The Art of Seasoning With Herbs

| August/September 1994

We use herbs and seasonings of all kinds in practically every dish we prepare every day and are always trying to come up with new combinations of herbs to create delicious recipes. The aim of making a blend of herbs is to produce a balanced, complex flavor that makes the diner want to take another bite, not analyze it. The final taste that emerges in a well-seasoned dish transcends the individual flavorings, and its success is judged by reactions at the dinner table, not arbitrary principles.

An old rule says a recipe should contain just one or two herbs, and a meal should include only one herb-seasoned dish. Rules like these inspire us to see how quickly we can break them. We seldom add just one herb to a dish. We are more likely to use three or four, including parsley, plus an herbal seed and a spice or two, which can give great depth to the finished dish. Each seasoning and food ingredient makes its own contribution to the complexity of flavor, some tasted on the tip of the tongue, others at the back of the throat.

The first step in learning to blend herbs is to know how each one tastes separately. We encourage beginning cooks and gardeners to taste each herb carefully, again and again, either by itself or added to a bland food such as cottage cheese, and fix that flavor in their mind and memory. Is that sharp and peppery flavor winter savory or oregano or thyme? Does it have a warm, buttery flavor like sweet marjoram? If it’s clean and lemony, is it lemon verbena or lemon balm or lemon thyme? If the taste and aroma make you think of chewing gum, is it Spearmint or Doublemint?

This exercise is particularly im­portant in selecting from the dizzying array of mints, oreganos, and thymes, as well as other plants with related tastes. There are worlds of difference among the varieties of these three herbs.

Sampling herbs individually will help you decide which tastes and aromas you especially like. When the distinctive taste of each herb is on the tip of your tongue, so to speak, start grouping the herbs into general categories in your mind according to their flavor and strength.

The taste of food lies largely in its scent. We detect sweet, sour, salty, bitter, alkaline, and metallic tastes in the mouth, but others are experienced through the nose. We can describe the tastes of seasonings only vaguely and from personal experience, and our ­descriptions may not match what you detect with your nose.

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