What if there were a way to add big flavor to food without affecting your intake of sodium, fat or calories? There is: fresh herbs. Bonus: they’re abundantly available at farmers’ markets and in grocery produce aisles. And herbs are super-easy to grow at home in almost any situation, whether you’re an urban dweller with a sunny balcony or a homeowner with a big backyard. Herbs are the ultimate gateway crop for home gardeners, requiring minimal attention and yielding the pleasure that comes from growing your own food.
Common Culinary Herbs
- Basil comes in a range of varieties, from purple Thai basil, to variegated, to huge leaves, to tiny leaves. Basil has a sweet-peppery flavor and is widely used in Mediterranean and Asian cuisine. The ultimate summer herb.
- Parsley has curly and flat-leaf types; its mild flavor makes it good for garnishing and finishing dishes.
- Chives are members of the onion family and have a mild onion-y taste.
- Oregano has sturdy leaves and a bold, pungent and slightly bitter flavor. A little oregano goes a long way. It’s essential in a fresh Greek salad.
- Tarragon is a favorite in French cooking; its mildly licorice-like taste makes it great for finishing soups and salads.
- Sage, another sturdy-leaved plant, is pungent and kind of piney; its flavor pairs well with hearty fall and winter dishes.
- Rosemary is a slender-leaved shrub that has a strong piney taste; it’s good on roasted vegetables or grilled meats.
- Dill, with its delicate leaves and bold taste, is commonly used in pickling. It’s great with potatoes as well.
- Thyme is a bushy plant with woody stems and tiny leaves; it has a subtle slightly minty flavor, while lemon thyme has a sweet citrus note.
How to Choose and Keep Herbs
A wide range of packaged fresh herbs is sold in the produce section of your favorite grocery; look for herbs with leaves and stems that are bright green, with no dark discoloration. Avoid packages with lots of condensation, as dampness promotes rot.
At seasonal farmers’ markets, you’ll find an assortment of freshly picked herbs. These will be at the peak of their flavor.
If you grow herbs in your garden, snip them right before you use them; if you’re harvesting a bunch — like a lot of basil to make pesto, for example — pick them in the morning when it’s cool.
Moisture is the enemy when storing fresh herbs, so wait until you’re ready to use them to quick-rinse and dry the leaves thoroughly before chopping.
To extend the life of your fresh basil, cilantro and parsley, snip a bit off the stem ends and place the herbs in a glass partially filled with water, then cover loosely with a plastic bag. Parsley and basil should be stored at room temperature; cilantro in the refrigerator.
Minced chives store well in the freezer, but other herbs do not.
Ways to Eat Herbs
- Tender herbs — parsley, basil, cilantro, tarragon and chives — tend to lose flavor when cooked, so they’re best added to a dish at the last minute or scattered on top to finish. For example, wait to add fresh basil to a tomato sauce until the very end.
- Tougher herbs — thyme, oregano, sage, rosemary — withstand cooking well and aren’t as good as a garnish.
Fresh herbs have a less concentrated flavor than their dried counterparts do. Use 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh herbs vs. 1 teaspoon of dried.
- Make compound butter: In a food processor, combine 1 softened stick of salted butter with a big handful of parsley, basil and/or chives. Store in the refrigerator or freezer; use to top grilled meat or fish.
- Make pesto: In a food processor, combine 4 cups basil leaves, 2 cloves garlic, 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts, 1/2 cup olive oil and 1/2 cup grated Parmesan. Toss with cooked pasta, spoon over sliced tomatoes, smear on grilled chicken or fish. Store up to 1 week in the fridge or up to 12 months in the freezer.
- Season meats: Rub steak or chicken with smashed garlic cloves and olive oil; season well with salt and pepper. Press sprigs of oregano or rosemary into both sides of the meat and refrigerate, lightly covered, for several hours before grilling.
- Add to salad: Roughly chop tender herbs and add a generous amount to a simple green salad.
Nutritional Benefit of Herbs
Fresh herbs provide some nutritional content—parsley and basil, for example, are high in Vitamin K. And for millennia, humans have used herbs for medicinal purposes: Fennel, for example, can aid digestion, sage’s astringent property is helpful in soothing a sore throat and mint can settle an upset stomach. Additional nutritional benefits of fresh herbs come from adding lots of flavor to dishes with no fat and virtually no calories.
Herbs have so many wonderful uses, we could hardly scratch the surface here! Get creative, experiment, try growing your own.
Check out these additional recipes that include herby starring roles: Healthy Homemade Pizza (featuring basil), Spiral Potato Pizza (with rosemary), Tabbouleh (featuring parsley, mint, and chives), and other tasty and wholesome recipes here.