Helpful Hints for Cooking with Herbs

Catch a whiff of savory rosemary and you’re instantly transported to your favorite Italian restaurant: deeply inhaling the steaming scent rising from the marinara sauce on your pasta. Rub a little sage between your fingers and the tangy aroma reminds you of the roasted chicken grandma served for Sunday dinners.

The flavors and fragrances of herbs enhance many of our favorite dishes. Knowing when to add herbs to recipes, and whether it’s best to use fresh or dried herbs can make all the difference in the potency and flavor. Many culinary schools teach aspiring chefs to add most fresh herbs to recipes near the end of the cooking time for a variety of reasons.

Using Fresh Herbs

Fresh basil’s sweet essence provides the best enhancement to recipes when added at the end of cooking time. Dill and tarragon also have the freshest flavor when used this way. However, chives don’t hold up when cooked and should be added just before serving. Any fresh herbs added near the end of cooking will have a more distinct flavor. When blending flavors during a longer cooking period, certain fresh herbs work well, while dried herbs can provide the essence needed and withstand the longer cooking period.

The strength of dried oregano’s flavor does well in recipes with a mix of other spices and seasonings such as chili, often a favorite dish in states like Louisiana and Texas. Be aware that fresh oregano is too mild to stand out in such assertive flavors. Thyme is another herb that can be used fresh or dried. It’s one of the few fresh herbs that can endure longer cooking times. However, the hearty flavor of fresh thyme subsides the longer it’s cooked, and you may wish to add a little more near the end of the cooking stage as well, for increased taste. Fresh rosemary lends itself easily to recipes that include long, slow braising, such as lamb and beef. Cooks discovered that although both fresh and ground sage could be used in various recipes, dried parsley just doesn’t have the flavor of fresh in any application. Dried herbs certainly provide convenience, and by following a few useful suggestions, you can consider them a handy staple in your kitchen.

Tips for Getting the Best Use of Dried Herbs

• Freshness is an important part of any ingredient, and when dried herbs are stale the flavor decreases. To test the freshness of your dried herbs, crush a small amount in your hand and sniff. If it doesn’t release a strong fragrance, it’s probably time to replace it.

• When using dried herbs don’t sprinkle them directly out of the container into a steaming pot. The steam can diminish the potency of the herb in the jar. Use a dry spoon to add the herbs to your recipe.

• Herbs such as oregano, basil, and thyme have flavorful oils that need to be released before adding them to the food. Crushing them in your hands or pushing them through a sieve over the food can accomplish this.

• When substituting dried herbs for fresh, a general rule of thumb is approximately 1 teaspoon of dried for each 3 teaspoons of fresh. Many chefs suggest that the type of dried herb used will affect the substitution. Unless ground dried herbs are used, a better ratio might be 1 teaspoon dried to 2 teaspoons fresh, and even that can vary depending on the coarseness of the dried herbs. As with all recipes, the amounts used can be adjusted to suit your own tastes.

When adding herbs, fresh or dried, to your favorite recipes, remember that the herb should enhance the food. No matter how much you enjoy the flavor of that particular herb, it should not completely overpower the natural flavor of the food. Instead, it should complement and blend with the other tastes.

Start with small increments until the appropriate flavor development is reached, and be selective in your combinations. With a little experimenting of your own, you’ll soon enjoy the taste sensations achieved with the addition of herbs to your favorite recipes.

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