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What Are Culinary Herbs?
Culinary herbs are aromatic edible plants used in small amounts to add flavor to dishes. Most herbs are used for both culinary and medicinal uses and come from plants that may be used for their leaves, as herbs, and also for their seeds, as spices.
Chefs and home cooks alike use fresh and dried herbs to make both sweet and savory dishes, ranging from rich sauces to light salads and herb-laced baked goods. In addition to their culinary uses, medicinal herbs and their valuable essential oils have been relied on for their health benefits since the Middle Ages, ranging from anti-inflammatory and antiviral benefits to skin-clearing topical powers.
What's the Difference Between Using Fresh and Dried Herbs?
Fresh herbs are generally preferred over dried herbs for culinary purposes, although there are advantages to using dried herbs. While fresh herbs have a much shorter lifespan, dried herbs can maintain their flavor for up to six months when stored in an airtight container in a dark place at room temperature.
While dried herbs are typically used throughout the cooking process, as prolonged heat and exposure to moisture can draw the flavors out of the herbs, fresh herbs are more commonly added towards the end of the cooking process or as a garnish at the end of cooking. Dried herbs contain a more concentrated amount of flavor than fresh herbs, and therefore are used in smaller quantities than fresh herbs. As a rule, each tablespoon of fresh herbs called for in a recipe can be swapped with 1 teaspoon of dried herbs, and vice-versa.
How to Clean Fresh Herbs
To clean fresh herbs, dunk them in a cold water bath and gently move them around in the water to remove any dirt or debris. Shake off the excess water, and carefully pat the herbs dry with paper towels. More delicate herbs like parsley, cilantro, and chervil should be handled gently, in comparison to sturdy herbs like sprigs of rosemary and thyme.
How to Store Fresh Herbs
Fresh herbs can be stored via two methods: in a plastic bag or in a jar filled with water. Leafy herbs can be stored upright in a jar of water, with the leaves sticking out of the top of the jar. All herbs can also be stored between a damp paper towel in an airtight plastic bag in the refrigerator.
15 Common Herbs and How to Use Them
- Basil (Ocimum basilicum): This member of the mint family has glossy, deep green, pointed leaves and a sweet-and-savory flavor with hints of anise, mint, and pepper. Varieties include sweet basil, Thai sweet basil, lemon basil, and holy basil. Basil is used in both fresh and dried form to flavor dishes ranging from Italian sauces to meat dishes to Asian curries. This popular herb is also one of the main ingredients of pesto, a sauce made with fresh basil, Parmesan cheese, pine nuts, garlic, kosher salt, black pepper, and olive oil.
- Mint (Mentha): This perennial plant has a subtly sweet flavor and releases a distinct cooling sensation due to the menthol in the herb. Used for a variety of culinary and medicinal purposes, mint has tender, bright green leaves that are commonly used in beverages like mint tea and mint juleps, as well as dishes like Vietnamese pho and Thai stir-frys. While dried mint is used in tea making, fresh mint is the preferred culinary form of the herb.
- Parsley (Petroselinum crispum): A member of the Apiaceae family of plants, parsley is a leafy, herbaceous herb with a bright, slightly bitter taste that emphasizes other flavors. Most commonly added at the end of cooking as a garnish, parsley has a few common varieties including flat-leaf parsley (aka Italian parsley), curly parsley, and Japanese parsley (aka Chinese parsley). Parsley is commonly used to make chimichurri sauce and light Mediterranean dishes like tabbouleh.
- Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum): Also known as coriander, cilantro is a tart, citrusy herb with delicate, bright green leaves most commonly used fresh and added at the end of cooking. A member of the parsley family, this flavorful herb is used frequently in Mexican and Middle Eastern cuisine, as well as spicy Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese dishes. The seeds of the coriander plant are also used to make a common ground spice.
- Oregano (Origanum vulgare): With a name meaning “joy of the mountain” in Greek, oregano is a fragrant herb in the mint family with a sweet, slightly peppery flavor. This earthy herb is commonly used in its dried form throughout cooking in dishes like tomato sauce, and is a staple in Turkish, Italian, Greek, and Mexican cuisine.
