Know Your Herbs
Herbs have been around since the beginning of time and have been used throughout history by different civilizations for both cooking and medicine, but if you’re new to herbs this article will give you some insight on some of the most popular herbs in western society and how to best incorporate them in your favorite dishes.
First off, herbs are the leaves of a plant that are commonly very aromatic and used in cooking. The seeds, bark and roots of similar plants fall into the category of spices, thus we have “herbs and spices.” For the purpose of this article, we will focus on herbs and save spices for another day.
With that, let’s get right into it with some of the more common herbs you’ll find, their tastes, the best foods to pair them with, some of the health benefits they offer and if you should buy them fresh or dried!
Basil the herb (not to be confused with Brazil the country) is a very delicate herb. Basil is very commonly found in both fresh and dried forms. Fresh Basil requires some delicate handling, because if handled incorrectly it turns to garbage very quickly. There are many different types of basil, but most commonly you will find “Sweet Basil.”
Dried or Fresh? If you are cooking recipes that call for basil often and have a sharp knife, use fresh Basil. The flavor is hard to beat. For average cooks go with dried Basil, it is less of a headache. Also, use more than you would think you will need or more than a recipe calls for because it loses a lot of its zest.
Season: Year-round. Basil is a hardy plant with a lot of hybrid variations. So, there is a guarantee that throughout the year, you will be able to find one if not many varieties of Basil.
Flavor: Basil has a bold, mildly sweet flavor that also has hints of sharpness. It can easily be mistaken for mint on some days until you get the peppery bite. Imagine Italian food and you’ll get a good sense of Basil.
Tastes Best With: Cheese (especially mozzarella and parmesan), chicken, crab, duck eggplant, eggs, fish, lamb, olive oil, onions, pesto, pizza, pork, potatoes, rabbit, salad, greens, shrimp, sweet peppers, tomatoes, veal and vinegar.
Benefits: Natural anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties are associated with Basil. Along those awesome qualities, basil contains beta-carotene (pro-vitamin A), along with magnesium, iron, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins K and C, all which are key in a healthy cardiovascular system.
Cilantro (coriander) is one of the oldest known herbs being used up to 5,000 years ago all across the globe. Cilantro is fresh coriander and has a similar look to parsley, but the leaves have a little more frill to them. The biggest indicator to tell the difference is the smell and of course the taste. Cilantro is widely used for its citrusy taste and bright flavor. So the smell of it will be easily distinguished from the grassy smell of parsley. Cilantro is unique in the way that most people use both leaves and stem in cooking.
Dried or Fresh: Fresh is the way to go. Use the leaves and chopped stems to finish your foods to maximize flavor. Cilantro can get bitter if overcooked, though so be careful if you are going to cook with it.
Season: Year-Round. Cilantro is grown year-round, but there are so many variables that affect its flavor. One summer your Cilantro could be rich and flavorful, the next the same plant could produce bland, weak cilantro during the same time of year.
Flavor: Pungent and citrusy for sure. If you’ve ever had a taco that you keep thinking about, but can’t put your finger on the flavor; most likely it was the cilantro. On the flip side what make cilantro unique to some people, can have an aversion to it and instead of being citrusy and delicious, it is soapy and metallic tasting. In this case, maybe cilantro isn’t for you.
Tastes Best With: Avocado, chicken, fish, ice cream, lamb, lentils, pork, salsa, rice, root vegetables, tomatoes and yogurt.
Benefits: Cilantro contains an antibacterial compound that hates Salmonella. This makes me wonder if this is why Cilantro is so commonly attributed in cuisines that are heavily chicken influenced. Man, ancient civilizations knew their stuff!
If you’re someone who likes Salmon or recipes with pickles, then Dill is your herb. Dill is a very bright flavored herb. Dill is part of the celery family and is most commonly associated with Russian and Scandinavian cuisine. A very refreshing herb that is perfect for summer months.
Dried or Fresh? Fresh is the way to go with Dill. Dried Dill loses almost all of its flavor and the amount you have to use really becomes a hindrance and never truly getting the best part, which is the flavor.
Season: For Dill, the season is from Summer to early Fall.
Flavor: The smell is very strong and delicate and the taste is spicy and borderline tangy, but not offensive.
Tastes Best With: Beets, bread, cabbage, carrots, chicken, cucumbers, cream, eggs, fish (especially salmon), lamb, pickles, potatoes, scallops, sour cream, tomatoes and veal.
