A Guide To Fresh Herbs
Fresh herbs can add wonderful aroma and flavor to your cooking and there is no shortage of delectable varieties to choose from. This is a guide to 26 popular varieties that provides basic information on flavor, usage and more.
Using Fresh Herbs
Fresh herbs are best added just before serving to provide that burst of vibrant flavor that really enhances the dish.
Many fresh herbs can be stored in the refrigerator, unwashed in a glass of water like cut flowers or loosely wrapped in plastic and placed in the vegetable crisper.
Dried herbs can be added either at the beginning or during the cooking process to add subtle, layered elements of flavor. They do lose potency over time, so be sure to buy small quantities and refresh your supply about every six months.
Garden Angelica (Angelica archangelica) is a biennial plant often grown in France and Nordic regions. Angelica leaves are often used to flavor liqueurs or to naturally sweeten sour, acidic fruits like red currants and rhubarb during the cooking process.
Angelica petals are popular in Persian and Iranian cuisines for flavoring a variety of dishes; they are part of a unique spice mixture called Advieh, which also uses saffron, cinnamon, coriander and a number of other spices.
Angelica leaves and stems offer a flavor similar to celery if cooked in sauces or vegetable dishes, and the crystallized stems can be used as an unusual pastry garnish.
Lastly, Angelica root is frequently used to brew tea, and a syrup made from the stems and leaves can be diluted for a soothing drink.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a perennial herb native to the tropical climates of India and Southeastern Asia.
Basil is one of the most popular herbs in cuisines across the globe and comes in a number of different varieties, including sweet basil (used in Italian food) and Thai basil (popular in Asian cuisines).
Fresh sweet basil leaves impart a clove-like flavor to Italian dishes, such as marinara sauces, pizzas and pesto, while Thai basil imparts hints of anise, mint and citrus.
Aside from sweet basil and Thai basil, other cultivars include African blue basil, anise basil, Aussie sweet basil, Baja basil, cinnamon basil, compact genovese basil, genovese basil, green ruffles basil, holy basil, holy red and green basil, Italian large leaf basil, lemon basil, lime basil, New Guinea basil, osmin purple basil, purple ruffles basil, red rubin basil and spicy globe basil.
For the best flavor, add fresh basil at the end of cooking or just before serving. Dried basil remains flavorful, if stored properly in a cool, dry and dark place, for up to six months.
Bay leaves (Laurus nobilis), otherwise known as sweet bay, sweet laurel and laurel leaf, come from the Bay Laurel, an evergreen tree native to the Mediterranean.
Bay leaves can be used both fresh and dry in a wide variety of applications; however, bay leaf is probably one of the only herbs chefs prefer to use dried.
Bay leaves impart a rather strong flavor, so most recipes only call for a leaf or two.
Bay leaves can improve the flavor of dishes with little or no salt and go well with fish dishes, soups, stews, marinades and stuffings. This versatile herb is the classic flavor in traditional French cuisine, such as bouillabaisse and bouillon.
Cooked bay leaves should be removed before serving any dish because they become extremely bitter and hard to chew.
There are two main varieties of bay leaf: Turkish and Californian. The smaller of the two, the Turkish variety, is said to have a better flavor than its California counterpart.
Bergamot (Monarda didyma), otherwise known as Crimson Beebalm, Scarlet Beebalm, Oswego Tea or Scarlet Monarda, is a highly fragrant and aromatic herb native to the eastern U.S.
Aside from being an herb with both cooking and medicinal purposes, bergamot is also a lovely ornamental plant.
Bergamot may not have an extensive range of culinary uses, but when it is used, it imparts a citrusy flavor to beverages, fruits, salads and other dishes.
Like angelica, bergamot flowers can be crystallized for garnish, and the leaves can be steeped for more fragrant tea.
Bergamot is completely unrelated to the citrus fruit of the same name, the bergamot orange. It is, however, a member of the mint family and as such is a worthy digestive aid.
Native American Indians (the Oswego) were among the first to make an herbal tea from bergamot leaves, which is now aptly named Oswego Tea.
Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) is a delicate annual herb native to Eastern Europe and related to parsley and carrots. Otherwise known as gourmet parsley or garden chervil, this leafy fern-like green herb imparts a subtle anise flavor when used fresh – but chervil can easily lose that lovely flavor during the cooking process.
Wildly popular in France, chervil is one of the important ingredients in fines herbes and bouquet garni and can be substituted for parsley as a garnish or added to a dish directly before serving.
Chervil is frequently used in poultry, seafood and vegetable dishes, as well as soups and vinegars. Chervil’s name is loosely derived from a Latin phrase meaning “festive herb.” It’s delicate, lacy leaf can easily be crushed by hand or with a mortar and pestle and enhances the flavor of other herbs in a given dish.
Chervil can only be stored for a few days due to its delicate nature, so if you grow it yourself or are lucky enough to find it in stores, be sure to use it up right away.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is a perennial herb that grows wild in Europe and now North America; it may look like a common roadside wildflower because of its blue and lavender flowers. Chicory is used in a number of ways – most notably root chicory in coffee. Other names for common chicory include blue sailors, succory and coffeeweed.
Chicory root has long been used as a coffee substitute in Europe. The root is dried, roasted and ground for a caffeine-free substitute or coffee additive. In fact, many coffee producers blend coffee with as much as 30 percent chicory – not quite decaf but definitely with less caffeine than your average cup of joe.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are the smallest member of the onion family and the only one native to both North America and Europe. Fresh chives are also milder than the other members of the onion family.
In French cuisine, chives are one of the fines herbes; in other world cuisines, chives are popularly used as a mild flavor enhancement.
Chives are often confused with scallions, which are also part of the genus Allium. The herb can be used fresh or dried, but any chef will recommend using fresh leaves – and considering most markets have fresh chives year-round, there’s no excuse not to.
Chives are easy to cultivate in home herb gardens, and fresh chives can be stored in a damp paper towel in the refrigerator for several days. If you grow your own and have excess, you can try chopping the chives and freezing them for future use.
Cilantro is the name given to the leaves of the annual herb coriander (Coriander sativum). Coriander is native to Asia and Africa, and cuisines around the world make use of cilantro leaves and coriander seeds in a variety of dishes.
Cilantro is a unique multiethnic herb, used very popularly in Mexican, Thai and Vietnamese dishes, that imparts a slightly peppery and anise-like flavor.
Coriander seeds are often added whole to dishes, especially Indian curries and spice blends.
On appearance alone, cilantro can be confused with parsley, but the fragrance and taste are very different. Cilantro is arguably the most controversial herb – people either seem to love it or hate it. Those who dislike cilantro (thought by some to be a genetic predisposition) contend that it tastes soapy and has an unpleasant odor.
Cilantro’s leaves and stems are both usable in dishes, and it’s always best to add cilantro just before serving to avoid wilting. Cilantro, like parsley, also makes a lovely green garnish.
Dill (Anethum graveolens) is an annual flowering herb with feathery, delicate leaves (similar to those of fennel) and a rather short lifespan.
Dill is native to Asia, but the leaves, known as dill weed, are used much more commonly in dishes in the Western hemisphere. Dill seed is also used as a spice.
Dill weed has a unique taste – a slightly spicy “green” flavor with an anise-like aroma.
Fresh dill can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days or frozen in ice cubes, but the leaves are very delicate and should be handled carefully.
Dill is a popular accompaniment for seafood and fish dishes, as well as soups, omelets, mayonnaise-based salads, pickles (dill pickles, to be precise) and cucumber dishes.
Dill seed is often added to breads, stews and cabbage dishes.
Epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides), also known as wormseed or Mexican tea, is an annual herb native to Latin America and South America. Many people are unfamiliar with this herb, but the flavor is unquestionable: epazote is the herb used in black beans and authentic salsa.
Uncooked epazote has a licorice and citrus flavor, and it is added to dishes for both its flavor and to counter flatulence. Authentic Mexican cuisine has many uses for epazote, including quesadillas, mole, enchiladas, tamales, sopes and more.
