Thanks to all those cooking competitions and cheffy Netflix shows that emphasize fats and salt to boost flavor, herbs seem to be getting no love lately.
Yes, fats make food taste good and yes, my recipes use butter and olive oil just like everyone else. Salt also has its role in transforming food’s textures and flavors. Unquestionably, salt is necessary to wake up your taste buds and balance dishes. And yes, all those cheffy chefs look super cool salting with the pinch and sprinkle…
But herbs, fresh or dried, can add a punch of flavor not found in other ingredients; herbs add next to no calories to a dish; herbs add a pleasing complexity of flavor; herbs look pretty and make your dishes look pretty. They are not expensive to buy, easy to use, and you can grow your own in your kitchen garden, on a windowsill with full sun, or in a lightbox.
So, let’s talk about which herbs to use in a recipe and what kind of herbs to choose – dried or fresh. I’ll also be doing a follow up post on the best techniques for getting those most flavor out of your herbs so you can up your flavor game!
Which Herbs to Use
Matching the right herb or herbs with your dish is not that hard. If you’re following a recipe, pay attention to which herbs pair with which ingredients: thyme or tarragon go wonderfully with chicken, rosemary makes lamb amazing, dill and salmon are a classic pair for a reason. But don’t feel too bound by recipes! Your goal is to make food that tastes good to you – if a flavor seems too weak, add more; if a flavor combination doesn’t seem good to you, change it!
The best way to decide what herbs to add is the sniff test – this seems stupidly simple, but it works. Say I’m making some chicken with a mustard sauce (as I often am, let’s be frank) – I know that thyme or tarragon are good choices, but maybe that Herbs de Provence blend or some marjoram would be a nice change of pace? Or maybe I should try something different like that savory in the back of the cupboard? When you’re thinking about what herbs might work, don’t shy away from thinking outside of the box – herb flavors connect to essentially all other flavors, so the different combinations could be endless!
Gather up your options, sniff your dish and then sniff option 1. Do they smell good together? Does the herb change the smell of the dish? Does it make your mouth water? If you like it, add some of that herb and don’t skimp! – a teaspoon of most dried herbs should be the least amount you add – taste and add more if it suits your preference. But don’t stop there! You had a couple of other options to consider, remember, and nothing says that you can’t combine herbs for more and newer flavors! Do the sniff test with option 2, add if you like it. Rinse and repeat.
We hear all the time that fresh herbs are better. And they can be… if they are really fresh, readily available, and are going into the right recipe. But dried herbs are more convenient, more affordable, and sometimes the better choice for the recipe.
The key is to buy good dried herbs and to not let them get too old in your cupboard (some people say toss them all after 6 months, but I think this is unrealistic – just replace them when they start looking too grey and lose their good scent). I buy almost all of my herbs from Penzeys because there is a significant difference in the quality, scent, and flavor, and the price is almost the same as everyday grocery store brands. I notice a huge difference in my cooking when I use better dried herbs, and I encourage you to check out Penzeys or another quality producer for yourself!
Fresh herbs are great when they are raw or can be added to something just before serving it because their flavors break down really quickly in heat. When the herbs are going into a recipe with sauce/stock and a little bit of fat where they will simmer for awhile, dried herbs actually give a better and deeper flavor. Many of my recipes call for adding the herbs to hot fat to sauté for just a minute – this “blooms” the flavor by allowing the flavor molecules, which are fat soluble, to be drawn out into the dish. Blooming works especially well with woody herbs like rosemary, thyme, and savory, but it can also give a boost to softer herbs like tarragon, basil, or marjoram. This technique can also deepen the flavor dried ground spices like paprika, cumin, cardamom, and curry powder. Just make sure to sauté for only a minute so as not to burn the herbs or spices!
Certain herbs are just better fresh – basil, dill, mint, parsley, cilantro, chives – and are best if used raw or just barely wilted (many of these “soft” herbs lose almost all of their flavor and texture when dried, so using fresh when you can will improve their impact on your dish). Fresh rosemary and sage, on the other hand, are so woody they can stand up to more vigorous heat and can be added earlier in the cooking process. Others – thyme, oregano, marjoram, – are sort of in between soft and woody: they are very good dried but can also be lovely fresh as long as they are used and prepared correctly.
When you want to use fresh herbs, think about the structure of the dish: is it something that will work with fresher flavors? Will the texture of raw or wilted green herbs fit with the rest of the dish? Does the dish cook for a long time or is it a quick one? Is there any residual heat that can be harnessed just at the end to heat and wilt the fresh herbs, giving their flavor a little boost?
I love a big handful of ripped basil and mint leaves added into a salad as if they were another salad green, or finely chopped dill tossed on top of poached salmon just before serving; parsley, the ever present garnish so often overlooked for its actual flavor, stirred through a risotto just at the end, or butter fried sage leaves crumbled on top of a pork loin. A branch of fresh rosemary added to the pan as you brown a lamb chop will perfume the whole meal while whole sprigs of thyme simmered with lentils make the dish taste unquestionably French.
There is a whole world of herby flavor just waiting for you to explore, have fun!