Cooking with fresh herbs isn’t just for gourmet chefs. Learn everything you need to know about buying, preparing, storing and cooking with herbs.
A lot of people are intimidated by the idea of using fresh herbs in their cooking. You’ve heard that fresh is best, but if you don’t have a lot of experience with herbs then you’ll probably have a few questions. Which herbs pair with which types of food? How much should I use? When do I add them to the cooking process? What should I do with the leftovers?
Although there are a few occasions when using dried herbs is recommended,cooking with fresh seems to be the preference for many chefs. They’re flavorful, make beautiful garnishes and most importantly, they’re packed with valuable nutrients and antioxidants. With a few tips and tricks you can maximize your use of fresh herbs to transform every meal into something special.
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 do have a few pitfalls, however. They will eventually lose their flavor over time and should be replaced at least once a 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. Most chefs strive for a well balanced blend of flavors so that a particular ingredient does not dominate the dish.
Growing your own herbs gives you certain advantages over buying them from the market. Cutting sprigs moments before use ensures maximum flavor and nutrition, and you waste less since you’re only cutting what you need.
Every herb plant is unique and requires slightly different harvesting techniques. It’s always a good idea to snip the leaves using scissors rather than pulling them off with your fingers. Start by removing older leaves from the outside of the plant to encourage growth. Then work your way inward toward the younger stems.
What to look for when buying
If you have to purchase your herbs from a grocery store, try to pick them up as close to your cooking time as possible. Look for bunches with vibrant color and aroma. Herbs packed in plastic should be pried open for 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.
Pretreat your herbs
If you’re not using yours herbs immediately then you’ll want to pretreat them before you place them back in the refrigerator. First remove anything fastening your herbs together. Ties and rubber bands can bruise fragile plants affecting their longevity and flavor.
The root ends will need to be snipped as they will draw moisture away from the leaves resulting in premature wilting. If the roots are substantial then you can save them for soup or curry flavoring.
How to store fresh herbs
Before you store your herbs in the fridge, wrap them in a slightly damp paper towel and put them in a ziplock bag. Make sure the bag has a little bit of air inside, and place it in the warmest part of your fridge (usually located either in the doors or on the top shelf). When you’re ready to use your herbs, just 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
Not having to wash your herbs is another benefit of growing your own. Water will quicken their demise, so if you can, skip this step. Only wash your herbs if you’re going to use them immediately, otherwise store them in your fridge unwashed.
Fill a bowl with cold water and place your herbs inside. Gently move them around the water 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. Whether you’re throwing your herbs into a food processor or you’re chopping them by hand, ensure that the blade you are using is sharpened. A dull blade will bruise your herbs, changing the color of your leaves from a vibrant green to a dull black. Scissors can also be used if you’re not concerned about achieving small, uniform pieces .
To maximize the flavor of your herbs you’ll want to chop them as finely as possible. The finer you chop your herbs, the more oils released and the more fragrant the herb will become. Delicate herbs like parsley and cilantro should be chopped right before use as they will lose their aroma quickly. It’s often recommended to add these more delicate herbs after you’ve taken your dish off the heat or right before serving.
When to add fresh herbs
When to add fresh herbs to your cooking 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.
Because fresh herbs don’t have a long shelf life after they’ve been cut, it’s a good idea to use them all as soon as possible. Knowing what types of herbs pair with which types of foods will allow you to be flexible and creative in the kitchen. You could also infuse oils with your leftover herbs or add them to cocktails. The possibilities are endless!
Herb-Food Pairing Guide
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: Herbal and floral
Cooking Tip: Rarely available fresh, fresh is significantly less pungent than dried. Most prefer Turkish or Mediterranean bay leaf flavor over California. Put in at the beginning, remove before serving.
Pair With: Slow-cooked sauces, soups and stews, stocks, beans, game, chicken, lentils, potatoes, risotto, shellfish, tomatoes
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 then 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 vegetables, game
Flavor: Licorice, fennel, sweet
Cooking Tip: Can easily overpower dishes. Heat releases flavor, cook with at beginning
Pair With: Chicken, shellfish, eggs, bérnaise sauce, potatoes, vinegar,
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