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How to Cook with Fresh Herbs

Most of us have a shelf full of dried herbs and seasonings on a kitchen shelf but cooking with fresh herbs is a bit more intimidating. But here’s the thing. Fresh herbs are packed with flavor, they’re full of valuable nutrients and antioxidants, and they just make a prettier presentation overall.

Most chefs prefer to use fresh herbs in their cooking, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use them if you’re not a gourmet chef. With a few tips and tricks, you can easily incorporate fresh herbs into your recipes and create meals that are worthy of a five-star restaurant.

How to Choose Between Dried and Fresh Herbs for Your Recipe

Dried herbs are usually a better choice for dishes that are cooked for longer than an hour. Dried herbs have a more concentrated flavor that holds up better under longer cooking times. Unfortunately, dried herbs lose much of their nutritional value during the drying process and storage.

On the other hand, fresh herbs impart a more subtle, bright flavor. They make it easier to achieve a balanced flavor in your dish. The fresher your herbs are, the more flavor, antioxidants, vitamins, and other nutrients they will add to your recipe.

Sometimes, deciding between fresh and dried herbs for a recipe is often a matter of availability and convenience. If you can’t find the fresh herb you need, you may have to settle for dried. 

That said, due to the growing popularity of vertical farming, fresh, locally grown herbs are becoming more readily available and affordable, even in urban areas. Don’t overlook your local farmer’s market and health food stores as a fantastic source for fresh, locally grown herbs, even in the cooler months.

What to Look for When Buying Fresh Herbs

If you plan to use fresh herbs in a recipe, try to purchase them as close to when you’re going to use them as possible. The freshest herb bunches at your store will have a bright aroma and vibrant, green color. 

If they’re packaged in plastic, pry the package open and give them a quick sniff. If you can’t smell them, you probably won’t be able to taste them in your recipe either. You should also take a pass on any bunches that are soggy, limp, or discolored.

Storing and Washing Fresh Herbs

When you get your herbs home, remove any rubber bands because they can bruise the fragile stems and reduce their flavor and longevity. Then, wrap the herbs in a damp paper towel and place them in a plastic bag in the warmest part of your fridge (that’s usually in the door). 

When you’re ready to use your herbs, cut away any discolored or wilted leaves. Fresh herbs should be stored unwashed to maximize their longevity. Right before use, place the herbs in a bowl of cold water and swish them around gently to remove any dirt. Then, pat them dry with a paper towel or use a salad spinner.

Remember, herbs will have the best flavor when they’re fresh, so try to use them as soon as possible. But if you do have leftovers, you can pop them in the freezer to use later, add them to salad dressings, or incorporate them into beverages.

Chopping Fresh Herbs for Cooking

Whether you’ll be chopping your fresh herbs with a knife, scissors, or in the food processor, make sure your blade is nice and sharp. A dull blade could bruise the leaves and compromise their color and flavor.

To get the most flavor out of your fresh herbs, chop them very finely. This will release more of the essential oils. Be sure to chop them immediately before adding them to your recipe.

Deciding When to Add Fresh Herbs to Your Recipe

The best time to add fresh herbs to your recipe can vary a bit, depending on the type of herb you’re going to use and the flavor you’re going for. 

For example, robust herbs like thyme and rosemary will hold up to longer cooking times and will impart a stronger flavor. On the other hand, delicate herbs like parsley and cilantro will lose much of their flavor if cooked longer than a few minutes.

In general, adding fresh herbs at the end of cooking or as a garnish before serving will provide the strongest flavor. Adding them early in the cooking process will impart a more subtle flavor. If you decide you want more flavor at the end, you can add another pinch of the herb to brighten up the flavor. 

Another trick is to leave the herbs on their stems or place them in a sachet. That way, you can remove them when the flavor reaches the intensity you’re going for.

Fresh Herb and Food Pairings to Try

Wondering which fresh herbs to use in which dishes? Here are some pairings to try.

  • Basil: Imparts a licorice flavor that pairs best with Italian foods and green salads.
  • Bay: Imparts a floral, herby flavor that’s perfect in slow-cooked soups, sauces, and roasts.
  • Chives: Will impart a light onion flavor to salads, eggs, potatoes, sauces, and vegetables.
  • Cilantro: A bright, citrusy flavor that pairs well with Mexican dishes and fresh fruit, especially melon.
  • Dill: A fennel-like flavor that works well on fish, in salad dressings, and in creamy dishes like potato salad.
  • Mint: A sweet, fresh flavor that pairs wonderfully with chocolate, fruit desserts, cocktails, lamb, and pork.
  • Oregano: Imparts a spicy flavor that works well in tomato-based dishes and salad dressings.
  • Parsley: Flat leaf parsley adds a slight peppery flavor to soups, stews, and side dishes. Curly parsley doesn’t have much flavor but makes a beautiful garnish.
  • Rosemary: A strong, pine-like flavor often used in meat, poultry, and fish. Can also be added to marinades or used in desserts to mix things up.
  • Sage: A cross between mint and pepper that adds a robust flavor to poultry, meat, and tomato-based dishes.
  • Thyme: A mildly pungent yet sweet herb used for soups, stews, meat, poultry, and marinades. It’s also lovely sprinkled over fresh fruit like figs, melon, or pears.

Wrap Up

Hopefully, this article has given you some ideas for incorporating fresh herbs into your cooking. As you can see, cooking with fresh herbs isn’t as hard as you might think. In fact, it’s an easy way to take your cooking to a whole new level!