of pesto. There are many basil varieties, each with its own distinctive taste and aroma.
Lavender – Lovely floral aroma and strong, savory taste, but should be used sparingly; use dried flowers and leaves. Fresh, chopped flowers can be added to cake batter, sweet pastry dough, cooked rice, and meat marinades. Infused flowers are a delightful addition to sorbets and ice cream.
Bee balm – Delicate citrus taste; use fresh or dried leaves and flowers. Shredded leaves can be added to yogurt or cream sauces. Chopped flowers from bee balm are tasty with cream cheese. It’s also a delightful flavoring for tea and homemade lemonade.
Lemon balm – Lemon mint flavor; use fresh or dried leaves. This herb is a great complement for fish and poultry, and fresh leaves are tasty when scattered throughout steamed or sautéed vegetables.
Licorice or Anise
Dill – Slightly sharp taste and remarkable fragrance; use fresh or dried leaves and seeds. Dill makes a terrific complement for fish and seafood and is an essential flavor of many Scandinavian dishes. This unique flavor pairs well with root vegetables and sour cream sauces. Of course, dill is the well-known ingredient of crunchy dill pickles.
Tarragon – Definite anise flavor with sweet aftertaste; use fresh or dried leaves and sprigs. Tarragon is a standard flavoring for French dishes, especially for sauces made with fines herbes, adding pleasant aroma and taste to summer vegetables, most notably, fresh tomatoes. Fines herbes is a combination of chopped herbs that usually includes parsley, chervil, chives, marjoram, and tarragon. For best flavor, fresh herbs should be used.
Peppermint – Noticeably tangy, menthol smell with a rather cool aftertaste. This mint is quite strong, and it’s mainly used to flavor teas, sweet desserts (sparingly), and toothpaste.
Spearmint – Refreshing taste with delightful aroma; use fresh or dried leaves. Mint adds wonderful flavor to carrots, peas, and zucchini, and it pairs well with marinades and sauces for lamb, veal, chicken, or pork. Mint can embellish fruit salads and fruit punch, as well as the famous mint julep drink.
Chicory – Crispy, bitter taste; use fresh, young leaves and flowers. Chicory can wake up the natural flavors of cheese and salad greens, and it has been used as a less expensive substitute for coffee, without the caffeine content.
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis, not to be confused with anise hyssop, Agastache foeniculum, an ornamental) – Potent, slightly mint flavor with camphor-like aroma; use the flowers and young leaves, but add a small amount, as this flavor can be overpowering. Hyssop is frequently added as a flavoring for non-alcoholic drinks and in fruit desserts containing apricots, peaches, cherries, and raspberries. The ancient Romans used hyssop to make herbal wine, and hyssop leaves make a delightful, soothing tea.
Cilantro – Distinct lemony flavor with a hint of pepper and pungent, ginger-like aroma; use leaves and sprigs, and be sure to add them toward the end of cooking. Cilantro is a staple, go-to herb throughout most of Asia, used generously in soups and curry sauces or stir-fried dishes. This herb is often combined with chili peppers to make relishes and salsas in Mexico and India.
Oregano – Robust, lemony taste; use dried leaves, as they have a stronger flavor than fresh ones. Oregano is a well-known staple of Italian dishes, but it is also a key ingredient of Greek souvlaki and salads. Tex-Mex chili con carne is flavored with a combination of oregano, paprika, cumin, and chili powder.
Rosemary – Peppery, woody taste with a strong, refreshing aroma that lingers; leaves must be chopped up before use in cooking, as they are rather tough. In Mediterranean cuisine, rosemary is often used with olive oil to flavor vegetables and kebabs. It’s a great addition to focaccia, crackers, and other breads and a wonderful complement to chicken dishes.
Thyme – Spicy, earthy taste with hints of mint; use fresh or dried leaves and sprigs. Thyme is an excellent choice for recipes that call for slow-cooking, and it’s ideal for soups and stews that contain onions, beer, or red wine. It’s a fundamental flavoring for Creole and Cajun cooking, including Louisiana’s well-known gumbos and jambalayas, and also in New England clam chowder.
When considering which herbs to use, make note of recommended culinary partners. These combinations tend to bring out memorable flavors while capturing a tantalizing balance of gustatory delight. Remember that a mild herb can be paired with a stronger herb to enhance its appeal on your taste buds. For example, rosemary, parsley, and garlic work well together in lemony sauces for chicken, pork, or lamb. Dill, parsley, and thyme are delicious with fish and seafood dishes. Rosemary, oregano, and garlic bring out wonderful flavors with roasted meats, such as lamb or pork. Parsley, tarragon, dill, and mint create delectable yogurt sauces, while lavender, cilantro, and basil capture the delicious freshness of fruits like peaches, apricots, plums, and pears.
