Cooking with fresh herbs isn’t just for gourmet chefs. Fresh herbs pack flavor and nutrition. In this article, we will answer your questions about which herbs pair with which types of food? How much to use? When to add in the cooking process? What to do with leftovers?
Fresh vs. Dried
Choosing between fresh or dried herbs is a matter of preference. Some chefs advise against using fresh when cooking a dish that needs to simmer longer than 45 minutes. Dried herbs pack a stronger, more condensed flavor, so if you’re substituting dried herbs in the place of fresh, then you’ll need to cut the amount in half.
Dried herbs will eventually lose their flavor and should be replaced after one year. There is also evidence that suggests a substantial amount of nutrients are lost in the drying process.
Although fresh herbs tend to have a softer flavor, subtlety when cooking is not necessarily a bad thing. Strive for a balanced blend of flavors so that one ingredient does not dominate the dish.
What to look for when buying
Harvest herbs as close to your cooking time as possible. When buying, look for vibrant color and aroma. Farmer’s markets typically offer the freshest, most flavorful herbs. Herbs packed in plastic should get a sniff test. If you can’t smell them then chances are you won’t be able to taste them.
Avoid limp and soggy bundles with any discoloration in the form of black spots or general yellowing. Grocery stores often overspray their produce to give the illusion of freshness, when in fact, excessive watering encourages rot and mold.
How to pretreat and store herbs
If you’re not using your herbs immediately, you’ll want to pretreat them before refrigerating. First remove any fasteners. Ties and rubber bands can bruise fragile plants affecting their longevity and flavor. Then, cut the stems fresh and place the herbs in a small glass of water. Cover the herbs with a loose plastic bag and set on the warmest shelf possible in your fridge.
Alternatively, you can wrap fresh herbs in a ziploc bag with a damp paper towel. Make sure the bag has a bit of air inside, and place it in the warmest part of your fridge (usually located in the door). When you’re ready to use your herbs, cut away any wilted or discolored leaves. Fresh herbs don’t have a long shelf life so use them as soon as possible.
How to wash fresh herbs
Water will quicken their demise, so if your herbs are fresh picked, you can skip this step. Only wash your herbs if you’re going to use them immediately, otherwise store them unwashed.
Fill a bowl with cold water and place your herbs inside. Gently agitate to remove any dirt. If there is a significant amount of sediment at the bottom of the bowl, dump your water and give the herbs another rinse. Gently pat them dry using a paper towel or give them a whirl in a salad spinner.
How to chop fresh herbs
A really sharp knife is a worthwhile investment and makes preparing food a more enjoyable experience. A dull blade will bruise your herbs, changing the color of your leaves from a vibrant green to a dull black. Specialty herb scissors can also be handy for this task.
To maximize the flavor of your herbs you’ll want them finely chopped. The finer you chop your herbs, the more oils released and the more fragrant the herb will be. Delicate herbs like parsley and cilantro should be chopped right before use as they will lose their aroma quickly. Add these more delicate herbs after you’ve taken your dish off the heat or right before serving for max flavor.
When to add fresh herbs
This depends not only on the herb, but also on the sort of flavor you’re trying to achieve. Robust herbs like rosemary, thyme and savory can be used in longer simmering dishes. Gently bruise the leaves with your fingers before dropping them in to release more oils and increase flavor.
Adding herbs at the beginning of your cooking will create a subtle background note. If at the end you find you want to punch up the flavor, just add a bit more for reinforcement. Remember, you don’t want any one flavor to stand out too much.
If you keep the leaves on their stem they will be easier to remove later. Using an herb sachet, also known as a bouquet garni, is another option that will keep you from losing your herbs in a sauce or broth. This also allows you to control the flavor if you find the herbs are becoming overpowering.
Flavor: Licorice and cloves
Cooking tip: Add at the end of cooking to maximize flavor
Pair with: Tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, oregano, pasta, onions, chicken, eggs, pizza, green leaf salads, bell peppers, zucchini, apricots, berries, figs, peaches, plums
Flavor: Light oniony taste
Cooking tip: Use raw, or at the end of cooking. Add chive flowers to a salad or use chive stems to tie vegetables together
Pair with: Eggs, potatoes, sauces, stews and soups, salads, mayonnaise, butter, sour cream, vegetables, stir-frys, breads
Flavor: Bright and citrusy; some claim it tastes soapy
Cooking tip: Can be used at beginning or end of cooking
Pair with: Spicy dishes, salsas, chiles, curries, salads, soups, chicken, fish, vinaigrette, apples, bananas, mangoes, pears, summer melons
Flavor: Combination of celery, fennel and parsley
Cooking tip: Fresh packs greater flavor than dry. Add at beginning or end of cooking
Pair with: Fish, beans, hard boiled eggs, beets, soups, sour cream, cream cheese, dressings, yogurt, chicken, potato salad, meats
Flavor: Sweet, fresh, slightly astringent
Cooking tip: Peppermint has a stronger flavor over spearmint. Could be added at beginning or end of cooking
Pair with: Lamb, chocolate, pork chops, jellies, sauces, cocktails, berries, figs and dates. oranges and limes, summer melons, cherries, apricots, plums, apples, pears
Flavor: Hint of sweetness with some spiciness
Cooking tip: Strong, robust flavor especially if dried. Mediterranean oregano is milder than Mexican. Add at beginning of cooking; if adding in an herb bag, do not strip leaves from stems
Pair with: Pizza, tomatoes, pastas, eggs, cheeses, eggplant, meats, dressings, oil and butter, pesto
Flavor: Flat parsley has a peppery bite and curly parsley is relatively bland
Cooking tip: Flat parsley holds up better in longer cooking, curly looks great as a garnish. Stems have the strongest concentration of flavors and can be added diced finely or in a bouquet garni
Pair with: Fish, vegetables, salad, rice, soups, stews, meatballs, pesto, sauces, marinades, bananas, coconuts, grapefruits, mangoes, pineapples, summer melons
Flavor: Pine-like, astringent
Cooking tip: Add whole stems at beginning and remove before serving; great for the grill. Leaves can fall off so might want to use in bouquet garni. If chopping, dice very finely as it can be quite tough
Pair with: Lamb, potatoes, marinades and oils, eggs, fish, poultry, pork, tomatoes, onions, ice cream, oranges, apricots
Flavor: Slightly peppery with touch of mint
Cooking tip: Robust flavor best with heavy foods. Add at the beginning of cooking
Pair with: Meats, sausage, cheese and cream based items, sweet and savory breads, stuffings, beans, potatoes, risottos, tomato sauce
Flavor: Peppery flavor, winter savoury is more pungent than summer
Cooking tip: Can be added at beginning or end or cooking
Pair with: Beans, meat, poultry, grilled veggies, wild game
Flavor: Sweet, mildly pungent
Cooking tip: Great paired when cooked with parsley and bay. Can be added at beginning. If using stems prepare for stronger flavor but remove before serving
Pair with: Broths, soups and stews, flatbreads, meat, poultry, potatoes, stuffings, marinades, cherries, figs, grapes, honeydew melon, peaches, pears