Epazote can be found fresh in Mexican markets, but in the U.S. you’re more likely to find it dried.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a native of the Mediterranean and its cultivation dates back to ancient Roman times. Also known as finocchio or sweet anise, all parts of the fennel plant are edible.
The seeds are dried and used whole, most commonly in Italian sauces and sausages. The mild licorice flavor is similar to anise, but sweeter and less pungent. Fennel seeds are also used occasionally in Indian and North African dishes.
Fennel fronds can be finely chopped like dill, and sprinkled over salads and vegetables and they make a wonderful flavoring for fresh fish.
Fenugreek is an herb that has been cultivated for hundreds of years. The seed sprouts and young leaves have a mildly bitter flavor and can be added to salads as a flavor booster.
Fenugreek seeds are a predominant ingredient in Indian curries and chutneys. It is what gives Indian curry powders their distinctive aroma and is also an ingredient in Asian five-spice powder. The seeds are usually roasted, then ground into a powder. Light roasting mellows the naturally bitter flavor, whereas darker roasting accentuates it.
Fenugreek seed extract is one of the flavors used in imitation vanilla and rum extracts, and it is the primary flavoring for imitation maple syrup. In addition to its culinary uses, fenugreek is sometimes used medicinally and a number of studies have been conducted regarding its effect on blood sugar and cholesterol.
Garlic chives ((Allium tuberosum)) also known as Chinese chives or Chinese leeks, differ from regular chives in that the stems are flat instead of hollow and tubular. They can grow to be about 12″ tall and have a mild garlic-onion flavor.
In Chinese cuisine, garlic chives are often used as a stir fry ingredient or as a flavoring in meat filled dumplings. They are also considered to be a yin (warming food) in Chinese medicine.
Garlic chives don’t need to be limited to Asian cuisine though. A few snipped onto a salad, as a topping on bruschetta, or mixed into a soft cheese spread are just a few suggestions for using this versatile herb.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is a lovely purple flowering plant in the mint family that grows abundantly around the Mediterranean – but the Provence is where lavender truly calls home.
The French chefs in Provence appreciate lavender’s slightly sweet, lemony and delicate floral flavor and have been using it in their sophisticated cuisine for hundreds of years.
For cooking, dried lavender buds or flowers are usually the most commonly used, but some recipes call for the leaves, as well.
Lavender flowers contain the highest concentration of essential oils and are therefore the most flavorful part of the plant. Lavender is used for teas and flavored sugars, as well as candied garnishes for cakes and other baked goods.
Lavender becomes more potent when dried, so use about 1/3 of the dried flowers in place of fresh. This delicious herb pairs well with fennel, rosemary, oregano, thyme, sage and savory.
As one of the herbes de Provence, lavender makes a wonderful addition to any herb garden.
Lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) is a deciduous perennial herb native to South America and cultivated in Europe after Spanish explorers brought it back in the 1600s.
Lemon verbena grows well in full sun and moist soil and is very sensitive to the cold – as such, it normally blooms during the summer months. As its name indicates, verbena adds a lovely lemony flavor, without any bitterness, to a wide variety of dishes.
Verbena’s fresh leaves contain potent essential oils, so its citrus flavor holds up well in fish and poultry dishes, as well as desserts like sorbets and beverages such as herbal tea.
You might also recognize lemon verbena as a popular fragrance in perfume and potpourris.
In frost-free areas, lemon verbena grows well in containers or window boxes. Lemon verbena pairs nicely with lovage leaves, black pepper and dried celery.
Mint (Mentha) is a perennial herb with hundreds of varieties across some 25 different species, not to mention a number of mint hybrids. Mint grows all around the world in moist environments, and the herb is used commonly in many cuisines.
Some varieties of mint include pineapple mint, spearmint, bergamot mint, Japanese peppermint, Corsican mint and many others, while some hybrids include ginger mint and sharp-toothed mint.
Fresh mint is a favorite among chefs for its refreshingly sweet and cool flavor and aroma. Mint leaves are often added to teas and syrups, as well as to lamb dishes in Middle Eastern cuisine and Greek dishes.
