All About Herbs- Cooking, Growing, Storing and Drying

Herbs add great flavor to your dishes and also contain many nutrients. They are loaded with vitamins! You can find the nutrient information for herbs here.

Cooking With Herbs

In most recipes you can very easily substitute fresh herbs for dry herbs by using about 3 times the amount. For 1 teaspoon of dry herbs, you can use 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs. When a recipe calls for a “sprig”, you can use an herb branch about 4 inches long with its leaves. When using fresh herbs, remove the hard stems and chop up the leaves. Tender stems can be used along with the leaves.

You can also substitute dry herbs for fresh herbs, but that won’t work in all recipes. Potato salad, for instance, tastes a lot better with fresh parsley than with dry and pesto really needs fresh basil.Dry herbs should usually be added towards the beginning of the cooking time and fresh herbs near the end or even after the dish has finished cooking. In cold dishes, like potato or pasta salad, you should add the herbs right away, so their flavors can blend into the dish.Have fun experimenting with herbs, but be careful not to put too much of them in a dish at once. Start with small amounts, especially when using strong herbs like sage, rosemary and cilantro. A safe amount to start out with for a meal serving four is 1/4 teaspoon of powdered herb or 1 teaspoon of dried herb or 1 tablespoon of fresh herb.

Herbs in Dishes

  • Anise: the leaves can be used in salads and soups. The seeds are nice for flavoring cookies, cakes or breads.
  • Basil: combines well with most vegetables. Is great in pasta sauce, stews, soups and for making pesto.
  • Bay leaves: great in soups.
  • Chervil: use the same as you would use parsley.
  • Chives: combines well with potatos and tomatos. Is great in dips, spreads, soups and salads.
  • Cilantro: good in Mexican or Asian dishes, dressings and salsas.
  • Dill: great on tomatos, potatos, carrots and green beans. Also good in soups, casseroles and sauces.
  • Marjoram: great in veggie burgers and combines well with carrots, green beans, potatoes and spinach.
  • Mint: good on carrots, fruit salads, tabouli and in beverages like tea.
  • Oregano: combines well with tomatoes and peppers and is good in pasta sauces.
  • Parsley: good in potato salad, other salads, dressings, soups and tabouli.
  • Rosemary: good on roasted potatoes, in soups, stews and tomato dishes.
  • Sage: good in soups and salads.
  • Tarragon: good in vinaigrette dressings and sauces.
  • Thyme: good on potatoes, tomatoes, lima beans and summer squash. Nice in soups.

Herb Combinations

  • Parsley, chervil, chives and tarragon: great in salads.
  • Basil, parsley and tarragon: another good combination for salads.
  • Thyme, oregano, rosemary and savory: great on pizzas and in stews
  • Basil, bay leaf, marjoram, oregano and parsley: nice in tomato sauce.
  • Basil, parsley and savory: good on vegetables.
  • Basil, dill and parsley: great for tofu scrambles.

Herb Substitutions

  • Basil: oregano or thyme
  • Chervil: parsley or tarragon
  • Chive: onion, green onion or leek
  • Cilantro: parsley
  • Marjoram: basil, thyme or savory
  • Mint: basil, marjoram or rosemary
  • Oregano: thyme or basil
  • Parsley: chervil or cilantro
  • Rosemary: thyme, tarragon or savory
  • Sage: savory, marjoram or rosemary
  • Tarragon: chervil or a  dash of fennel seed or aniseed
  • Thyme: basil, marjoram, oregano or savory

Growing Herbs

Growing your own herbs is not that difficult. You can either start with seeds or buy a few herb plants. You can plant them outside after the last day of frost in the spring in a ground bed. You can also grow them in a container either inside or outside. Just make sure they get plenty of sun and are planted in well-drained soil. Many herbs are drought-tolerant, but grow best when kept moist, but not too wet.

Annuals and Perennials
Annual herb plants- like anise, basil, chamomile, chervil, cilantro, dill, garlic, sweet marjoram and summer savory – only live for one season. They will grow into full plants that produce flowers and then seeds within one growing year.

Biennial herbs– like caraway, chicory and parsley -live for two years. They will grow during one season and produce flowers and seeds in the next season.

Perennials– like chives, lavender,  mints, oregano, rosemary, sage, tarragon and thyme – can grow over a number of years. They might not always survive harsh winters though.

Annual herb plants will last a bit longer if you snip the flowers as they form. If you allow the plant to seed however, the seeds can turn into new plants for the next season. When perennial herbs flower, you can choose to either cut them back or allow them to flower. Once the flowers are spent, you can cut the entire herb plant back by about one-third to prepare it for the next growing cycle. All herb flowers are edible. You can sprinkle them on salads or put them in other dishes.

