I’m sure you’ve seen fresh herbs being used by chefs on TV and even found them in your food at restaurants, but for a lot of people, they can be intimidating. There’s a lot to consider when using fresh herbs, their flavour is a little different than the homogenous dried stuff we are used to, how do you prep them, and what do you do with the remainder?
Using fresh herbs in cooking doesn’t have to be scary, it’s actually pretty easy and rewarding. Not to mention that fresh herbs are usually rather pretty and have numerous health benefits. Learning to use fresh herbs in cooking can really help you take it to the next level.
Dry Herbs vs Fresh Herbs
Choosing between fresh or dried herbs is typically a matter of preference or seasonal convenience. Some advise against using fresh herbs in slow simmering or long cooking dishes. This is because overcooking can cause the fresh herbs to breakdown and even in some cases release bitter flavors.
Dried herbs, last longer and have a more concentrated flavour due to the drying process. Therefore I tend to follow the rule of 3 to 1 (fresh herbs to dry herbs) when cooking.
How to prep herbs for cooking
Just like any other ingredient in cooking, there is usually some preparation involved. First off they need to be washed, like any vegetable, however, only wash them just before you are about to use them and gently pat dry (a salad spinner also works really well fro drying herbs). Washing them before storage will cause them to break down faster.
Remove any discoloured, wilting or otherwise bad leaves prior to chopping. Before you begin to chop your herbs make sure that the knife (or blade if using a processor) is very sharp. A dull blade can cause your herbs to bruise, giving them an off color. Additionally, a dull blade can cause the herbs to tear which will make your final product less uniform (if you worry about that kind of thing).
Prepare your herbs just before use, especially if they are going on as a final touch. Chopped herbs that have been sitting out will loose their aroma quickly, which can result in slightly less flavor.
Side note: The finer you chop the herbs the more flavor will be available to spread out over the dish.
When to Add Fresh Herbs to Cooking
Knowing when to add fresh herbs comes with practice, however, sometimes the recipe will also tell you. If you are cooking without a recipe just keep in mind that herbs added at the beginning of cooking will create a subtle background flavor, while herbs added at the end will add flavor bursts where the herb is actually consumed. I like to use a combination of these in most of my cooking.
Knowing Which Herbs to Use
Herbs can be added to nearly any dish with success, depending on your preferences, however, there are a few herbs that are consistently used throughout certain types of cuisines. For example, Italian dishes tend to lean on oregano, basil, parsley, rosemary and thyme, while Asian cuisines tend to gravitate toward cilantro, lemon grass, and ginger as fresh herbs.
When you are cooking think about the theme of your dish and choose herbs accordingly and taste your food often as it cooks. As you become a more seasoned cook you will be able to figure out what herbs to use and how much based on a simple taste test.
Storing herbs & Using Leftovers
Prior to storage remove any rubber bands, or twist ties, and anything with restrictions can cause bruising or breakages on the stem. Also, keep in mind that any wilted leaves, roots or leafless stems will draw moisture away from the useable parts of the plant, so be sure to snip those off during storage.
Most herbs can be stored all the same way, with the stems in water in the fridge, however, some (like basil) may do better in water on the counter. Here is a great guide that I found for storing various common herbs. Keep in mind that fresh herbs don’t have a long shelf life, so even using these storage tricks you should plan to use them all in a day or two.
If you know you won’t get to them quickly try freezing them in oil, or as a pesto.
While this guide doesn’t contain everything you need to know about cooking with fresh herbs it is a place to start and hopefully it will take some of the mystery away from utilizing them in your everyday food.