What would pesto be without basil, or salsa sans cilantro? Whether used by the pinch or by the bunch, fresh herbs pull a recipe together by infusing the dish with unparalleled aromas and flavors. For example, basil’s faint licorice flavor brightens lemon sorbet, while rosemary’s piney zing complements chicken-zucchini skewers. Sometimes, when the effect you seek is subtle, refined, and delicate, a hint of herbs is enough; other times, handfuls are required.
Basil is one of the most important culinary herbs. Sweet basil, the most common type, is redolent of licorice and cloves. Basil is used in the south of France to make pistou; its Italian cousin, pesto, is made just over the border. Used in sauces, sandwiches, soups, and salads, basil is in top form when married to tomatoes, as in the famous salad from the island of Capri—Insalata Caprese, made with tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil, and fruity olive oil.
Mint isn’t just a little sprig that garnishes your dessert plate. It is extremely versatile and can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. In the Mediterranean, mint is treasured as a companion to lamb, and is often used in fruit and vegetable salads. Though there are many varieties, spearmint is preferred for cooking. You can add it to a bevy of dishes and drinks—lamb, peas, carrots, ice cream, tea, mint juleps, and mojitos. Spearmint’s bright green leaves are fuzzy, very different from the darker stemmed, rounded leaves of peppermint.
In Latin, rosemary means “dew of the sea”—appropriate since it is indigenous to the Mediterranean. Rosemary is one of the most aromatic and pungent of all the herbs. Its needlelike leaves have pronounced lemon-pine flavor that pairs well with roasted lamb, garlic, and olive oil. Rosemary is also a nice addition to focaccia, tomato sauce, pizza, and pork, but because its flavor is strong, use a light hand.
Oregano grows wild in the mountains of Italy and Greece; its Greek name means “joy of the mountain.” The Greeks love oregano sprinkled on salads, while the Italians shower it on pizza and slip it into tomato sauces. Add chopped oregano to vinaigrette, or use it in poultry, game, or seafood dishes when you want to take them in a Greek or Italian direction. Oregano and marjoram are so similar in looks and flavor that they are often confused. Oregano, however, has a more potent taste and aroma; marjoram is sweeter and more delicate.
Thyme comes in dozens of varieties; however, most cooks use French thyme. Undoubtedly thyme is one of the most important herbs of the European kitchen. What would a bouquet garni be without it? This congenial herb pairs well with many other herbs—especially rosemary, parsley, sage, savory, and oregano. Its earthiness is welcome with pork, lamb, duck, or goose, and it’s much beloved in Cajun and Creole cooking. It’s also the primary component of Caribbean jerk seasonings. Because the leaves are so small, they often don’t require chopping.
Some call it cilantro; others call it coriander, or even Chinese parsley. Whatever you call it, chances are you either love it or hate it. This native of southern Europe and the Middle East has a pungent flavor, with a faint undertone of anise. The leaves are often mistaken for flat-leaf parsley, so read the tag. One of the most versatile herbs, cilantro adds distinctive flavor to salsas, soups, stews, curries, salads, vegetables, fish, and chicken dishes.
No refrigerator should be without parsley. It’s the workhorse of the herb world and can go in just about every dish you cook. Parsley’s mild, grassy flavor allows the flavors of other ingredients to come through. Curly parsley is less assertive than its brother, flat-leaf parsley (often called Italian parsley). Flat-leaf parsley is preferred for cooking, as it stands up better to heat and has more flavor, while the more decorative curly parsley is used mostly for garnishing. Reach for either when a dish needs a little burst of color. Sprinkle a little persillade, a mixture of chopped parsley and garlic, on roasted lamb, grilled steaks, fish, chicken, and vegetables as they do in France. Add lemon or orange zest and you get gremolata, a blend used in Milanese cooking, especially as a final garnish on osso buco.
Toss chives into a dish at the last minute, because heat destroys their delicate onion flavor. Thinly slice them to maximize their taste, or use finely snipped chives as a garnish. Chives are great in dips and quesadillas, and on baked potatoes.
Since ancient Roman times, dill has been a symbol of vitality. In the Middle Ages, it was thought to provide protection against witches and was used as an ingredient in many magic potions. In the kitchen, its feathery leaves lend a fresh, sharp flavor to all kinds of foods: gravlax, cottage cheese, cream cheese, goat cheese, omelets, seafood (especially salmon), cold yogurt soups, potato salads, and all kinds of cucumber dishes (including, of course, pickles).
Sage is native to the northern Mediterranean coast, where it’s used frequently in cooking. Sage’s long, narrow leaves have a distinctively fuzzy texture and musty flavor redolent of eucalyptus, cedar, lemon, and mint. Italians love it with veal, while the French add it to stuffings, cured meats, sausages, and pork dishes. Americans, of course, associate it with turkey and dressing. Use it with discretion; it can overwhelm a dish.
Though this herb is native to Siberia and western Asia, tarragon is primarily used in France. It’s often added to white wine vinegar, lending sweet, delicate licorice-like perfume and flavor. It pairs well with fish, omelets, and chicken cooked with mustard, and it’s a crucial component of béarnaise sauce. Fresh tarragon isn’t always easy to find, but when you get it, you’ll love the bittersweet, peppery taste it imparts. Heat diminishes its flavor, so add tarragon toward the end of cooking, or use it as a garnish. A little goes a long way.
• Loosely wrap herbs in a damp paper towel, then seal in a zip-top plastic bag filled with air. Refrigerate for up to five days. Check herbs daily, as some of them lose their flavor after a couple of days.
• Store herbs bouquet-style when in bunches: Place, stems down, in a jar with water covering 1 inch of the stem ends, enclose in a large zip-top plastic bag, and change the water every other day. Most herbs will keep for up to a week this way.
• Many supermarkets carry herb plants in their produce sections. Snip off as much as you need, and the plant will last for weeks or even months.
• To revive limp herbs, trim 1/2 inch off the stems, and place in ice water for a couple of hours.
• Wash herbs just before using; pat dry with a paper towel.
• In most cases, heat kills the flavor of fresh herbs, so they’re best when added to a dish at the end.