Fresh herbs are some of the most under-rated items in our pantry of ingredients, but they have the ability to transform an average meal into an outstanding one. They add depth and complexity to a dish and really round off its flavour. The trick is to know which herb to use, how much to use, whether it should be fresh or dried and when to use it.
Can I use dried herbs instead of fresh?
There are a few occasions when dried herbs are great in cooking, but fresh is often better. One of the reasons for this, other than the flavour, is that fresh herbs are packed with antioxidants and other nutients, which get depleted to a certain extent in the drying process.
Dried herbs have a stronger, more intense flavour, so if you are using dried instead of fresh then you need to cut the amount in half. Also note that dried herbs loose their flavour after a while, so should be replaced at least once a year.
Which herb do I use?
Basil and origanum are two of my favourite fresh herbs and great paired with tomatoes, so any tomato based sauce that I make, including spaghetti bolognaise, gets these two herbs added to it. They also pair well with pizza, pasta and eggs. Basil also goes well with zucchini, while origanum also pairs well with brinjals.
Parsley is another versatile herb, which pairs well with most foods, including fish, vegetables, salad, rice soups and stews. The flat leaved Italian parsley has a stronger flavour than its curly leaved cousin and I must say that I much prefer it. It works really well together with thyme and bay. The stems of the parsley have a greater concentration of the flavour, so can be added if you want more punch. Thyme is also great in soups and stews and with meat, especially poultry as well as potatoes. It can be used in stuffings and marinades and I have found that it works really well with beetroot too.
Chives have a light, oniony taste and pair especially well with eggs, potatoes, sour cream, butter, mayonnaise. They can also be used in sauces, stews, soups, stir-frys and salads. You can also add chive flowers to a salad or use the chive stems to tie vegetables like beans together. Coriander is great in spicy dishes and no curry or salsa is complete without it. It also works well with chicken and fish. Some find its flavour a little overpowering and think that it has a soapy taste, but I love it.
Mint is often paired with desserts, but, together with rosemary is also great with lamb and pork, usually as a sauce or jelly in the case of the mint. Mint is also great with chocolate, figs, berries, dates, lime, melon, cherries, plums, apples and pears. Mint and Rosemary are both great with oranges and apricots.
Sage is another stronger flavour, which is great with heavy or rich foods like pork, sausage and cheese and cream based dishes. It actually helps with digestion to break down fatty foods. It is the famous flavour in stuffings and also pairs well with beans, potatoes, risotto and tomato sauce.
When in the cooking should the herbs be added?
Each herb has its own character, but there are general rules to help you to decide when to add herbs to a dish. Some herbs are more robust, and can withstand more cooking, like rosemary, origanum and thyme, and they can be added towards the beginning of a dish that simmers for a long time.
If you gently bruise the leaves with your fingers before dropping them into the dish they release more oils and increase their flavour. If using thyme stems, you will get a stronger flavour and may need to remove the stems before serving.
If you add herbs at the beginning of the cook, then they add a subtle background note to the dish. You can always add a bit more towards the end to punch up the flavour. Sage should be added at the beginning of cooking.
With delicate herbs like basil, you need to add the herbs at the end of the cook to maximize the herbs flavour. Chives are another delicate herb that should be used raw or added at the end of the cooking.
With parsley, flat leaved parsley holds up better in longer cooking with curly leaved parsley great as a garnish or added towards the end of the cooking. Coriander and mint can be used at the beginning or end of cooking, with some added for presentation at the end.
Some recipes to make the most of your fresh herbs