How To Use Herbs In The Kitchen

Learn the secrets of the culinary magic of herbs with our comprehensive guide on using herbs in the kitchen. Discover tips and creative techniques, seasoning and garnishing to infusions and teas. Learn how to use herbs in the kitchen and let your culinary creativity flourish as you explore the vibrant world of herbs and transform your dishes. 

Written by Angie Spuzak

How To Use Herbs in Cooking

Growing up in a household where the aroma of simmering pots and sizzling pans was a constant presence, it’s no wonder that my love affair with cooking began at a tender age. From the moment I could reach the countertop, I found myself drawn to the kitchen, eager to explore the endless possibilities that awaited me behind the stove. As I grew older, my passion for cooking only deepened, leading me down a path of culinary exploration that continues to this day.

One of the greatest joys of my culinary journey has been discovering the transformative power of herbs. From the earthy richness of rosemary to the delicate freshness of parsley, herbs have a magical ability to elevate even the simplest dishes to new heights of flavor and complexity.

But why do I love using herbs in the kitchen so much? 

It’s simple—herbs are the essence of culinary magic. They can transform ordinary ingredients into extraordinary culinary experiences, infusing dishes with layers of complexity and depth that tantalize the taste buds and leave a lasting impression.

Fresh herbs bring a variety of flavors to the table, each variety offering its own unique profile—from the refreshing brightness of mint to the earthy richness of rosemary, the citrusy zing of lemongrass to the floral notes of lavender. I can create endless flavor combinations with herbs, balancing and harmonizing ingredients to perfection.

But it’s not just about flavor; herbs also add visual appeal to dishes. Their vibrant colors and delicate leaves enhance the presentation and invite diners to indulge in a feast for the senses. Whether sprinkled atop a salad, garnishing a main course, or infused into a sauce, herbs can elevate the aesthetic appeal of any dish, turning a simple meal into a delicious one.

For me, cooking with herbs is not just about enhancing flavor – it’s about infusing each dish with a sense of vitality and connection to the earth. Whether I’m seasoning a pot of soup with a handful of fragrant cilantro or garnishing a plate of roasted vegetables with a sprinkle of chives, each herb brings its own unique personality to the table, adding depth and dimension to every bite.

Nutritional Benefits of Herbs

Herbs are powerful allies in promoting health and well-being. 

For centuries, cultures around the globe have used herbs not only for their culinary appeal but also for their healing properties. From soothing upset stomachs to boosting immune function, herbs have long been regarded as nature’s pharmacy, offering a bounty of health benefits with each fragrant leaf and delicate bloom.

As a chef who values the connection between food and health, incorporating fresh herbs into dishesh isn’t just a matter of taste—it’s a conscious choice to nourish both body and soul. Whether it’s turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties, peppermint’s digestive benefits, or garlic’s immune-boosting effects, herbs offer a wealth of nutrients and phytochemicals that support optimal health and vitality.

I want to show you how to transform your simple dishes using herbs. Harnessing their full potential involves more than just sprinkling them atop your creations. Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned chef, mastering herbs in the kitchen can make your dish taste unforgettable! From brewing the perfect herb tea to crafting homemade herb-infused vinegar, here’s a comprehensive guide to help you unlock the flavor-packed world of herbs.

You’ll find herbs in two main forms: dried or fresh, and both are versatile in cooking. Typically, when we talk about herbs, we’re referring to the leafy, green parts of plants—while seeds, bark, and roots fall into the spice category. Some plants blur the lines between the two.

Fresh vs. Dried Herbs

Fresh herbs bring vibrant flavor and are perfect for garnishing dishes. Their aromatic essence enhances roasting, sautéing, or blending into various foods like mashed potatoes for an extra kick.

Dried herbs shine when infused with oil, butter, or water, intensifying the flavor of your dish. Before use, it’s essential to awaken them by crushing them with your fingers or briefly sautéing them. A mortar and pestle also work wonders to release their essence.

I find myself using more dried herbs in recipes since they tend to lose some of their potency during the drying process—especially herbs like basil, oregano, and sage. However, rosemary and thyme retain their flavors a bit better.

That’s why continuous tasting while cooking is crucial—to ensure you’re hitting the right flavor notes along the way.

How To Cook With Herbs

Cooking with herbs is a skillful craft. While there are no strict guidelines, it’s the curiosity, creativity, and willingness to experiment that elevate dishes seasoned with fresh herbs into tantalizing culinary experiences.

