The Ultimate Guide to Fresh Herbs

Fresh herbs used to be the domain of your specialist stores or garden centers only, but many of your local retailers and supermarkets now carry a selection of fresh herbs near the salad section.

Fresh herbs are not just great for adding flavor to your food but can also be used as a herbal remedy for many common medical complaints.

Many of the herbs we use are very easy to grow at home, most can even be grown indoors on the windowsill for a constant fresh supply of these wondrous, some would say magical, herbs.

Dried Vs Fresh

Looking through your kitchen cupboards you’ll often come across jars of dried herbs that are years old (some may even be older than your younger children) and have lost all of their potency and flavor. If the label is worn out you may not even be able to tell what it is, tasting or smelling it is going to do you no good. Just like dried spices, herbs that have been dried will lose much of their flavorsome qualities over time.

One of the major tastes a herb can add to a meal is that freshness. Imagine making a bruschetta with dried basil, it just wouldn’t taste the same, with fresh basil and tomato a bruschetta almost tastes like summer. Try garnishing a Thai curry with dried cilantro leaves and you’ll soon notice the difference. Dried herbs tend to be better for dishes that are cooked longer as they release their oils and flavors more slowly throughout the cooking process.

Herbs can have a beneficial effect on your health too. Throughout history, the ancient Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Babylonians and Native Americans were all herbalists. Chinese herbal remedies go back thousands of years with the oldest known list of medicinal herbs dating back to 3000 BC known as Shennong Bencaojing or ‘the classic’ of herbal medicine. To this day herbs are still sold by many herbal stores as a remedy for stomach upsets, too much gas, skin complaints and many other ailments. Some holistic cosmetic companies even use herbs in their shampoos and creams for their healing properties.

What Is a Herb?

The dictionary defines a herb as “a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory or aromatic qualities”. This definition covers the herbal remedies we’ve already mentioned; imparting flavor to food and other herbs which are used for their odor in perfumes, incense or fragrances. Other uses for herbs that don’t fit into this definition include the preservation of food, use for dying cloth, pest control, decorating and many other common purposes.

Unlike a drug or many other food flavorings, herbs are 100 percent natural as they are derived from plants and not synthesized in a lab by scientists. Most herbs don’t develop a persistent woody tissue, like a tree bark, and die at the end of the growing season. A herb can be the stem of the plant, the seeds or most often the leaves.

Using herbs for cooking and their medicinal purposes goes back to the days of hunters and gatherers when our ancient ancestors would wrap meat in the leaves of bushes and accidentally discovered the process added flavor to the meat as did many nuts, berries and types of bark. As the modern world developed wars were fought over the importation of these commodities, with fresh herbs and spices being the exclusive luxury of the noble classes. Fortunately modern horticultural methods and agriculture means there’s now a deluge of fresh herbs readily available at your local stores and you can even grow them in your own backyard for that extra freshness.

Let’s take a look at some of the more common herbs you’ll find packaged fresh, their culinary uses and in some cases medicinal benefits.

Basil

Basil is probably one of the most popular herbs in the US, and is used primarily in Mediterranean or Thai cooking. The Italian green basil is the type which most people are more accustomed to, which has a floral clove-like flavor with a powerful sweetness and a hint of pepperiness. Sweet basil goes well with tomatoes, most pasta sauces use this combination, and can be used with almost every type of meat or seafood.

Thai, or Asian basil, has a more distinctive, slightly spicy anise flavor which many would argue is almost licorice like, and is used in salads, soups, stir fries, stews or curry pastes as a refreshing complement to the more spicy flavors. Lemon basil is also available which has a strong fragrant lemon scent and is used in cooking or in essential oils for aromatherapy.

Fresh basil is best added towards the end of cooking, so the leaves don’t burn or turn brown if exposed to heat for too long, you’ll also get the maximum flavor this way. Basil leaves are easily bruised so try using fresh basil whole or by simply tearing the leaves with your hands. As a bonus, basil is thought to have anti-inflammatory properties provided by its oil, eugenol, which blocks the enzymes in the body that cause swelling.

Cilantro

Cilantro, also known as coriander, is a herb which divides many households in the US, with some people finding the taste to be quite ‘soapy’. Those who can get past that, find cilantro to bring a bright and refreshing zesty lemon flavor to a dish. It’s most commonly used it Asian or Mexican dishes and a popular herb worldwide.

Cilantro is often used raw as a garnish for Asian curries, in a herb salad or added to a sauce in the final minutes of cooking. Mexican cuisine also makes use of cilantro with it being added to salsas and guacamole or as an ingredient in an enchilada sauce. The root of coriander is sometimes pulverized and added to Thai curry paste.

