Fresh Is Best?
In the culinary world, there’s an ongoing debate as to which is better fresh or dried when it comes to herbs. But both can have a place in your kitchen. Fresh herbs are the epitome of what herb use is all about-the flavor those herbs impart to a dish. But in colder climates, fresh herbs might not be available so dried ones can be used to bring new flavors to your dish. It’s important to remember that the drying process concentrates herb oils so you need less. The general rule is 1 teaspoon of dried to 1 tablespoon of fresh.
But if fresh herbs are available, don’t shy away from them because of the cost and/or extra care.
When you hit the market, you will find herbs packaged in various way. Some are in plastic containers, some are fastened in bunches with rubber bands and some might even still be growing in a pot. It’s what is inside that matters not the pretty packaging. You want to look for herbs with vibrant color and aroma. If something is limp or yellowing, has black spots or doesn’t smell totally fresh and appetizing, put it back.
Tender Herbs Cry Out For TLC
Some herbs, like rosemary and sage, are hardy enough to stay green and fragrant for up to two weeks. You just need to keep them refrigerated and dry. But basil, dill and cilantro need special attention and TLC. Make sure to remove any rubber bands or fasteners as soon as possible and trim off the root ends and lower stem parts to prevent the tops from wilting (the roots are water suckers drawing moisture from the leaves). Once you have prepped the herbs, you should wrap them loosely in damp paper towels and put them in a heavy-duty zip-top bag filled with a little air (they need a little cushion). Do you know where the warmest part of your refrigerator is? It’s the top shelf and where you want to always store your herbs. And since you are probably in your refrigerator at least 20 times a day, it’s a good idea to check them daily. Use those that look less perky and trash any that have begun to spoil.
Time To Get Your Herb On
Moisture is the herb’s worst enemy so you never want to wash them until you are ready for use. To wash herbs, put them in a large bowl of cool water, swirl them to release the dirt and lift the herbs out of the water with your hands or a sieve. If you’re a kitchen gadget junkie and have a salad spinner, use that to spin them dry. Most people just gently blot them dry by rolling them up in a clean towel.
A sharp knife is imperative when it comes to prepping fresh herbs because dull ones will crush and bruise the herbs resulting in black rather than green ones. You want to make sure that you chop your herbs as close as possible to when you will use them. If you have to cut them ahead of time, cover the herbs with plastic wrap punctured with a few air holes and refrigerate them.
Your flavor layering profile will determine not only which herbs to use, but also, whole vs. chopped and beginning vs. end. If you want the herb to contribute a rounded background flavor, add a whole sprig at the beginning of cooking. Stronger herbs do best when allowed to mellow during the cooking process. If you want a flavor that hits your taste buds head on, then chop the herb and add it near the end of cooking. This will also help the herb retain its pretty green color. And sometimes you want to be subtle but still give a little something at the end. This is when you want to add your herbs both at the beginning and the end of cooking. Many chefs do this by using a fresh herb as a garnish not only to pretty the plate, but also, give an extra layer of flavor.
These 10 herbs will help you develop amazing layers of flavor are:
- Basil has an anise- and clove-like flavor and aroma. Think black licorice. This herb is most often associated with Mediterranean foods like pesto and tomato sauce. Sweet basil and tomatoes are a natural pairing, but basil can be used with just about anything.
- Parsley has a light peppery flavor that compliments other seasonings, making it one of most widely used herbs out there. It's one of those herbs that does best when added at the end of cooking which is why you see it used in sauces, salads and sprinkled over dishes for a flash of green and a fresh taste.
- Cilantro/Coriander is one of the world's most popular spices. It actual imparts a citrus and sage-like refreshing layer to many Latin and Asian dishes.
- Mint is commonly associated with sweet treats, but its cooling, peppery bite adds another layer of flavor to plenty of savory dishes. Fresh mint is perfect for summer salads, to perk up a sauce and to brew fragrant teas.
- Rosemary is a tough, woody herb with a pungent flavor best suited for the long cooking of soups, meats, stews or sauces. It has a subtle hint of lemon. This is one of those herbs where a little goes a long way so start sparingly at first and add more if needed.
- Thyme can be paired with nearly every meat, poultry, fish or vegetable. It’s slightly pungent, spicy, savory and clove-like and blends well with other herbs.
- Sage is not just for Thanksgiving anymore. This herb works well with pork, beans, potatoes or in the classic sage and brown butter sauce. The flavor is earthy, musty mint with a hint of lemon and can be overwhelming so less is more.
- Chives add a flavor similar to onion without the bite. Chefs often use them as a garnish either snipped and sprinkled or laid elegantly across a plate. Add these delicate herbs at the very end to maximize their color and flavor.
- Dill has a subtle flavor that works best foods with delicate flavors such as fish and seafood. The feathery leaves add a pleasant anise-like flavor with hints of celery and lemon.
- Oregano is earthy and intense with hints of clove and balsam. You will find it just about every tomato dish, which means most Mediterranean and Mexican dishes.
Life is too short to not take a real bite and herbs will help make that bite more enjoyable and exciting!