Herbs play an important role in cooking, and can elevate your favorite meal by adding a unique richness and aroma. They are essential in adding more complex flavors to a dish, and can allow you to experiment with different herb combinations.
Originally used for medicinal purposes, herbs can help boost your immune system and encourage you to be more bold and creative with combinations in the kitchen. Teas, cocktails, and intense meals are some of the things that can be enhanced with herbs.
Whether you want to impress your next dinner party guests by demonstrating your knowledge of herbs, or if you are looking for inspiration to change your regular meals, this guide will help you understand how certain foods and herbs interact with each other.
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The Importance Of Herbs In Cooking
Herbs are essential for cooking because they can add to the aromas and flavors of any dish. Depending on your go-to style of cooking and what kind of meal you are trying to create, the combinations of herbs and spices are endless.
Whether you want to bring out the flavor of lamb, poultry, and vegetables, or if you want to find something that will add a finishing touch to salsa, salads, and dressings, this is a complete guide into herbs and how they can improve your dish.
It is also worth mentioning that many herbs have medicinal properties. This means that not only would integrating different herbs into your diet add variety that is needed for a healthy diet, but you may also benefit from improved immune system function.
Traditionally, some herbs were made into teas which helped protect against common ailments such as joint inflammation, insomnia, and the common cold.
There are a lot of health benefits that brought attention to herbs throughout the years. Adding them to food to enhance or introduce new flavors is something that came after the medicinal use of herbs.
Herbs are different from spices because they are regularly used in larger amounts than spices. This is because the flavors are usually a little more subtle than spices. As well as being found from different plants, and going through a different process to be able to add to food, herbs are usually closer to their original plant than most spices.
By definition, herbs are the leafy part of a herbaceous plant that can be added to food. Many species of herbs can be seen in their dried forms at supermarkets. Jars of dehydrated leaves or even seeds are more shelf-stable, making them better value for money.
However, if you want to create a small herb garden, there are plenty of species that will grow indoors or out. Being able to add something home-grown to your cooking can be extremely rewarding, which is why you should consider creating your own selection of herbs ready for whenever they are needed.
Top 10 Common Herbs For Cooking
Some herbs are more versatile than others, and it is worth understanding the depth of flavor that each can add to a dish when cooking. Not all herbs are created equal, and although these are some of the most common herbs used in cooking, and what they can add to certain foods.
Some are more intense than others, which is why you should consider each herb’s unique flavor before adding it to a meal. It is also worth noting that dried versions of certain herbs tend to be less fragrant than others.
This is usually because the subtle flavor that the fresh herbs provide tends not to preserve well once it has been dried.
It is also worth noting that not all herbs are suitable for cooking. Some tend to lose a lot of their flavor when they get hot. That is why you should read how to use each herb and when to add them when you are cooking.
Some are great in cold dishes but others are best for slow cooking or roasting, so it’s up to you to decide which herbs to try out.
You should consider using some of the herbs listed below in your everyday recipes to bring the flavors to another level, and enhance the richness as well as overall taste. For those who are more green fingered, you could consider planting a herb garden so that you can access fresh herbs whenever a recipe needs it.
If you want to check that your pantry is stocked with some of the basics, then you have come to the right place. These are some of the most common herbs for cooking, and what they add to a dish.
Basil pairs wonderfully with tomatoes, and it can be a great herb for many dishes. This is why basil leaves are often seen on top of pizzas, and it is the most popular base for pesto.
Basil can even be used to create delicate licorice flavors in desserts and sweet drinks or cocktails, which adds to this herb’s impressive versatility.
Also known as coriander, cilantro has the power to divide groups of people. This is because the herb can become overpowering and taste like soap. When it has been added in small amounts, cilantro can bring out a freshness to any dish.
It isn’t always the best for cooking with, however, because the herb tends to lose some of its flavor when it is heated. For this reason, cilantro works best in fresh salads, dressings, and salsas.
Like cilantro, dill loses most of its flavor when it is heated, which is why it’s best to save this herb for the end when you are assembling a dish. It is best used fresh, because the leaves add an element of zesty quality that accompanies fish, salads, and potatoes well.
It is also worth noting that dill seeds are more hardy, and can be used in cooking to achieve more intense flavors. Dill seed is often seen in mustard because of the strong heat that it has.
Another unique herb that has a unique taste is mint. It makes a great base for cocktails, a finishing touch to desserts, and can be the perfect accompaniment to lamb. Mint plants are very easy to care for, and it has long been associated with cleansing properties that can help with digestion and other ailments.