If any herb deserves to be described as a super herb for its health benefits, it’s cilantro. A member of the carrot family (just take a sniff of a bunch of carrots to smell the similarity) it’s high in carotenoids, a good source of vitamin A. High levels of minerals including calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium mean cilantro has been used for thousands of years to treat digestive upsets, gas, fungal and bacterial infections. Rich antioxidant properties mean cilantro is particularly effective in protecting against oxidative stress.

Dill

Dill is best known as the classic flavor for pickles but is also used widely in Middle Eastern cookery where it grows abundantly. A sweet, grassy flavor, dill is used as a tangy topping for fish, in salads, can be added to eggs for a more interesting scramble, used as a garnish for smoked salmon and is even a staple to flavor classic chicken noodle soup.

Dill is a wispy, grass-like fragile herb that was traditionally used to treat insomnia and has also been shown to protect against age-related cognitive impairment and the early phases of Alzheimer’s disease.

Bay Leaves

Bay leaves come in two varieties; the Mediterranean or Californian, with the Mediterranean bay being milder in flavor. Woody, sweet, citrusy and nutty, bay leaves are usually used dry to reduce some of the bitterness. Most often they’re added to soups, stews or sauteed dishes and allowed to cook for a longer time than most other fresh herbs and should be ideally removed before serving.

A common ingredient in the classic chicken soup recipe, some of the compounds found in bay leaves will help relieve an upset stomach and offer relief from diarrhea or food poisoning.

Chives

A member of the onion family, chives look a lot like grass and have a more gentle oniony flavor. Chives can be ideal for cutting down the heaviness of rich foods like a cream sauce or risotto; used in a favorite sour cream and chive dip, as a topping for baked potatoes or salads and even used to season baked potato wedges. The thin grass-like nature makes them ideal for just snipping with a sharp pair of scissors.

Chives are filled with antioxidants, vitamins A and C and phytochemicals which have antioxidant-like properties.

Parsley

Parsley is one of the most versatile herbs and probably one of the most used herbs in the world. It can be added to almost any dish where its subtle flavor will add a little freshness and extra bite. Curly parsley tends to be more grassy and milder with flat leafed parsley having more of a peppery taste. Parsley is ideal used with pasta dishes, eggs, fish and meat. Some people even swear by chewing on parsley to rid you of that dreaded garlic breath.

A powerful little herb, parsley can help boost your brain due to quercetin found in the herb which protects the brain from free radical damage. Parsley can also help protect your skin from UV damage with its polyphenols and carotenoids content.

Mint

Mint is the flavor which needs no introduction. Most often thought of as a flavoring for desserts, mint can also be used in many savory dishes, especially with lamb, salads like a Greek feta or even in a cocktail like a mojito (although you could alternatively enjoy a caipirinha or a mint julep too!). Mint has large bright green leaves which make it ideal for garnishing a fruit salad for extra zing and is used extensively in Middle Eastern cookery to liven up sauces or to brew fragrant teas.

Mint tends to come in two main varieties; peppermint and spearmint. Peppermint has a stronger bite from the menthol in its leaves while spearmint has a sweeter and easier on the palate taste. Mint leaves have been known to aid digestion and mint tea is often recommended as a cure for a hangover (although not drinking too many minty mojitos is probably a better cure!).

Oregano

A staple of many good BBQ rubs, oregano falls into two categories; Mexican and Mediterranean. Constantly a source of amusement to the Brits how we pronounce oregano (they substitute the ‘e’ for an ‘i’, origano when speaking), Mexican oregano tastes more citrussy than the sweet peppery flavor of the Mediterranean equivalent. Used as a seasoning for pizza and pasta dishes, oregano can also be added to many Mexican dishes for that extra citrus kick, used in salad dressings and in many poultry rubs.

Oregano is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids which are essential for good heart health and it’s thought to fight malaria and some types of cancer cells (although in considerably larger amounts than typically used in cooking).

Rosemary

This tough, woody herb has a pungent flavor and its spiky leaves are often used dry or fresh for longer periods of cooking in soups, stews, casseroles or sauces. With its strong flavor, it’s always advisable to add rosemary sparingly to a dish and add more to taste. Sprigs of rosemary make great skewers for meat, especially lamb kebabs, when done on the outdoor grill as they impart their flavor throughout the whole meat. The piney almost lemony flavor makes rosemary idea for infusing in olive oil for sauteing potatoes or grilling vegetables for that Mediterranean taste.

Rosemary can help limit weight gain due to it being rich in carnosic acid, an antioxidant which improves cholesterol levels according to a study by the British Journal of Nutrition.

Thyme

Thyme is a tiny leaved herb used extensively in both Mediterranean, especially French, and American cuisine. Often substituted for oregano, it has a lemony, slightly peppery taste but with a hint of mint. The small leaves are usually stripped from the woody stem before adding to the recipe although when used to flavor roast meat or soup can be left whole and removed before serving. Thyme is especially good in meat stews, rice dishes, dips or in a sauce.

Thyme is another herb well known for its antioxidant properties.