Benefits: A natural anti-bacterial spice that is also a great source of calcium. That means strong bones. Dill also shares the same protective qualities against carcinogens as basil, but in lesser quantities.
It’s not just for desserts and gum! Mint is solid in two forms, peppermint and spearmint. Peppermint has a purple hue and the leaves are a bit more “spear-shaped” and confusingly enough spearmint has rounded leaves with paler color.
Dried or Fresh? Fresh, I don’t think I’ve seen dried mint besides “candied mint”.
Flavor: Both are great in desserts as we know, but I really love what they can add to a savory application. Both have a bit of a vegetal flavor mixed with peppery notes. Spearmint is less peppery than peppermint and more of a refreshing and cool flavor. Use spearmint for lighter dishes that are steamed and peppermint for roasted and rich flavored dishes. The subtle flavors of the spearmint are muddled easily.
Tastes Best With: Black beans, carrots, chocolate, cream, duck, eggplant, fruit, salad, goat, ice cream, lamb, lemon, lentils, mushrooms, oranges, peppers, pork, potatoes, rice, salad, greens and yogurt.
Benefits: Both contain antimicrobial oils that will help prevent the growth of certain bacteria. Also, mint is known to be a great source of vitamin C and copper. The oils found in mint have also been shown to help prevent against certain types of cancer and stop the growth of tumors. I am not saying mint is a miracle cure, but a little safeguard never hurts. Mint has a substance called rosmarinic acid that encourages cells to create prostacyclins that aid in keeping your airways clear. In addition, mint has been shown to relieve symptoms of indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome and upset stomach.
The powerful herb, Oregano has been used for both cooking and therapeutically since the times of ancient Greeks and Romans. Oregano is commonly used Mediterranean cuisine (including making pizza sauce) as well as to combat colds, muscle pain, fatigue, bloating and much, much more. There are two types of Oregano you’ll most likely encounter today. Mediterranean Oregano and Mexican Oregano.
Dried or Fresh? Either one, many herbs are more flavorful in one form than they are in the other. Herbs can even take on a completely different flavor when dried. However, this isn’t the case with Oregano. It is one of the few herbs that retain its flavor exceedingly well when dried. Even if you have a particularly discerning palate, you’ll find that dried oregano and fresh oregano are very similar in flavor. If you decide to use dried Oregano, the more concentrated flavor means you need less to achieve the same effect, typically a 3:1 ratio. For example, if a recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of fresh oregano, use 1 teaspoon of dried oregano instead. Dried oregano is often easier to find than the fresh version.
Flavor: Oregano has a warm, slightly sharp with a bitter finish. It adds a sweet but spiciness flavor to food. It is often the main spice in pizza sauce. Mediterranean oregano tends to have a milder flavor than Mexican oregano. Mediterranean oregano is commonly used for sauces, while Mexican oregano is in some chilli recipes.
Tastes Best With: Anchovies, artichokes, beans, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, cheese dishes, chicken, corn, duck, eggplant, eggs, fish, lamb, mushrooms, onions, pork, peppers, potatoes, spinach, squash, tomatoes and venison. . . We can’t forget pasta and pizza sauces too!
Benefits: Oregano has been seen as a medicinal herb for centuries. Oregano contains vitamins A, C, E, and K, as well as fiber, folate, iron, magnesium, vitamin B6, calcium, and potassium. Additionally, Oregano contains potent phytochemicals that provide potential health benefits. Oregano provides antioxidants for immune system support. One active agent in Oregano is rosmarinic acid, which is a strong antioxidant that may support immune system health. Oregano has one of the highest antioxidant activity ratings, with 42 times the antioxidant power of apples. Oregano is antifungal, antibacterial and my kill MRSA. Carvacrol and thymol, two phytochemicals in Oregano, are powerful antimicrobials. Research has shown essential oils from oregano may kill the foodborne pathogen Listeria and the superbug MRSA. Oregano contains beta-caryophyllin (E-BCP), a substance that inhibits inflammation.
A lot of people commonly view Parsley as a decoration herb used just for color, so they use it liberally and unknowingly are adding one of the most nutritious and healthy herbs there is to their dish. Who new, right?
Dried or Fresh? Fresh parsley should be your introduction herb. Imagine that learning how to cook with herbs is like learning any other skill. You have to start with the basics and work your way up. Parsley is the first herb you should learn how to use.