The leaves are very powerful, and different plant species determine the flavor. Spearmint and peppermint are the two most common mint flavors. Because of the versatility of fresh mint, it could be worth considering purchasing a mint plant. This will allow you to access leaves whenever you want.
Rosemary is another excellent accompaniment to lamb in cooking, and it has a strong woody flavor of lemon and pine which works perfectly with different meats. For a unique drink, you could add rosemary to your gin. This will help bring out the citrus flavor while balancing it with the warmth of the gin and woody undertones.
Soups, fish, tomato sauces, and dressings all benefit from the addition of rosemary, whether it’s fresh or dried. The herb itself has such a strong flavor and scent, that it is just as intense when purchased in it’s dried form.
There are different types of parsley that vary in overall intensity. Flat leaf, or Italian parsley is more flavorful than it’s curled counterpart. It provides a freshness that makes it a great garnish or addition to salad dressings, but can add a lot more flavor to rich dishes.
Parsley is often paired with garlic to make an intense, fragrant flavor that is perfect in a range of meals. Make sure to avoid using dried parsley, because the flavors tend to be more subtle than fresh parsley in cooking.
Thyme has a rich flavor that is perfect in French cuisine, and a little goes a long way. It can be added to stews, poultry dishes, and vegetables to enhance the flavor of the ingredients and create another layer of depth to the aromas and tastes created. You can use this herb on its own, or with rosemary, oregano, and parsley to make a complex, rich flavor that is both fragrant and strong.
Another great herb that is perfect for bringing out the flavors of a rich, tomato sauce is oregano. It can be used dried or fresh, which makes it more accessible to many. It is widely used in Mediterranean cuisine as well as Italian dishes. Oregano has a strong aroma that has allowed it to gain the nickname “wild marjoram”.
Sage is an intense herb that is highly fragrant and almost musty. It pairs well with sausage and other meats, and is often combined with herbs that are just as strong within Mediterranean cooking. It is a very powerful flavor that can be used dried or fresh in small amounts.
Within the family of fennel and sunflowers, tarragon is a fragrant herb that works well in salads or when cooking chicken. It has an aniseed flavor that is both subtle and pronounced, and it is definitely worth playing around with different amounts in your cooking to see what effect it has on the dish overall.
Top 10 Exotic Herbs To Try
If you are looking to increase your herb knowledge and expand your regular flavor profile, then you could consider adding some exotic herbs to your spice cabinet or herb garden.
Whether you want to substitute one of your regular herbs with one of these, or even if you are looking for new ways to add more herbs into your routine, these are some exotic herbs that you might not be aware of.
Firstly, lemongrass in a unique herb that has a strong lemony scent and flavor. It is refreshing and used in a variety of drinks, sweet and savory dishes. There is a hint of mint that makes it perfect for chicken and seafood.
Lemongrass stems can be used in their dried or fresh form without compromising the flavor. The plant has long grass-like leaves, and the species comes from Southeast Asia, so would be great in warm, humid conditions.
This species will definitely liven up any dish, and it comes from the ferula plant. Asafoetida is very fragrant, and a small amount will go a long way.
While it is a gum by definition, it has been used as a herb in Indian cultures for centuries. Asafoetida mimics the taste of onions and garlic which is intriguing to the taste buds. This herb works well with turmeric in vegetable and meat dishes.
Characterized by long pointed leaves and white flowers, Lemon verbena has a more subtle citrus flavor than lemongrass. This makes it great for adding to salad dressings, oils, and teas.
Some culinary experts have even gone so far as to create jams and subtle desserts using this herb. Lemon verbena is sweeter than other herbs, and being native to South America means that the species thrives on bright sunlight and warmer temperatures.
Widely recognized for its spice and heat, wasabi is regularly used in sushi and other seafood dishes. It was first found growing along stream beds in Japan, which has gained its nickname ‘Japanese horseradish’. Wasabi is very strong and pungent, so it is recommended that a small amount is added before adjusting to taste. Every part of the wasabi plant is edible, which makes it a great addition to any kitchen garden.
Also known as a beefsteak plant, shiso is found in green, red, and purple. It has a more complex flavor profile than some of the other herbs because of its combination of anise, citrus, basil, and mint. Shiso can be commonly found in sashimi, soup, and sushi, and can also be made into green tea.