Marjoram (Origanum majorana), also known as sweet marjoram, is a perennial herb that is very closely related to oregano, with which it shares similar flavors and aroma. Marjoram is very sensitive to cold climates and grows primarily in southern Europe.
Marjoram has a sweet, mild flavor with a slight hint of balsam and is a featured flavor in the French Herbes de Provence.
Fresh marjoram is a nice addition to salads or mild foods, but dried marjoram has a more intense flavor and can hold its own in heavier dishes like meat. Chefs often add marjoram to pork and veal dishes, as well as stuffings and herbed baked goods, such as scones or bread.
Marjoram’s delicate flavor is best preserved by adding the herb at the end of cooking.
Hardy marjoram, or French marjoram, is a hybrid of oregano and marjoram that can survive colder climates but is less sweet.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare), also known as pot marjoram, is a perennial herb that derives its name from the Greek words for “joyful mountain.” Oregano is native to the Mediterranean and Asia, and it comes as no surprise that it is incredibly popular in Italian and Greek cuisines.
Unlike most herbs, dried oregano is used more frequently than fresh because it often has more flavor – a flavor that is indispensable to a number of Greek and Italian dishes, namely Greek salad and tomato sauce, respectively.
In Italian cuisine, oregano is often paired with basil to season vegetables, sauces and meats; it also pairs well with olives and capers, and most famously, pizza. In Greece, oregano dresses up fish, casseroles and barbecued meats.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is a green biennial herb native to Iran and commonly used in Middle Eastern, European and American cuisines alike. In fact, parsley may very well be the most popular herb in cooks’ pantries around the world.
Like cilantro, parsley is used for its mildly flavored leaves. The two culinary varieties of parsley are Italian (aka flat leaf parsley) and curly leaf parsley.
Some argue that flat leaf parsley has a more pungent flavor, and it would appear that this variety does indeed have a stronger concentration of essential oils.
Curly leaf parsley is most frequently used as a garnish, and some may also favor this variety over the flat leaf variety because flat leaf parsley bears a striking resemblance to poison hemlock (although this probably isn’t a problem if you shop at your local market instead of foraging for herbs in wooded areas).
Fresh parsley is available virtually year-round and is preferable to dried parsley in just about every cooking application.
Parsley is mild and delicate enough to pair well with many other herbs, including basil, chives, mint, oregano, thyme and so on.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is an evergreen-like perennial herb from the Mediterranean; it is also a member of the mint family. Rosemary is an incredibly fragrant herb used in traditional Mediterranean cuisine.
Rosemary is often paired with garlic and thyme for game dishes, vegetables, potatoes, marinades – virtually anything can be enhanced with the slightly piney flavor of rosemary.
Some chefs will use the woody stalk of rosemary to skewer kebabs for the grill. Rosemary is used both fresh and dried, and the leaves can be made into a tisane. Rosemary is also valued for its long-reputed medicinal benefits, including memory aid.
This herb is high in vitamin B6, calcium and iron.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) is a Mediterranean-native evergreen shrub otherwise known as garden sage, Dalmatian sage or kitchen sage. Sage is also a member of the mint family.
Fresh sage leaves are slightly “fuzzy” with a smoky aroma. Sage leaves come whole, dried, ground or rubbed.
Sage has a slightly strong and peppery flavor and as such should be used conservatively. This herb is incredibly popular in Western cuisine, in which it’s used for everything from stuffings to sausages.
Most chefs will find that sage is a lovely accompaniment for virtually any meat and also lends itself well to savory breads and vegetables.
Sage is also known for its medicinal properties – as a stimulant, astringent and tonic.
Savory (Satureja hortensis and montana) is a perennial herb classified as either summer savory or winter savory, for obvious reasons. Savory is related to rosemary and thyme, and summer savory is often preferred over winter savory because it is a more delicate flavor.
Summer savory is popular in European cuisine, especially Bulgarian and Romanian dishes, such as stuffed cabbage rolls and stews.