Flavor: Parsley is the most universally used herb there is. The flavor is fairly welcoming and vibrant. What do I mean by that? I have never met anyone that has said, “Yuck! Is there parsley in this?” That is because it has an excellent supporting flavor that does not stand out on its own when used for cooking, but rather helps elevate and enhance the flavors around it.
Tastes Best With: Eggs, eggplant, lemon, lentils, mushrooms, pasta, potatoes, poultry (especially chicken), seafood (especially fish and mussels), tomatoes and zucchini.
Benefits: Rich source of antioxidants such as Vitamin C and Vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene. Also, Parsley is a great source of folic acid, which is one of the most important B Vitamins when it comes to promoting a healthy heart. Another bonus is the fact that there are two unique compounds found in Parsley that inhibit tumor formation and help eliminate molecules and carcinogens that would otherwise damage the body.
Prickly and aromatic herb that will remind you of pine needles. That is because they are in the same family, evergreens. Rosemary is a very pine-like herb in appearance and scent.
Dried or Fresh? Opt for fresh. Dried Rosemary loses a lot of the flavor because it is losing essential oils with transmit the flavor to our taste buds. Think of a Christmas tree, when you first get it how does it smell? Amazing, right? Now think of that same tree in the middle of January when, of course it is still sitting in your house all withered up and dry, does it still smell as refreshing? Smell and taste are closely related, especially when we are talking herbs.
Season: Year-Round. . . After all, it is in the evergreen family.
Flavor: Rich, bitter and astringent when raw, charred wood and mustard-like flavors when cooked. Rosemary has the ability to always spark a memory of a roasted dish of some sort you have had in the past.
Tastes Best With: Beans, fatty fish (especially mackerel and salmon), grains, lamb, mushrooms, oranges, peas, pork, potatoes, poultry (especially chicken), spinach, steak and veal.
Benefits: Rosemary is associated with circulatory health and promoting your immune system. Also, a great benefit is the fact that it makes roasted chicken taste fantastic.
When you see thyme used in a recipe it will most often than not be referred to as a “sprig.” This is what thyme is sold as, a bunch of sprigs. A sprig would consist of one “branch” out of the bunch of thyme you bought. Remember to remove the stem after cooking. Don’t want to add the stem? Simply gently pinch the top of the sprig and run your fingers down to the root end and the leaves will pop right off!
Dried or Fresh? Fresh is the best, but here I will say it is a very close call because fresh vs. dried have their own flavor profiles. When I imagine what I would think dried herbs would taste like, that is what thyme is like. It is a very universally applicable dried herb. I would always opt to use thyme you dried over stored bought, though.
Flavor: Thyme is very tricky flavor-wise because there are so many varieties. The most common thyme you will buy will have a subtle dry flavor that is slightly mint-like. The flavor is a bit more subtle than the smell, so do not be fooled and use it too sparingly.
Tastes Best With: Beef, carrots, chicken, figs, fish, lamb, lentils, onions, peas, pork, potatoes, soups, tomatoes and venison.
Benefits: Where to begin, besides being loaded with vitamin C, A, iron, copper and dietary fiber. Thyme has natural antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. Thyme has been long used in teas as a remedy for coughs, chest congestion and antimicrobial activities against some heavy hitters, such as Staph.
Dry Your Herbs & Save Money
When you're working with fresh herbs you will notice you cannot buy only the amount of herbs you need. More often than not, you'll go into the grocery store needing 1 Tbsp of chopped herbs and you'll leave with a bunch of extra herbs you don't need. Don't let the extra herbs spoil in the refrigerator. Make your own dried herb and use them later.
Here how to make dried herbs in two easy steps.
- Separate the herbs into a few smaller bunches and tie the stems together tightly with a string. As the herbs dry the stems will shrink, so tighter is better.
- Hang the bundles of herbs upside down in a cool dry area of your house that has good air flow and in 2-4 weeks you've got dried herbs!
- BONUS: Want those dried herbs now? Place the herbs onto a plate making sure not to overcrowd them. Then microwave them for 1 minute.
We all have those recipes that we cook time and time again. Whether it is once every couple weeks or every single night, we will get bored cooking the same thing again and again. To keep your diet on point and your taste buds happy, sometimes you need to learn new skills. Herbs are your answer, not only do they provide an endless combination of flavors that will enhance any dish if used properly, they add nutrients and minerals that you would not be getting otherwise with little effort. Next time you’re planning your meals for the week, work in some fresh herbs your meal plan. You’ll be happy you did.