Any cook knows that herbs are indispensable to delicious food. They add flavor to meat and vegetables, soups and stews, sauces and salads, and even bread. But how much thought is given to the choosing, preparing, and storing of herbs?
Some recipes will offer measurements for both fresh and dried herbs. The choice a cook makes is a matter of preference, although there are some factors to keep in mind. Dried herbs are excellent in sauces or soups that must simmer for 45 minutes or more, while fresh herbs can lose their flavor. Dried herbs pack a strong flavor, which is why recipes call for a much smaller amount compared to fresh herbs. While dried herbs have a longer shelf life than fresh, they do not last forever and should be replaced at least once a year.
Growing herbs is always good because the fresher, the better; however, most home cooks would instead purchase them. If buying at the grocery store, check the leaves carefully for brown or yellow spots and mold, as the practice of spraying water on the herbs does not preserve them but accelerates their demise. If herbs come in a package, open the packaging and sniff. If there is no aroma, there will be no flavor. Buy fresh herbs close to the time of preparation to retain the most flavor. Avoid washing them if possible, but if a wash is needed, gently pat them dry before using them. Try not to bruise them by rough handling.
There are two types of herbs: woody and tender. Woody herbs include rosemary, thyme, and sage. The flavors of rosemary and thyme are found in their tiny leaves. To remove them from the stalks, pinch the stalk between the thumb and finger of one hand and run a thumb and finger down the stalk, stripping the leaves. Cilantro and parsley are examples of tender herbs. In these types of herbs, especially parsley, the stalks are also flavorful. Pinch the leaves off with a generous portion of the stalk (about one-half to one inch) and save the rest for making stock or soup.
The preparation of herbs is noted generally within a recipe, but what do the terms mean? Coarsely chopped means that the pieces are large and the herb is identifiable. Finely chopped refers to tiny bits, perhaps under one-sixteenth of an inch. Some chefs discourage so many cuts because the fragrant oils get left on the cutting board, but others argue this makes the herbs more flavorful. The Naked Chef author Jamie Oliver prefers to roll up leafy herbs into a cigar shape and use a knife’s rocking motion to slice the whole package thinly. The results are ribbons of leaves, such as basil and sage, and a medium chop for the smaller herbs, like thyme and rosemary. For tinier pieces, run the knife through as many times as necessary to get the desired size.
Questions arise when herbs should be added during the cooking process, depending on whether they are dried or fresh, and when they are the most flavorful. Dried herbs are more robust and can handle longer cooking times. They are delicious in meat rubs and Crockpot recipes where the ingredients are cooking for hours. The best time to add fresh herbs, however, is towards the end of cooking. For example, when baking fish, add the herbs in the last 15-30 minutes. Basil and cilantro are best fresh, meaning garnish the food with the herbs once the dish has been removed from heat. In a classic margarita pizza, the basil is the finishing touch to the pie after it has been removed from the oven. Adding the herbs last gives each bite a delightful freshness, lifting a dish that tends to be heavy.
Speaking of fresh, use herbs to brighten dishes that are not cooked. Throw some parsley or dill in a leafy salad. Tear some basil leaves and toss them with a cold pasta salad. Bundle herbs like sage, fennel, or rosemary and steep them in sun tea. A lovely twist on lemonade is to steep fresh ginger and mint in a simple syrup to add zing to a summer favorite. Blend fresh herbs in smoothies not only for their flavor but for their vitamins and antioxidants.
Learning to use herbs takes time and practice. Combinations of herbs appear again and again in your favorite recipes, and you will soon understand which essential herbs compliment others. Consider using a resource like The Flavor Bible (ed. by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page) to get ideas on combinations you may not have thought about before. Different herbs in ordinary dishes like white fish or chicken will surprise your palate. The number of herbs to use can vary; the fresher the herbs, the stronger the flavor. No dish will suffer from a little too much of one herb. However, you do want to create a delicate balance and avoid allowing an herb to overpower the flavor. Start with a little and add more to taste.
Herbs store best in the refrigerator. Remove anything binding bunches of herbs together, like rubber bands or twist ties. Snip off any roots, which would draw moisture away from the leaves. How herbs should are packaged is a matter of preference gained through trial and error. Some experts suggest merely putting them in a plastic bag, pressing the air out, and sealing them. Others believe you should wrap them in a damp paper towel first. Although, as noted above, dampness can result in sliminess and more difficulty in chopping. Still, other chefs discourage sealing the plastic bag, instead, recommending leaving it open—store herbs in a warmer part of the fridge, like the door.
Herbs can also be frozen. Freezing herbs is an excellent option when you are forced to buy a package or a bunch but need only a small quantity. Wash and pat dry the herbs. Remove leaves from woody stems before rolling them in plastic wrap and sealing in a plastic bag. Do not thaw before tossing them in with soups, sauces, or marinades.
Tender herbs cannot be frozen whole. Make a paste, such as pesto or chimichurri, before storing. Tip: Freeze the paste in discs or an ice cube tray instead of in a large container. You will then be able to take a little at a time, as needed.
Another use of tender herbs is in butter. Mix chives or garlic scapes with room temperature butter and freeze in an ice cube tray. Melt frozen butter directly in a hot pan or bring to room temperature before serving as a spread. You can also grate the frozen butter into the flour mixture to make your favorite buttermilk or baking powder biscuits savory.
Cooking with herbs is an adventure. Discover a whole new world of flavors when you experiment with different combinations! These tips will help you to get started on your journey by helping you to think more intentionally about how you choose, prepare, and store herbs.