Get the scoop on this faithful favorite, from feathery foliage to flavor-packed pickles.
• Genus: Anethum graveolens
• Native Habitat: Europe
• Plant Type: Annual
• Parts Used: Leaf, flower and seed
Web Exclusive Recipe: Traditional Tzatziki served with Vegetable Crudités
Dill, along with its close relative, fennel, grows shoulder- to head-high every summer in my garden. The bright yellow flower heads (sometimes as large as dinner plates) can literally be in your face. Although this is the showiest stage in the life cycle of Anethum graveolens, it’s hard to choose a favorite phase.
I find dill to be stalwart and accommodating all year. In early spring, when we gardeners are anxious to get our gardens underway, I sow my first salad green seeds, including dill, out in the cold earth. Dill and lettuces do best in cool spring and early fall, so it makes sense to plant them together in a “salad bed” in your garden. I impatiently anticipate the first harvest of baby salad greens—the bright lettuces and the ferny new growth of dill—from my salad bed. I grow and harvest dill as a salad crop in the cool weather, keeping the plants cut back so I have a continuous supply of tender, feathery foliage.
When the hot summer weather hits, the lettuces bolt, as do the edible herbal umbels in the salad bed—dill, cilantro and chervil. This is a good time to sow another planting for a fall harvest. I enjoy snipping the umbels and eating the yellow florets in salads, butters, egg dishes, potato salads and homemade vinegars. I don’t harvest all of the flowers, in order to save some seeds.
After dill flowers, it forms seed heads. Once the seeds are the size of regular dried dill seed, yet still in the green stage (before they mature to brown), they are bursting with flavor. I thoroughly enjoy the citrus and green caraway-like flavor of these green fruits. They add unique pizzazz to tzatziki, sauces, pickles, soups and salad dressings.
I don’t eat all of the green seeds; in the next stage, dill’s tall golden-brown umbels are laden with plump seeds, waiting for us to pick and dry them for cold-weather culinary delights or to save and sow again. For sowing the seeds, in her book Herbs and Savory Seeds (Dover Publications, 1972), Rosetta Clarkson claims that the seed retains its germination capacity for three years. In the kitchen, I reserve a few of the whole ripened-seed flower heads for pickles—I stuff them in the bottom of the quart jars.
Throughout its history, dill’s reputation has been as an agreeable yet simple soul, ready to season everyday fare. Even though its uses are both medicinal and culinary, fanciful imaginations have not found inspiration in dill. In Herbs and the Earth (David R. Godine, 1935), Henry Beston writes, “Dill, so familiar as a name and unfamiliar as a living thing, is one of the most beautiful and distinguished plants I think I have ever seen.”
In the colonial days, it was often referred to as the “meetin’ seed” because people nibbled the seeds to “stop the fidgets” during long Sunday sermons. For diverse cuisines, it has remained a comforting herb, adapted to practical roles.
Anethum is Latin for the Greek name for dill, Athenon, which comes from ano (meaning “upward,” and theo (meaning “I run”)—which this plant does readily. In English, it is from the Saxon dillan, “to lull or soothe.” For centuries throughout Europe, dill water has soothed babies with colic. Adults used dill wine to aid digestion. It was probably for this calming effect on the stomach, as much as for the complementary flavors, that cooks began pickling cucumbers with dill. Dill seeds were used for pickling as far back as the 17th century. Every English household that cultivated herbs had dill vinegar for salads.
Native to the Mediterranean, dill is not used very much in the west of the region. It is an everyday herb in Greece and in Middle Eastern countries, such as Egypt and Iran. Dill is used prolifically in Eastern European countries like Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and Russia, as well as in Scandinavian countries. In Eastern European countries, it is beloved in recipes with potatoes, cabbage, beets, squash, cucumbers, eggs, cheese and fish. The cuisines of France, Germany and England also feature dill in many dishes.
The feathery fresh leaves can be used freely in green salads and slaws, and with tomatoes. The seeds are cooked with heavier foods—breads, potatoes, cabbage and stews. Also, the seeds are rich in minerals and contain mineral salts, so they make an excellent herb salt. To make, grind seeds with coarse salt and store in a tightly closed container; use it on vegetables and fish. Dill seeds also make a great salt substitute.
Dill (the seeds, leaves, or both, and sometimes the flowers) is found in baked goods of all descriptions, including breads, crackers, cookies, cakes and pies. It is very common with fish: the gravlax and marinated herring of Scandinavia; dill sauce for fresh trout in England; and fish grilled with dill in France and Russia. It is used in sauces for poultry and vegetables; with meats, particularly in Russian and Eastern European foods; and to enliven simple egg or potato dishes.
The aroma of a fresh dill sprig is a clean combination of fennel, citrus and mint with a touch of sea air. Dill’s aroma is fairly delicate and loses much in drying or cooking; fortunately, fresh dill is available during most of the year in the United States. Fresh dill should be bright green and have no yellow or pale green color in the leaves or stems. Add fresh dill sprigs toward the end of cooking or use fresh as a garnish, since it tends to lose its bouquet when cooked too long.
Dill’s flavor comes from its particular camphor compound. It is a mixture of anise and parsley, with hints of celery and citrus, accompanied by a distinctive green bite on the sides of the tongue. The yellow flowers, which are borne on umbels, are also edible, milder and green-tasting. Henry Beston (again in Herbs and the Earth) says, “The flowers are only dots of an odd yellow at the ends of umbel stems; it is the umbel itself as a form which is so fine.”
In the kitchen, keep in mind that the strongest part of the plant is the dried fruits (seeds) with the flavor predominately a combination of caraway and anise. Dill and cucumbers have a natural affinity for one another, whether pickled or combined fresh in salads. America’s most popular pickles are named for the herb which gives them their flavor. The seeds stand up better to cooking and don’t lose their flavor like the foliage does. Here’s to creating dill-icious recipes with the International Herb Association’s Herb of the Year for 2010!
Author Susan Belsinger uses herbs every day in and around her home and greenhouse. She and the International Herb Association are releasing a book on dill, the Herb of the Year for 2010.