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The Full Yield Blog

Herbs: Fresh and Dried

May 23, 2011 | Tags: Deborah Madison , Food | Post comment

Herbs: Fresh and Dried

By fresh, I mean really fresh— from a garden, a windowsill, the farmers market.  And by standard herbs, I mean parsley, sage, rosemary, oregano and thyme —plus tarragon and chives. (Those are the seven herbs that are in the picture)  I would have happily added marjoram, dill, and basil, but I don’t have them in my garden yet, and I just planted cilantro today. Herbs from the supermarket are fine to use, too, but they quickly get expensive and often their flavor isn’t as robust as it might be, which is why it’s a good idea to take advantage of fresh herbs, especially this time of year.

Why herbs? Herbs have the ability to lead a vegetable or a dish in different directions.  Take corn, for example, a vegetable we are looking forward to seeing soon. Pair it with parsley, sage, dill, cilantro, oregano and basil and it’s different with each one. If you’re bored with you usual recipes, you might consider using different herbs, singly and in different combinations.  You might find that you suddenly love an herb you’d overlooked, like tarragon. Or that dill mixed with parsley, basil, and mint make a kind of wonderful super-herb.

Most of all fresh herbs, to me, are about pleasure. They’re a joy to handle, to work with, and then there’s what they do to your food.  But some people have said they find them time consuming to work with, mostly getting leaves off the stems. Unless your thyme stems are very tough and wiry (in which case it’s easy just to strip a stem with your fingers) just go ahead and chop them up. Cilantro stems are very tender – no need to worry about them.  I never pick parsley leaves off their stems – just off the big central tough stems. You won’t be using a lot of sage at once so those big leaves are easy to pick off. Oregano and marjoram strip easily. My advice is not to worry about bits of stem—or flowers, for that matter.  

When do you add fresh herbs?  Ideally, I like to add them at the beginning of a dish, to sautéing onions, then again at the end. When you add them at the start, they contribute a subtle something to the dish, but when you add them at the end you get a burst of pure flavor from their contact with the heat, just as you do with a spoonful of olive oil. Certain fragile herbs, like chervil, should only be added at the end – they just don’t contribute much at the beginning.

During the summer, you’ll want to use fresh herbs, but some dried herbs can be very good though better for winter, perhaps, when there isn’t a fresh alternative. Dried basil, oregano, marjoram, sage, dill retain their flavor pretty well.  (Rosemary too, but it’s better fresh). Avoid dried parsley, cilantro, chervil, chives and even tarragon. They tend to end up with a grassy flavor and no particular charm. Don’t keep dried herbs around too long. Six months to a year is a good limit. Always crumble them between your fingers and take a whiff to see what they have to offer before you use them. If you can’t tell what they are when you do that, they may be over the hill.  Time to replace them (in small amounts at a time).

If you have an excess of fresh herbs, you can try drying them. Lay them out on a cake rack so that the air can circulate around them. Because of the humidity in your area that could take a while. (Where I live it would take an hour or so because of the lack of it!)  Or chop extra herbs, stir them butter flavored with lemon zest and salt and pepper, roll it into a cylinder and freeze it to use later, cut into disks and stir into soups or a grain, bean or pasta dish. You’ll use less butter that way, it preserves their flavor well, and you end up with a very special finishing touch.