Herbs serve to enrich flavors, transforming ordinary dishes into extraordinary culinary delights. Resourceful chefs utilize unique blends of herbs and spices to create dishes with distinct and memorable tastes. Herbs offer a swift means to impart a variety of flavors to soups, sauces, vegetables, dressings, meats, and more.

It’s wise to use herbs sparingly, as their aromatic oils pack a punch, and excessive use can overwhelm the palate. When blending herbs, it’s crucial to balance their flavors carefully. A well-crafted blend should feature a dominant flavor complemented by two to four subtler notes, avoiding the overpowering presence of strong herbs.

The optimal method for blending herbs involves gently heating them with unsalted butter or cooking oils, coaxing out, and prolonging the release of their aromatic essences. When incorporating herbs into salad oils, ensure the oil is at room temperature to fully absorb the flavors.

For fresh herbs, finely chop or grind the leaves to maximize their surface area and enhance oil absorption. It’s essential to note that dried herbs possess a potency two to four times greater than their fresh counterparts. Prolonged cooking can diminish the delicate aromas and flavors of herbs, particularly savory varieties.

In preparations like soups and gravies, bundle fresh herb sprigs or contain ground herbs in cheesecloth bags, adding them approximately thirty minutes before the dish is complete. Promptly remove the herbs once the desired flavor profile is achieved, ensuring a harmonious infusion without overpowering the dish.

The Fresher, the Better: Freshness is key when it comes to herbs. While you can find some varieties at the grocery store, nothing beats the flavor and aroma of herbs plucked straight from your own kitchen herb garden. If you don’t have space for herb plants, consider investing in small pots or an indoor herb garden for easy access to various culinary herbs.

Handling Fresh Herbs: To keep your fresh herbs vibrant and flavorful, wash them gently in cold water and pat them dry with a clean towel or salad spinner. For longer storage, wrap soft herbs like parsley and basil in a damp paper towel and store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Woody herbs like rosemary and thyme can be stored in a damp paper towel in a plastic bag in the refrigerator or frozen in ice cube trays with olive oil for easy access.

Choosing the Right Herbs: Different herbs lend themselves to different dishes and cooking processes. Delicate herbs like basil and mint are best added at the end of cooking to preserve their flavor, while more robust herbs like rosemary and thyme can withstand longer cooking times. Experiment with different combinations to find the perfect balance of flavors for your favorite dishes.

Maximizing Flavor: To release the condensed flavor of dried herbs, rub them between your fingers or crush them with a mortar and pestle before adding them to your dish. When using fresh herbs, chop them finely with a really sharp knife to avoid bruising and release their essential oils for maximum flavor impact.

Storage and Preservation: One of the best way to extend the shelf life of your herbs is to consider drying them or storing them in mason jars. You can also freeze fresh herbs in ice cube trays with water or olive oil for easy access year-round. Label your herbs to avoid confusion and use them for the best flavor within six months. Chop herbs finely and place them in ice cube trays, covering them with water or olive oil before freezing. Once frozen, transfer the herb cubes to a resealable bag or container for easy storage and use them as needed in soups, stews, and sauces.

How to Sterilize Jars for Preserving Herbs

Properly sterilizing jars is essential for safely preserving herbs and preventing spoilage. Wash jars and lids in hot, soapy water, then rinse them thoroughly. Place the jars and lids in a large pot filled with water and boil for 10 minutes. Remove them with tongs and let them air dry before filling them with herbs.

Culinary Uses of Herbs

Herbs are versatile and can be used in various dishes, from pasta sauces to salad dressings to marinades. For example, fresh basil adds flavor to tomato-based sauces, while fresh rosemary pairs perfectly with roasted meats like pork chops or pork tenderloin. Don’t be afraid to get creative and experiment with different herbs in your favorite recipes.

How to Brew Perfect Herb Tea in 3 Steps

Step 1: Choose Your Herbs – Select fresh or dried herbs based on your taste preferences and desired health benefits. Popular choices include mint, chamomile, lavender, and lemongrass.

Step 2: Prepare Your Ingredients – Boil water and pour it over your chosen herbs in a teapot or cup. Let it steep for 5-10 minutes, depending on the herbs used and your desired strength.