Preparing Herbs for Consumption
The secret to best flavor with herbs is proper preparation. Always begin with fresh herbs that are clean and dry and have your culinary tools ready. In most cases, you will want to strip or pluck leaves from the stems of fresh herbs. After that, place the leaves on a clean chopping board and slice them with a large, sharp, chef-style knife. For broader leaves, pile them up before slicing for more efficient prep time. To finely chop herbs, rock your knife back and forth to get smaller pieces.
If you plan to harvest and dry or freeze your own home-grown herbs for use in cooking, be sure to read Pat Chadwick’s article in the March issue of The Garden Shed for suggestions and tips. Just remember that flavors will be best when herbs have been dried quickly without exposure to sunlight or high heat. Keep a record of drying or freezing dates, because most fresh herbs that have been preserved will start to lose their noticeably piquant flavor after about six months.
In general, you will achieve more vibrant, distinct flavors in prepared dishes if herbs are added toward the end of the cooking process. However, if you’re looking for more blended results, such as in sauces, it’s wise to add herbs at the beginning of cooking. When preparing uncooked recipes, such as salad dressings, add herbs just a few hours before serving time, to allow flavors to be well-combined.
Fresh herbs can be stored in a damp towel or plastic bag in the refrigerator for a couple weeks. Over time, most dried herbs lose their potent taste, so consider discarding containers that have been on your shelf for a year or more. When following a recipe that calls for herbs, the amount specified usually refers to dried herbs. If you plan to use fresh herbs, you should increase the amount (e.g., one tsp. of dried herbs = 1 Tbsp. of chopped fresh herbs). To brighten up the taste and visual appeal of dishes you serve, try sprinkling some herbs on the plates in advance. Your family and guests are sure to notice the flavor enhancement.
Now, go ahead and be bold! Try a few recipes that feature some of the herbs mentioned in this article. Your taste buds and tummies will thank you.
Garlic and Herb Seasoning Blend (from Homegrown Herbs by Tammi Hartung, 2011)
Great all-around seasoning for bread, pasta, and vegetables.
2 Tbsp dried basil
2 Tbsp dried marjoram
2 Tbsp dried oregano
2 Tbsp dried parsley
2 Tbsp dried rosemary
2 Tbsp dried thyme
2 Tbsp dried onion flakes
1 Tbsp sea salt
2 tspn garlic powder
1 tspn freshly ground pepper
Combine all ingredients and store in an airtight container until ready to use.
Yogurt Sauce with Parsley and Mint (from The Cook’s Herb Garden by Jeff Cox and Marie-Pierre Moine, 2010)
Use this sauce to cool down complementary spicy dishes.
5 oz plain, whole milk yogurt
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
1 tsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp chopped parsley
¼ oz smashed feta cheese
1 tspn chopped marjoram
1 tspn dried mint
1 ½ Tbsp olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
In a food processor, blend the yogurt, parsley, lemon juice, feta cheese, marjoram, and dried mint. Season with salt and pepper. Put in a covered bowl in the refrigerator for at least two hours. Just before serving, drizzle the olive oil into the mixture and stir in gently. Scatter some fresh parsley and mint on top.
Asian Marinade (from Herbs and Spices. by Jill Norman, 2002)
Recommended for use with poultry, fish, or spareribs.
2 shallots, chopped
1 small piece of fresh ginger, chopped
1 hot chili pepper, sliced
2 tsp sugar
¼ cup cilantro, chopped
2 Tbsp fish sauce
5 Tbsp rice vinegar
Blend ingredients well and keep in refrigerator until ready to use.
Hopefully, this article has piqued your interest in cooking with herbs. Be sure to explore the references listed below for more information and tantalizing recipes for future culinary adventures.
Herbs and Spices (Norman, 2002)
Homegrown Herbs (Hartung, 2011)
The Cook’s Herb Garden (Cox and Moine. 2010)
Appling, Shawn. Herb Culture and Use. Virginia Cooperative Extension, Publication 426-420.
Brooks, Austin. 2016. Garnish Your Plate with Herbs. Virginia Cooperative Extension. Family Nutrition Program.
Sanchez, Elsa & Kelley, Kathleen. 2002. Herb and Spice History. Department of Horticulture, Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, Cooperative Extension.
Virginia Virtual Farm to Table: Herbs (video with instructions for making pesto). Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Anise Hyssop for the Perennial Garden, Penn.State Extension, 2019.