The best time to harvest herbs is in the early morning, just after the dew has evaporated and before the heat of the day. You can harvest them the day you are going to need them for cooking. Use sharp scissors to cut the stems. Never cut the leaves and never pull leaves off a plant.

Basil and mint can be cut at a point just above a leaf pair on the stem. Chervil, chives, cilantro, dill and parsley can be cut at the base (where the stems emerge from the ground). Most other herbs can be cut at any point on the upper third of the stems, leaving about two thirds of the plants intact.

If you are planning on drying herbs, it is best to harvest them right as the first flower buds appear. That’s when the leaves contain the most oil.

Seed Harvesting
If you are planning on harvesting the seeds – like anise or coriander seeds – you should allow the plant to mature fully and not harvest the leaves or branches. When the seed heads are turning brown, you can cut them off the plant. You can then dry the seed heads, remove the seeds and store them in an airtight container.

It is best to stop harvesting perennial herbs about one month before the frost starts. Annual herbs can be harvested until frost. After you harvest them, you should rinse them off with cool water. Gently shake some of the water off and let them drain on paper towels.

Drying Herbs

If the herbs come from your own garden and you know that they haven’t been exposed to pesticides or other chemicals, you only need to inspect them for insects and dirt. If they aren’t dirty, there is no need to wash them. It is much easier to handle dry herbs than wet ones. If the herbs are store-bought or contain dirt, you will need to wash them and pat them dry with paper towels before drying. Make sure you dry them well, because wet herbs can mold.

Air drying
Tie a bunch of herbs (about 4 to 6 sprigs) together with a string and hang them indoors, upside down in a dry, warm spot, but not in direct sunlight. You can also dry them by lying them on a wire rack (like the ones you use to cool baked goods). Make sure there is good air circulation, so the herbs don’t get moldy. Basements are usually too damp. They will take a few days to up to a week to dry. The herbs are ready to be used when the leaves crumble easily when you crush them between your fingers.

Oven Drying
Place the herbs on a cookie sheet and put them in the oven on the lowest setting until the herbs are dried. This can take anywhere between 15 minutes to a few hours. Check them and turn them over every now and then to make sure they don’t become too dry or burn.

Food Dehydrator
Follow the instructions that come with the food dehydrator. Food dehydrators usually come with several shelves on which you can dry the herbs.

Refrigerator Drying
You can dry herbs in the refrigerator by placing them on one of the shelves (not in the bins) in a paper bag. This method will take several weeks, but works well for herbs like basil, dill, mint, rosemary and tarragon.

Seed Drying
When you have harvested seed heads, you can dry them by lying them on a wire rack. Unlike with herbs, seed heads are allowed to dry in direct sunlight. When the heads are completely dry, you can remove the seeds.

After drying, you can store the herbs in an airtight glass container. You can crumble them up or store the herbs whole. Whole dried herbs can be crumbled up when you need them and will keep their flavor longer. If you see any sign of moisture in the container, you should remove the herbs and dry them a bit longer (a few minutes in the oven should be enough). Make sure the herbs aren’t moldy yet.

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Storing Herbs

Dried herbs – either store-bought or fresh herbs you dried yourself – can be stored in airtight glass containers or tins. Don’t store them near a heat source, like an oven, toaster oven, the top of your refrigerator or stove. This will make them go stale sooner. If you keep your herbs on the countertop or in another place where they are exposed to a lot of light, it is best to store them in dark-tinted containers. The best place for dried herbs is a cool, dark cupboard.

Even though dried herbs keep for several years, it is best to use them the first year, when they have the best flavor.
Fresh Herbs
Basil, cilantro and parsley stay fresh longest when stored in a glass with an inch of water on the counter at room temperature. Trim the ends off first and replace the water daily. This will keep them fresh for several days up to a week.

Other herbs, like chives, thyme and rosemary, stay fresh longest when stored in an open or perforated plastic bag in your refrigerator drawer or door compartment. To make them last about a week or even longer, you should snip off the bottom of the stems and place them in a glass with about an inch of water. Cover them loosely with a moist cloth or plastic bag and keep them on the top shelf of your refrigerator. Change the water daily.

When the leaves of the herbs turn dark or the stems show traces of mold, you should throw the herbs out.

Freezing also works really well with fresh herbs. You can store herbs in airtight glass containers in the freezer for about a year. Make sure you wash and dry the leaves first. You won’t need to thaw them before adding them to your dish. Frozen herbs keep their flavor really well. When you have too many fresh herbs, drying them is also an option to make them last longer.

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