Fitting with the name, pineapple sage combines the sweet, tanginess of pineapple with the rich, deep flavor of sage. It can be a great addition to salad dressings, teas, and desserts, depending on your preference for the tangy flavor.
Pineapple sage is native to Mexico, and has been credited for its anti-inflammatory benefits as well as its use at helping people manage anxiety.
Originally found in Southeast Asia, Thai basil is a little more resistant to high heats in cooking than regular basil. It is known as an ornamental herb because of its veined leaves and purple stems supporting purple flowers.
It can be used where you would use regular basil, whether you want to sprinkle on top of a salad, or add to a curry. For the complete experience, add Thai basil when it is fresh to Thai curry, noodles, or a stir-fry.
Rice Paddy Herb
The name of this plant comes from where it is traditionally found. Growing best in flooded rice fields, rice paddy herb has an interesting flavor of citrus combined with cumin.
This makes it a unique substitute for cumin seeds in most recipes. Rice paddy herb is more commonly seen in traditional Vietnamese dishes, and it works well in sour fish soup and Thai curries.
Another popular name for this herb is Cuban oregano. It is a very fragrant plant that doesn’t take long to grow under the right conditions. The leaves have a taste that is similar to regular oregano with a citrus undertone.
Mexican mint can be a substitute in most recipes for oregano, and the fresh leaves work best in meat based or vegetarian foods. In its dried form, Mexican mint is used in soups.
Another plant that has a lemon scent with a little mint is Vietnamese balm. It has been used in teas for its soothing effects, and the leaves can be added to meat dishes, soups, and salads. In addition, the seeds are also used within the culinary world. Vietnamese balm seeds can be made into a powder that is useful for flavoring food.
Matching Herbs To Dishes
If you are wondering how to start introducing more herbs into your cooking, then you should consider which herbs pair well together. Depending on the flavors that they introduce, each herb might not be a suitable fit because of the balance that they need to create.
Each dish is a work of art, regardless of how well you believe that you executed it. There is an intricate balance that needs to be achieved in order to successfully understand how different flavors interact.
Salty and sweet, aromas and flavors need to balance each other out without compromising the overall quality of a dish. These are some suggestions on which herbs match with dishes.
Chicken is one of the most versatile sources of protein because it can be prepared in so many ways. Grilled chicken works great in salads or sandwiches, and rosemary works great with chicken cooked over a wood fire or on the grill.
Roast chicken can bring out another level of flavor and juices, especially if you slow roast it over the course of a day on a low temperature. You can stuff the cavity with garlic, lemon slices, and thyme, sage, and rosemary. This will make a great roast chicken that is moist and flavorful in every bite.
Whether you are roasting or frying beef, you can add some herbs from the list above to bring out the meaty flavor and complement side dishes or sauces. Thyme and bay leaves are perfect for long cooking, such as stews or soups with beef in, because they can add a richness and intensity to the dish. If you are roasting beef, you could create a herb crust using dried rosemary, oregano, and tarragon.
Depending on your preference for lamb and your palate, there are a few herbs that pair well with lamb. Rosemary adds a woody aroma that helps create more of a smoky element to the meat. Mint, on the other hand, introduces a fresh flavor that the meat provides a great contrast with. It is just enough to leave the taste buds guessing and wanting more at the same time.
Again, the herbs that work best depend on how you want to cook pork. Make sure that you have read the recommended cooking times for your piece of meat, and whether you want to roast a pork or fry pork chops, some of the herbs that work best for this meat are coriander, dill, parsley, thyme, rosemary, and sage. Paired with garlic, any combination of these herbs will make a great tasting meal.
There are two main ways that you can make sauce for pasta, the first involves using a tomato base to create a rich red sauce, while the second involves a creamy sauce that is usually white. Oregano is perfect for most Italian dishes, and works well with spaghetti and meatballs.
Basil is another great accompaniment to pasta because it can be blended with other herb stems and scraps to create a fresh yet rich pesto.
Thyme can also be used with pasta to help add a slight smokiness to a creamy sauce. Whatever type of sauce you want to make, basil and past go hand in hand, which is why it is known as the herb of Italian food.
Another extremely versatile ingredient is rice. Cooked rice can be added to burritos, stews, soups, or even sushi when the right rice has been used.
It takes on the flavor very effectively, and works well with fresh parsley, cilantro, and rosemary. As always, remember to add less than you think you might need and adjust according to your taste.
Depending on what kind of dessert you want to make, you can integrate different herbs into a sweet dish. Mint pairs excellently with chocolate because of the balance between bitter and sweet that it helps to bring out.
