What makes the difference between good cooking and great cooking? The simple answer: the right amount of herbs and spices. It goes without saying that everything you cook should be treated with a sprinkle of kosher salt and a few grinds of black pepper (when appropriate). But what puts food over the edge is those herbs currently wilting in your crisper and those spices losing flavor in your cupboard. Today, we will discuss herb usage and storage. In Part 2 of our series, we will talk spices. For Part 3 will bring it all together as we discuss spice mixes.
Often herbs and spices are clumped together as one category, so what is the difference? Herbs tend to refer to the leaves of a plant. Spices, on the other hand, refer generally to the dried roots, barks, berries, or fruits of plants. Of course, herbs can be dried as well though they bring a brighter flavor and color when used fresh. There are some occasions when using dried herbs can have an edge in that their flavor is more concentrated but most of the time, fresh is the way to go. You can use them interchangeably following this ratio: one tablespoon of fresh for one teaspoon of dried.
Before we discuss some commonly used herbs, it is important that we store them properly to avoid rapid wilting. Herbs are living plants and need to be treated as such. Snip the bottoms off the herbs, like fresh flowers. Then place in a container (I used a pint glass), filled with a few inches of water. Cover the top with a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator for up to a few weeks. When using fresh herbs, you don’t want to use the stems so be sure to pick the leaves off when prepping. And don’t forget to wash your herbs.
Commonly Used Herbs
Basil is a favorite herb of many cooks around the world, though its top association is with Italian cooking. Use it cooked or raw in tomato sauces or to top pizzas. But Italian basil isn’t the only form of basil out there. Thai basil, which has more anise notes to Italian basil’s peppery taste, is used in many Southeast Asian cuisines. It is the perfect addition to our Thai Basil Red Snapper.
While were in Italy, we should explore the world of oregano. Often used dry instead of fresh, its sweet and savory balance is perfect for sausage dishes, tomato sauce, or ragu. It is also heavily used in Mediterranean cooking. There is something called Mexican oregano though calling it oregano is somewhat a misnomer. Its flavor is sweeter, like marjoram, and can found all throughout Mexican cooking. Add it fresh or dry to your next taco filling.
Also common to Mexican cooking, as well as in Southeast Asian cuisine, is cilantro. Though some of the population possesses a gene that makes it taste like soap, to most people, cilantro has a very fresh and almost citrusy flavor. It pairs wonderfully with lime and is a great addition to guacamole or chopped with onions as a taco topping. Cilantro is also great in our jerk chicken.
Parsley is the everyman’s herb. Its mild flavor lends itself to just about any type of cuisine for that extra flavor boost. There are two types of parsley you will find at the store. Curly parsley has curly leaves. While it looks pretty, it contains very little flavor compared to its cousin, the Italian flatleaf parsley. It is a great herb to cook with or to use as garnish. Try it when you make our Shrimp Scampi.
Rosemary, Sage, and Thyme
While these three herbs are very different from each other, they lend themselves to similar applications. Whether it a steak or chicken breast, these three add a special savory flavor that takes a bland dinner and turns it into a restaurant quality dish. I like to use rosemary and thyme together while sage has a strong flavor all its own.
Need something bright and fresh? Call up dill. Common in Mediterranean and Eastern European cooking, dill is perfect with dairy, like in a yogurt sauce, or with fish, like atop smoked salmon. I use copious amounts in chicken soup.
Fresh or dry (the most common form), bay leaves bring an essential savory note to soups and stews. Never make a chowder, chili, or minestrone without the help of a bay leaf. Just add at the beginning of the simmer. One or two go a long way and be sure to discard them once the food is cooked. Trust me when I say, you do not want to eat a bay leaf.
Curry leaves do not taste like “curry.” The flavor of what we think of as curry comes from a spice mix (more to come in Part 3). Instead, it brings a fresh, basil flavor with notes of citrus and lemongrass. While not common at the typical supermarket, you can find them readily at your local Indian market.