Step 3: Enjoy Your Herbal Infusion – Strain the herbs and sweeten with honey or a slice of lemon if desired. Sip slowly and savor your homemade herbal tea’s soothing flavors and aromatic aromas.

Using Herbs for Natural Flavoring

Herbs add depth and complexity to dishes without excessive salt or fat. Experiment with combinations to discover unique flavor profiles that complement your favorite recipes.

How to Make Homemade Herb Salt

Blend fresh herbs with coarse sea salt to create a fragrant herb-infused salt that can boost the taste of meats, vegetables, and salads. Spread the mixture on a baking sheet and let it air dry before storing in an airtight container for future use.

How to Make Herb-Seasoned Flour

Mix finely chopped herbs with flour to create a versatile herb-seasoned flour that can be used to coat meats, fish, or vegetables before frying or baking. Store in a sealed container and keep it handy to add a layer of flavor to your dishes.

Tips for Harvesting and Drying Herbs

Harvest herbs in the morning when their essential oils are most concentrated for optimal flavor. Hang bundles of herbs upside down in a well-ventilated area to dry, or use a dehydrator for faster results. Once dry, store the herbs in airtight containers away from direct sunlight to preserve their flavor and aroma.

How to Preserve Fresh Herbs Using Salt

Extend the lifespan of fresh herbs by layering them with salt in a clean jar. Alternate between layers of herbs and salt, ensuring that each layer is well-covered. Seal the jar tightly and store it in the refrigerator for several weeks, allowing you to enjoy fresh herb flavors long after the harvest season has passed.

How to Make Herb-Flavored Vinegar

Infuse vinegar with your favorite herbs to create flavorful herb-infused vinegar that can be used in dressings, marinades, and sauces. Place clean, dry herbs in a sterilized jar and cover them with vinegar. Seal the jar tightly and let it sit in a cool, dark place for 1-2 weeks, shaking occasionally to mix the flavors. Strain the vinegar and transfer it to a clean bottle for storage.

Bouquet Garni

A bouquet garni is a bundle of fresh herbs and aromatics tied together with kitchen twine or wrapped in cheesecloth. It is used to infuse flavor into soups, stews, stocks, and sauces, enhancing the overall taste of the dish. Common ingredients include parsley, thyme, and bay leaf, but other herbs and aromatics can also be added depending on the recipe. The bouquet garni is added to the cooking liquid and removed before serving, leaving behind a subtle yet distinctive essence.

How Much Herbs To Use

  1. Fresh Herbs: As a general rule of thumb, you can use about three times as much fresh herbs as dried herbs. For example, if a recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of dried thyme, you can substitute it with 1 tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves. Remember that fresh herbs have a more delicate flavor than dried herbs, so you may need to adjust the amount to suit your taste.
  2. Dried Herbs: Dried herbs are more concentrated in flavor than fresh herbs, so you’ll need to use less of them in a recipe. If a recipe calls for fresh herbs and you only have dried herbs on hand, use about one-third to one-half of the amount specified for fresh herbs. For example, if a recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of fresh basil, you can use 1 to 1.5 teaspoons of dried basil instead.
  3. Intensity of Flavor: Some herbs have strong flavour. Taste your herbs before adding them to a recipe to gauge their potency, and adjust the amount accordingly. Start with small amounts and remember that adding more herbs to a dish is easier than removing them, so start with a smaller amount and add more if needed.
  4. Type of Herb: Some herbs have a stronger flavor than others and can overpower a dish if used in large quantities. Strong herbs like rosemary, sage, and thyme should be used sparingly, while milder herbs like parsley, cilantro, and chives can be used in larger amounts. When using a combination of herbs in a dish, aim for a balanced flavor profile by adjusting the quantities based on the intensity of each herb.

As I reflect on my lifelong love affair with cooking and herbs, I’m reminded of the simple yet profound joy that comes from connecting with the flavors and aromas of the natural world. In a society that often prioritizes convenience over quality, there’s something deeply satisfying about slowing down, embracing the art of cooking from scratch and savoring the abundance of nature’s bounty.

So here’s to embracing herbal alchemy in the kitchen. May we continue to cultivate a deeper appreciation for herbs’ gifts and allow their vibrant flavors to inspire us on our culinary adventures.

Go to the farmer’s markets today and pick up fresh herbs for cooking, or start a little garden where you can grow your own herbs.

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