Basil is best for fresh, sweet fruits and berries such as blueberries because the different elements of freshness complement each other well.
Fresh herbs were brewed in hot water to make teas historically. If you want to give your immune system a boost using natural sources of essential vitamins and minerals, you could use fresh herbs to create your own green tea.
You can use fresh or dried herbs for this, and it can be whatever you have on hand. Some people choose to use herbs that have more credit for specific medicines, so it could be worth doing your own research into this.
Cocktails and mocktails are something that pair well with fresh herbs because the alcoholic base is usually made with some herbs. Being able to bring that out in a drink is an impressive skill to master, which is why it could be worth experimenting with different herbs and drinks.
Fresh mint is a great addition to lighter drinks that are refreshing such as mojitos. On the other hand, basil is great for a cocktail that is more savory and sophisticated. It depends on what kind of drink you want to create, but it could be worth adding a handful of fresh herbs to your next cocktail.
Storage And Care Tips For Herbs
It is worth noting that some herbs require more care than others. If you choose to make a garden filled with herbs, then you should consider how much time and care will need to be put into them.
It is definitely worth the investment to care for herb plants, however. This is because the taste that fresh herbs provide is unique, and often unlike the herbs that are dried.
There are advantages to dried herbs, of course. These include being able to store them without worrying about the weather conditions, and knowing that you will have access to herbs when you need them.
Dried herbs usually last a lot longer than fresh ones do, and they require less preparation time. This is because they are usually in small chunks ready to add to food, whereas fresh herbs need to be finely chopped.
You should consider storing your fresh herbs in a space that is well ventilated and that gets plenty of sunlight if you want to keep them indoors. Most fresh herbs should be stored in the refrigerator in order to keep them fresh. Place the stems in a glass of water and loosely cover with a plastic bag.
Using this method, fresh herbs should last 4-6 days. Because different herbs require different conditions, you should wrap rosemary and thyme in a wet paper towel before placing in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.
If you want to consider planting your own herb garden, you should think about how often you intend to use each herb, and plant species accordingly.
It is also worth taking the time to think about how much care each herb requires. Make sure that you do your research and find out what conditions they grow the most in.
Of course, dried herbs last significantly longer than fresh herbs because they have been dehydrated. This means that they are a lot easier to store because they are shelf stable. They will keep for up to six months in an airtight container, within a cool, dark place. Most people keep their dried herbs in their pantry or kitchen cabinet which provide ideal conditions.
In addition, you could make use out of your fresh herbs if you don’t think you will use them up before they start to wilt. Finely chop the herbs before placing them in the freezer. Ice cube trays are perfect for storing blended herbs or herbs that have been combined with butter.
This can be a great way to prep for cooking, because you will only have to add a cube of the butter to make a great tasting dish. Another thing you can do to make use of fresh herbs is to add some of them to oil. Allow enough time for the oil to infuse with the flavor before using it in your cooking.
You could also try to dry your own herbs to make a more shelf-stable use out of fresh herbs. Bind the herbs tightly with string or twine, and hand the bunch somewhere dry and warm.
As long as there is plenty of ventilation, your herbs should take around 10 days to dry. Make sure that you take care when you are storing them, because some of the leaves can be a little fragile once they have dried.
Hopefully this guide has helped you understand the world of herbs a little better, and you now have more confidence in your culinary skills. Something that is great about herbs is the fact that the possible combinations are seemingly endless.
This means that if you choose, you could invest your time in experimenting with new flavors and seeing how one herb affects another.
Being able to have creative freedom in the kitchen is something that is powerful in its own right, because it allows you to feel confident and proud of your dishes.
Impress your next dinner guests with your knowledge of herbs and how different combinations interact with different types of meat and other ingredients.
Chicken, beef, lamb, and pork all interact with herbs in different ways. This is because of the different textures that each meat has, as well as the different ways in which they can be prepared. Fried chicken will necessitate more spices, whereas roast chicken will need to be stuffed with plenty of herbs.
Cocktails are another unique addition for herbs, because of the subtle aromas from certain herbs that are created by the alcoholic beverage of choice. You can play with different flavors and fresh herbs to create your own unique cocktail.
Alternatively, enjoy the added fresh mint to a mojito. Whether you want to start your own herb garden, or if you are simply an enthusiast, there are a lot of ways in which you can find out more about herbs and how the aromas and flavors interact. Follow the links above for more detail.