Cooking with Herbs : Tips and Tricks

cooking with herbs

How much do you know about cooking with herbs? Until about 15 years ago, I didn’t really know anything. Then I discovered how delicious and nutritious they can be, and I’ve never looked back. In fact, I’ve started studying them and using them more and more. Herbs, of course, are plants, and eating a plant-heavy diet benefits both your health and your waistline,  in addition to adding a lot of delicious flavor to any recipe, which is the part I love best about them. There are, literally, hundreds of herbs to choose from, all of which offer very low-calorie ways to add flavor to you cooking.

When you’re first starting out, cooking with herbs can seem overwhelming. Part of the reason it took me so long to start really delving into the world of herbalism is because there is so much to learn. Learning how to buy, prepare, store, and cook with fresh herbs seems like a lot of work at first. After all, how do you know which herbs go with which dish? But cooking with fresh herbs is not reserved for gourmet chefs. Try some of the following tips and tricks to elevate your dishes to the next level in no time:

Which Is Better: Fresh or Dried?
For the most part, choosing between using fresh and dried herbs is simply a matter of personal preference. That being said, there are times when one works better in a dish than the other. Dried herbs have the best flavor when they are added during cooking, which is almost always what I do. This gives enough time for their flavor to infuse into the dish.

It’s best to use dried herbs in homemade soups or sauces that are going to be simmering for at least 45 minutes after you add the dried herbs. If you add the herbs too soon, like right when you are going to be serving the dish, the herbs tend to taste “dirty” or too grainy. I love to use dried herbs in the Crock Pot, especially. They get much softer, and they fill the whole pot with flavor! Plus, dried herbs are so much more convenient.

Ensuring You Are Using the Best-Quality Dried Herbs
If you are choosing to use dried herbs (as I often do), you will want to ensure you are adding the best-quality herbs to your dishes. Dried herbs lose their flavor over time. Buy herbs in smaller quantities to ensure you are able to use them before they have lost their flavor.

It is also a good idea to store your herbs in air-tight containers to maximize their flavor. If you open the container and cannot detect the herb’s aroma of the herb, you most likely won’t be able to taste its flavor either.

While dried herbs are generally much more convenient to use, fresh herbs tend to be much more flavorful and aromatic. Because of this, fresh herbs are best when they are used at the end of cooking. A good example of this would be adding ribbons of basil to pizza just before serving it. Or you can put fresh herbs into a sauce if you are not going to be letting it simmer for a long time.

ribbons of basil

How to Buy Fresh Herbs
If you are going to be cooking with herbs you purchased from the grocery store, wait to buy them until as close as possible to when you are actually going to be using them. Choose bunches of herbs that have a vibrant color and aroma. If you can’t smell the herb, you aren’t likely going to be able to taste it either. Avoid any herbs that are limp, or have any sort of discoloration.

If cooking with herbs you buy fresh right away is not possible, there are some things you can do to extend the longevity and flavor of the herbs. First, remove any bindings that may be present around the herbs. Next, cut the root ends off to keep the leaves from wilting. If you leave the roots on,  they will draw moisture away from the leaves, and the herbs won’t really be usable.

How to Store Fresh Herbs
The next thing you need to do with your herbs is wrap them in a slightly damp paper towel and put them into a plastic zipper bag. Just make sure you leave a little bit of air in the bag. You are going to want to place the herbs in the warmest part of your fridge – typically the door or the top shelf. Don’t stuff them in the back, or you may find brown leaves with ice crystals when you take them back out again!

Keep in mind that even if they are stored in the refrigerator, fresh herbs don’t have a very long shelf life. You will still want to use them as soon as possible. Be sure to cut away any wilted or discolored leaves you see before cooking with herbs.

Washing Fresh Herbs
Only wash your herbs right before you use them. You don’t want to wash them before you store them in the fridge. To wash them, fill a bowl with cold water and place your herbs inside. Gently swirl them around in the water to remove any dirt that might be on the leaves.

One rinse like this is usually enough, but if you find a lot of sediment at the bottom of your bowl, you can give the herbs another rinse. Gently pat the herbs dry with a paper towel, and then you are ready to chop them.

How to Chop Fresh Herbs
The first thing you need to ensure when you are cutting your herbs is that you have a really sharp blade. You can use a knife, food processor or even scissors, as long as they are sharp. To maximize the flavor of the herbs, you will want to cut them as finely as possible (as shown in the picture above). Chop your fresh herbs right before serving to maximize the flavor and aroma you will be adding to your dish.

Cooking with herbs doesn’t need to be confusing. As long you know how to work with them and when to add them to your recipes, you can soon be serving meals to your family that are every bit as flavorful as, and probably much healthier than, what you would get in any restaurant.

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