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Cooking with Herbs

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From the bright, aromatic essence of basil to the subtle licorice undertones of tarragon or the hints of pine in rosemary, few foods add flavor, aroma, and visual appeal as quickly and easily as fresh herbs. Here’s a simple guide for both beginners and seasoned chefs on buying, storing, and using them.

Selecting & Buying Herbs

Fresh herbs are sold in a variety of ways: in pots, in small plastic clamshells, or in bunches (especially parsley and cilantro). However you buy your herbs, look for bright green leaves with no browning or yellowing at the tips. If you’re buying them in bunches, look at the stems-dry, splitting stems mean they’re older. For herbs sold in plastic boxes or bags, give them a sniff before buying. They should have a pronounced aroma with no hints of mustiness or mold. Potted herbs are a great choice. You can snip leaves and keep the plant alive for future harvests.

Storing Fresh Herbs

Herbs are more delicate than other produce and have to be stored and handled gently. Generally, keep them dry and refrigerated. If you buy them in bunches, take them out of the bags and remove the rubber bands, then snip the ends and stand them up in a glass with 1/2 inch of water, then store in the refrigerator. If you buy them in plastic boxes, remove them from the box and wrap them in very lightly dampened paper towels, then store in the warmest part of the fridge to prevent freezing.

Using Fresh Herbs

Rinse herbs gently just before using them. If they’re very dirty or sandy, immerse them in a large bowl of cold water, agitate gently, and lift them out of the bowl. Never cut herbs when they’re wet, or they’ll blacken and get slimy. Instead, pat herbs with paper towels and let them air-dry before cutting, or use a salad spinner to dry larger quantities of herbs.

Be sure your knife is very sharp before cutting herbs-dull knives, blender blades, or food processor blades will bruise the leaves and destroy the vibrant green color. And use all parts of the herb, not just the leaves. Rosemary, sage, and thyme stems can flavor soups and stocks, and chive, sage, thyme, and other herb blossoms are beautiful garnishes (don’t use basil or marjoram blossoms, since they’re often bitter).


9 essential herbs for every kitchen

1 Basil, a sweet and tender herb with a faintly licorice flavor, features prominently in Italian, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisines. Chop and use both leaves and softer stems in pesto, soups, or sauces, or tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces and toss into salads. Because basil is so delicate, add it after foods have finished cooking.

2 Sage, featured prominently in Greek and Mediterranean cuisines, has sturdy leaves and stems, with a strong, mildly bitter flavor and aroma. Add whole sprigs to foods during cooking, then remove and discard before serving; or finely chop the leaves and add to recipes. The leaves are also delicious fried until crispy and crumbled over foods before serving.

3 Rosemary has woody stems, pine-shaped needles, and a pronounced, pine-like fragrance. It’s used mainly in Italian and Mediterranean cuisines. Add whole sprigs to soups or sauces; the needles will fall off during cooking, so remove and discard the woody stems before serving. Or strip and very finely chop the leaves and add to foods during cooking. Because rosemary can get bitter when overcooked, add it during the last 30 minutes of cooking.

4 Oregano has a warm, pronounced flavor, with sweet and aromatic undertones. It’s used mostly in Italian, Greek, and Mexican cuisines. Finely chop leaves and tender stems, and add to recipes. Or add the whole sprig during cooking, then remove and discard the stems before serving.

5 Chives are members of the onion family and have a mild, fresh onion flavor and slender stalks that resemble blades of grass. Use them in all varieties of cuisine. The blossoms can be added to omelets or salads as garnish. They don’t stand up well to long cooking times, so add them at the end of cooking, or use in short-cooking dishes.

6 Thyme, a member of the mint family, has delicate, slender stems and tiny leaves, and is used mainly in Italian, French, Jamaican, and Caribbean cuisines. Add whole sprigs to foods during cooking, then remove and discard the stems, or strip the leaves and sprinkle into dishes during or after cooking. Try lemon thyme to add a fresh, aromatic boost to foods.

7 Tarragon has a distinctive, aromatic flavor with pronounced licorice undertones. Use it in French or other Mediterranean cuisines. It pairs especially well with eggs. Strip the leaves from the stem, finely chop them, and add to recipes during the last 30 minutes of cooking to best enhance the flavor.

8 Parsley has a bright, fresh flavor with slightly peppery undertones and is used in cuisines ranging from Argentinian and Mexican to Mediterranean. Flat-leaf varieties have a more robust flavor and are used more in cooking. Curly-leaf varieties are softer and very mild, and are used mainly for garnish. Add either one during the last couple of minutes of cooking. Use parsley as a base for chimichurri sauce, or finely chop with lemon zest and garlic for a fast garnish called gremolata.

9 Cilantro, used mainly in Mexican and Asian cuisines, has a distinctive flavor and soft leaves and stems. Like basil, it doesn’t stand up well to long cooking times, so use it toward the end of cooking-the residual heat from a just-cooked dish is enough to bring out the flavor. Or use it fresh in salads, salsas, and pesto. Some people have a decided aversion to cilantro, saying that it tastes like soap (interestingly, the cilantro leaf contains compounds called aldehydes that are similar to those used in soaps and lotions), so use it wisely with guests.

There are more than 150 varieties of basil, which means “kingly” in Greek.