- Thyme (Thymus vulgaris): Recognizable by its small, pale green leaves and pungent aroma, thyme is a popular herb among cooks and gardeners alike. Fresh thyme is a sturdy herb that holds up well to heat and can be used throughout the cooking process. With three common varieties (French thyme, English thyme, and German thyme), this herb is frequently added to hearty dishes like pork loin, lemony chicken breasts, and fatty meats, as it can hold its own against rich flavors.
- Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus): This hearty herb is known for its stronger flavor with bittersweet notes of anise, licorice, and chervil. With three common varieties—French tarragon, Mexican tarragon, and Russian tarragon—this herb is used in both fresh and dried form to flavor hearty meat dishes like pork chops, as well as lighter egg and fish recipes. Used by the likes of ancient Roman soldiers to boost vitality, tarragon has a storied history as a healthful herb.
- Bay Leaf (Laurus nobilis): While this Mediterranean herb is native to Asia, it has been most commonly associated with the ancient European cultures of Greece and Italy. A pungent, aromatic herb with a slightly bitter taste, bay leaves are typically used in dried, whole form and steeped in stews, soups, and sauces throughout the cooking process to infuse a deeply herbaceous flavor. A traditional ingredient of the French bouquet garni, bay leaves are also used in Indian cuisine and Asian cooking.
- Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): With a Latin name meaning “dew of the sea,” rosemary has been prized for its sturdy, aromatic whole sprigs and rosemary oil for centuries. Known for its needle-like leaves, woody stems, and herbaceous aroma, fresh rosemary is used in dishes ranging from roasted fall vegetables to whipped goat cheese to flavorful bundt cakes. Rosemary stems and rosemary leaves alike are used to flavor a wide variety of recipes. Chefs use rosemary sprigs to infuse hot oil or butter for cooking meat, vegetables, and other rich rosemary recipes.
- Sage (Salvia officinalis): This perennial herb is known for its fuzzy, gray-green leaves and earthy, sweet-and-savory flavor with a peppery bite. Fresh sage leaves are commonly used to make Chinese herbal tea. Common sage is used in both fresh and dried forms and pairs well with hearty fall vegetables and warm, comforting recipes. Chefs also use sage to create a browned sage butter that can be spooned over pasta and more. Popular sage recipes include classic Thanksgiving stuffing; white bean, sausage, and sage soup; butternut squash soup with fried sage and brown butter; and sage tea.
- Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) - This delicate herb is a staple of French cuisine, known for its subtle anise-like flavor and delicate, curly leaves. One of the main ingredients in the classic herb blend fines herbes, chervil is typically used fresh and added at the end of cooking. Chervil is a common ingredient in the classic Bearnaise sauce made with an emulsification of butter and egg yolk with white wine vinegar, chervil, and tarragon.
- Dill (Anethum graveolens): Known for its grassy flavor, bright green color, and slender stems, dill is commonly used in pickling mixtures, dressings, egg dishes, and creamy salads such as potato salad. Fresh dill pairs particularly well with rich, creamy ingredients like cream cheese. In addition to the dill weed herb, the seeds and flowers of the dill plant are also edible.
- Marjoram (Origanum majorana): A close cousin of oregano, marjoram has a similar appearance, with grassy, slightly lemony leaves that make a great addition to poultry dishes, herb butters, and egg recipes. The small marjoram leaves are best used fresh and can be added in the middle of cooking to infuse soups, sauces, and other cooked dishes with herbaceous flavor.
- Lavender (Lavandula): This floral member of the mint family may be best known for its fragrance, used commonly in perfumery and potpourri, but is making a culinary comeback in dishes like grilled pork chops, lavender jam, lavender roasted red potatoes, and even lavender ice cream and shortbread cookies.
- Chives (Allium schoenoprasum): A perennial herb commonly used in Asian cooking, this member of the allium family has a subtly oniony flavor with hints of garlic. Recognizable by its thin, grass-like leaves and vibrant green color, chives make the perfect garnish or addition to a cream cheese mixture or tangy sour cream-based dip.
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