Food & Nutrition

The Skinny on Herbs

With flavors that range from delicate to downright mind-blowing, fresh herbs are culinary magic.
When it comes to cooking herbs can liven up a dish—that is, if you know how to use them correctly. Read on to learn the secrets to great tasting dishes.
       


Tips on Buying, Storing and Growing


Fresh vs. Dried: The difference is indisputable: Fresh tastes more sprightly and more complex, and looks prettier too. But dried herbs are useful in their own way — they hold up better over long simmering times. Use 1/3 as much dried as fresh (1 teaspoon dried = 1 tablespoon fresh).

Store Them Right: Fresh herbs can last a week and often more, provided you store them correctly. Treat leafy herbs like parsley and basil like freshly cut flowers — snip off the ends and place in a glass with about an inch of water. Cut some ventilation holes in a plastic bag and slip it over the top. They’ll last longest in the fridge, but the countertop works well too; just change the water every 2 days. Store woodsy herbs like oregano, rosemary and thyme in your refrigerator’s crisper drawer, loosely wrapped in plastic.

Grow Your Own: All you need is a pot and a window to grow your own herb garden. They’re among the easiest plants to grow, and once they’re thriving, you can snip off exactly what you need.

 

Visual Glossary

 

Basil

Basil
With its large, emerald-green leaves, basil is the classic Italian herb (it’s the main ingredient in pesto), and varieties are also used in Thai cuisine. When raw, the flavor can be quite strong, but it doesn’t hold up well against prolonged heat — so add basil near the end of cooking time. It’s abundant in summer, so if you’d like a stash to use year-round, mix finely chopped leaves with a bit of water and freeze in ice cube trays. Pop them out when frozen, and store in the freezer in an airtight container.

 

chives

Chives
Chives are related to onions and leeks — no surprise, given their oniony aroma and flavor. Snip them (yes, with scissors) into salads or on top of baked potatoes, or add toward the end of cooking time to brighten soups and sauces.

Cilantro
Most people either love or hate this pale-green, lacy herb — some studies suggest that the preference is genetic — but there’s no denying its global popularity. Cilantro is used in the cuisines of Asia, Latin America, Portugal and the Caribbean. It looks similar to flat-leaf parsley; so similar, in fact, that the easiest way to tell the difference is to rub a few leaves and take a sniff.

Dill

Dill
Dill’s look — deep-green, feathery fronds — is as distinctive as its taste. It’s popular in Eastern European foods (think borscht or gravlax) and is also a classic component of cucumber salad. Dried dill is a pale substitute, so we strongly recommend you only use it fresh.

Marjoram
You won’t find marjoram in every store, but when you do, it’s well worth trying. Its small, oval leaves are often confused with its cousin oregano’s, but the flavors are quite different — marjoram is sweeter, milder and more delicate. It pairs well with meats and vegetables and is commonly used in the dried mixture herbes de Provence.

Mint

Mint
You’ve had breath mints or chewing gum, but flavorings pale in comparison to the brightness of the fresh version. There are dozens of varieties of mint, but most often, you’ll find peppermint, with bright green leaves, purple stems and a pungent, peppery flavor, or spearmint, with silvery-green leaves and a mild, sweet flavor. Spearmint is often used in savory cooking, while peppermint does well as a garnish or with sweets.

Oregano

Oregano
In looks it’s similar to marjoram (some even call it “wild marjoram”) but in taste, it’s miles apart. Oregano has a deep, peppery aroma and a pungent, assertive flavor — so assertive, in fact, that we recommend using a light hand when cooking with it. Although it appears in many Greek, Italian and Latin American dishes, you probably know oregano best from its use in pizza sauce. Note: Mexican oregano is a different herb with a similar, but stronger, taste. It’s most often found dried.

parsley

Parsley
In the United States, parsley is ubiquitous, thanks to the curly variety’s overuse as a garnish. But don’t skip it just because it’s everywhere — both flat-leaf and curly parsley add zip to savory dishes all over the world. Curly parsley has a crisp, snappy texture and a bright taste, well-suited to last-minute additions and salads, while flat-leaf offers a bit more complexity and holds up well in long-simmered dishes.

rosemary

Rosemary
Thanks to rosemary’s woodsy needles and piney scent, you may think it fell off a Christmas tree, but in fact, rosemary is a wonderfully versatile herb. It’s used throughout the Mediterranean, where it’s often paired with chicken and lamb, eggplant and tomatoes, and it’s a terrific complement to roasted potatoes. Two words of caution: First, rosemary’s flavor is aggressive enough to be overwhelming, so use it sparingly. And second, even after cooking, the needles are unpleasant to eat, so either use a whole sprig and fish it out before serving, or strip off the needles and chop them finely.

Sage

Sage
Lovely to look at, with long, velvety, gray-green leaves, sage adds an earthy flavor to meats and vegetables. The taste may be familiar, since it’s a key ingredient in Thanksgiving stuffing and many sausages. Try it with sweeter vegetables, like carrots or sweet potatoes, or in chicken, pork, or bean dishes. For an impressive, tasty garnish, flash-fry individual leaves in a bit of olive oil. They’ll darken and crisp up in seconds — drain on paper towels, then crumble or leave whole.

tarragon

Tarragon
Almost bushy-looking thanks to its long, slender leaves, tarragon has a gentle but distinct licorice flavor. It’s the secret of many French dishes and a key component of the mixture fines herbes. We like it best in chicken, fish and egg dishes. Tarragon loses most of its flavor when dried, so use fresh whenever possible.

Thyme Thyme
One of the most widely used herbs, thyme is prized for its affinity for so many other ingredients. Its warm, woodsy flavor complements meat, poultry and fish, vegetables (it’s a natural with mushrooms) and even fruit (we especially like it with figs). Toss a sprig into a simmering soup or stew, and at the end of cooking, remove the now-naked stems. Or strip the leaves by running your fingers down the stem, and add them toward the end of cooking.