Interestingly, Bulgarians don’t set a table with salt and pepper but rather with salt, paprika and savory – a mixture called sharena sol.
Winter savory is used in Italian cuisine to accompany bean dishes, as well as in stuffing and poultry recipes. Winter savory has a stronger flavor when uncooked but will lose most of it if cooked for a long time.
Both winter and summer savory have a somewhat spicy flavor that is key in fricot, an Acadian stew.
Sorrel (Rumex acetosa), also known as common sorrel or spinach dock, is green leafy perennial native to Europe. Sorrel can be treated as both a vegetable and an herb, but it seems its use as an herb is more frequent.
Another variety of sorrel, called roselle or Jamaican red sorrel, grows throughout the Caribbean. Common sorrel is a lot like spinach, in both appearance and health benefits, including oxalic acid.
Sorrel tastes nothing like spinach, however; instead, it boasts a fruity flavor, somewhat comparable to kiwi or wild strawberries. The sour flavor is a result of the oxalic acid, which grows more intense as sorrel ages.
Young, fresh sorrel can be used in salads, soups or cooked lightly as a side dish.
Fresh sorrel can be tough to find in grocery stores, but if you do manage to find some, keep in mind it only stays fresh for about three days in the refrigerator.
Spearmint (Mentha spicata), along with peppermint, is one of the most frequently used herbs in the mint family. Spearmint is a perennial herb native to Europe and Asia that thrives in wet soils and lends a sweet and refreshing flavor to foods and beverages.
Spearmint is a great choice for home herb gardens because it grows in a variety of climates and soil conditions, but it is also susceptible to disease. The leaves can be used whole and fresh, dried, frozen or preserved in syrups. Spearmint also makes great flavored salts and sugars.
The flavor of spearmint is most recognizable in sweets and beverages, but spearmint is often used in Middle Eastern cuisine and is a main ingredient in the mojito, a delicious Cuban cocktail.
Morocco has its own unique cultivar of spearmint called “nana,” which is used in Touareg tea (a green tea and mint flavored beverage). Spearmint is a popular flavor in herbal teas because it is well known for its medicinal and soothing properties.
Spearmint is also the herb of choice for mint jelly, which can easily be prepared by steeping fresh mint leaves in sweetened gelatin.
Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), dragon’s wort, is a perennial herb native to most of the northern hemisphere. Tarragon is also in the same family as wormwood.
Tarragon is one of the French fines herbes, and it brings an anise-like aroma to poultry and fish dishes. Tarragon is also an essential ingredient in Béarnaise sauce and dijon mustard.
Fresh tarragon is available primarily in summer and fall, but dried tarragon still imparts a lovely flavor to French cuisine, vinegar, olive oil and more.
Tarragon pairs well with parsley, chervil and chives (the other components of fines herbes) and is a very delicate and refined flavor.
France and California are the top producers of tarragon; while both varieties have a similar flavor, California tarragon is greener and more uniform.
The word “tarragon” is translated roughly to mean “little dragon” – some think this is because tarragon was once used to combat the effects of venom from reptile bites.
Thyme (Thymus) is part of the expansive Lamiaceae family – a relative to rosemary, basil, sage, savory and many others. Thyme is native to Europe, Northern Africa and Asia, and its use dates back as far as the ancient Egyptians who used it during the embalming process.
Thyme is a classic herb, especially in French cuisine, where it is included lovingly as one of the herbes de Provence and in bouquet garni. Thyme has the most flavor when used with the stem in addition to the leaves.
Fresh thyme has a slightly lemony and minty aroma and taste that blends beautifully with poultry dishes, stuffing, soups, sauces – just about anything, in fact.
Fresh thyme is usually only available during the warm summer months, but dried thyme is used year-round by many home chefs. Dried thyme, which is generally more pungent than other dried herbs, should be replaced every six months (preferably sooner) to maintain its flavor.
There are a number of thyme cultivars, including lemon thyme, orange thyme, English thyme and silver thyme. Thyme’s essential oil, thymol, can also be used as an antiseptic.