Sage

The only herb from Simon and Garfunkel’s classic (Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme) we haven’t looked at yet is sage. Soft fuzzy leaves give sage a slightly peppery taste with a faint hint of mint and woodiness. Mainly used once a year, dried sage is used in Thanksgiving stuffings but fresh sage tends to be less intense and can be used in sausages, with poultry or pork and in butter served with gnocchi.

Behind the tiny leaves, sage boasts plenty of antioxidants including flavonoids and phenolic acids which have been shown to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Sage can also be effective at fighting pain and is often found in sprays for the treatment of a sore throat.

Marjoram

Often mistaken for oregano for its small oval-shaped leaves, marjoram is a little sweeter than its closely related cousin. Used mainly for flavoring meats and poultry, especially when roasted, it can also be used in stuffing or savory dressings. Majorum is used in many herb mixes that are sprinkled on grilled vegetables for that herbs de Provence flavor. The following Youtube video uses the aromatic qualities of marjoram to enhance a pea and bacon risotto:

Marjoram is said to help aid digestion and relieve stomach pain, protect against common illnesses, improve your heart health and has anti-inflammatory effects. Marjoram also has therapeutic properties and can be used to alleviate stress or as a treatment for insomnia.

Tarragon

Tarragon is the compulsory ingredient in a classic Béarnaise sauce and where possible you should try to buy French tarragon as it has a more pleasant flavor. The flavor is best described like sweet licorice or fennel and it’s commonly used in French cooking paired with chicken, fish or eggs.

The ancient Greeks were known to chew on tarragon to treat toothaches but it’s more commonly known as a digestive aid and can be of benefit to diabetes patients helping reduce blood sugar levels.

Lemongrass

Perhaps the most exotic of the herbs we’ve looked at is lemongrass. Becoming increasingly more common in the US due to the rising popularity of Thai and Southeast Asian foods, lemongrass is most commonly found in Asian food stores and is notoriously difficult to grow at home. Appearing like long grass with a thick bulbous white lower part, you should be sure to remove the tough outer leaves and the very bottom tip before seasoning dishes like pad Thai, stir fries or adding to a curry paste. A particular favorite of mine is to use the lemongrass as a skewer for a chicken or pork satay which imparts the fresh citrusy, slightly spicy flavor throughout the entire satay.

Studies have shown that lemongrass has anti-inflammatory abilities that can reduce swelling and help with the fluid balance in the body. Lemongrass also contains compounds that can help alleviate pain, reduce fever, stimulate the uterus and menstrual flow, all on top of its antioxidant properties.

Buying and Storing Fresh Herbs

Normally when you buy fresh herbs from your supermarket or local deli, they’ll be packaged in some sort of plastic bag. When you get home, rinse the herbs with cool water to remove any excess dirt and shake gently to get rid of the moisture. Pat with a paper towel or clean cloth before finding a small container, like a jam jar, and filling with a few inches of water. Snip the stems of the herb so they sit with leaves just above the top of the jar and cover loosely with a plastic bag before storing in the refrigerator or on a windowsill.

Taking the above measures with any fresh herbs you purchase will help extend the life of the herb to three or four day; remember they’re meant to be fresh so you don’t want to keep them too much longer. If you should have a deluge of fresh herbs, chopping them finely and freezing in ice cube trays in either water or olive oil can make herb cubes for later use in a casserole, curry or sauté dish.

Another option if you’ve chosen to buy your fresh herbs in bulk, for example from a farmers market, is to dry them yourself for later use. Although you won’t enjoy the same freshness, they’ll often have more flavor than the dried herbs you buy from the grocery store where you don’t know how they’ve been dried, how long or if any additives or preservatives have been added. Simply secure the stems with some twine or a rubber band and hang in a warm, dry place away from direct sunlight. You may want to cover the herbs with a paper bag to stop them from accumulating too much dust.

The following Youtube clip demonstrates 10 hacks to enable you to get the most from your fresh herbs:

Grow Your Own Herbs

The idea of growing your own herbs may gather a few suspicious looks among your workmates, but we’re talking culinary herbs not the magic variety! You could try sowing a few seeds in the garden with spring fast approaching or use a few cuttings on an empty windowsill. Most herb cuttings love direct sunlight and can be quite hardy plants, although they’ll die at the end of their cycle.

Having your own herbs to hand can be even more satisfying than growing your own veggies, and a lot easier too. Buying fresh herbs from the supermarket can soon rack up a larger grocery bill, imagine how convenient it would be to just take a pair of scissors from your kitchen drawer and snip a few sprigs of your favorite flavoring.

It’s time to ditch those old stale jars of dried herbs from your cupboards and try grasping the flavors of fresh herbs. A staid or tasteless sauce will benefit much more from seasoning of a fresh herb and will also be more beneficial to your health. Try experimenting with different herbs, involve the family and who knows you may surprise yourself with a new favorite twist on a classic dish.

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