Cooking with Herbs

By Staff
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Take your cooking to the next level by learning how to use culinary herbs to boost the flavor quotient of your food. From basil-rich pesto to tarragon-infused sauces, we’ve got you covered. Take a look below to find the best culinary herbs, and learn what dishes it tastes best in; if you should use fresh or dried; as well as recipes that star each herb. With this handy guide to culinary herbs, cooking with herbs will be a cinch.

Lemon Balm


Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) is the quintessential culinary herb. Its flavor evokes hot summer nights, great platters of Caprese salad and endless bowls of pesto-tossed linguine. But sweet basil is only part of the basil family. This versatile plant is available in an amazing range of forms and fragrances, from lemon and lime, to anise and cinnamon. Cooks around the world use basil with fresh and cooked vegetables, eggs, meats, seafood and cheese; in salads, soups and breads; and as a seasoning for vinegars and oils. Only cook fresh basil briefly or add it as a fresh garnish to long-simmered dishes. In some recipes, such as in pesto, dried basil just won’t work. Otherwise, use about a third as much dried basil as you would fresh basil. Try these basil recipes:
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Caprese Salad

Freezer Pesto

Basil Limeade


Bay is an essential herb in cuisines surrounding the Mediterranean area and is mainly used as a background flavor. Because the leaves are tough and can withstand long cooking, bay is great for slow-cooked foods such as stews, soups and roasts. Add a couple of bay leaves to the pot by themselves, or bundle them up into a bouquet garni, a grouping of French herbs that also include thyme and parsley. Always remove the leaves after cooking and prior to serving, as the leaves will not soften with cooking. (Despite this, you can finely chop leaves and add it to cheese or butters.) Bay also goes well in dishes that contain lentils or beans, and is equally good in sweet recipes including custards and pudding. Traditionally, people cook with dried bay leaves, but fresh leaves lend an equally satisfying flavor. Try these bay recipes:
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Cumin Black Beans

Roasted Squash

Chocolate Pudding


Even though this grassy-looking herb is well known for dressing up a variety of dishes, it is more than just a simple garnish. More delicate than scallions, chives quietly add a light garlic flavor to all manner of our favorite foods. Thinly mince and sprinkle chives over salads, potatoes, cheeses, sandwich spreads, dressings, omelets, dumplings, butters, deviled eggs, mushrooms, soups, fish, poultry and most vegetables. Because the flavor dissipates quickly when heated, chives should be added to cooked dishes at the last minute. You can also add snipped chives or even chive’s edible blossoms atop salads or soups for a beautiful spread. Try these chive recipes:
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Gorgonzola Butter

Asparagus Soup

Cheddar Biscuits


Chances are you’ve encountered this herb before and you either loved it or hated it. The pungent leaves of cilantro add a vibrant flavor, with a faint undertone of anise, to some of the most popular dishes in Chinese, Mexican and Thai cooking. Cut fresh cilantro leaves and add them to other greens to give them a distinctive cilantro flavor. Sprinkle these versatile leaves atop Mexican favorites such as savory guisados (stews) and frijoles, as well as fish and chicken dishes. Fresh cilantro tempers the fire of chili sauces, and as such has become a popular ingredient for salsas and spicy dips. If you’re using homegrown cilantro, don’t use leaves that have become ferny looking, as that means the leaves have lost their fresh flavor. If you’re buying cilantro from the grocery store, double check the label–the leaves are often mistaken for flat-leaf parsley.

When cilantro has gone to seed, you get the spice coriander. This culinary seed tastes of sage and lemon or orange peel, and is a traditional seasoning in many Indian dishes. Lightly toast and grind the seeds, then add it to curries and other spicy dishes. Ground coriander also adds a great flavor to cooked vegetables. Only roast and grind coriander seeds in small amounts–it can quickly become stale and lose its fresh taste. Try these cilantro/coriander recipes:

Grill-Roasted Tomatillo Salsa

Slow Cooker Pulled Pork

Cauliflower Curry


For many herb gardeners, dill signals the arrival of summer. Its feathery fronds grow at breathtaking speed. Although its aroma is fairly delicate, it loses much of it in drying or cooking, so add fresh dill to hot dishes just before serving. A taste reminiscent of anise and parsley, with hints of celery and citrus, fresh dill leaves complement soft cheeses, egg dishes, chicken, salads, soups and vegetables. Fresh dill is particularly compatible with seafood, and is a popular flavoring in the Scandinavian dish gravlax, a dish that features salmon cured with salt and dill. Dill’s seeds develop later in the season and have a stronger, more aromatic and pungent flavor. Use dill seeds in pickling spices and breads–it especially tastes great in rye bread. Try these dill recipes:
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Dill Chips

Smoked Herring Smörgås

Dilled Ricotta Torte


You’re likely familiar with lavender’s intoxicating fragrance and colorful flowers, but maybe you haven’t experienced its appealing taste. From sweet to savory, a hint of lavender can enliven a recipe in delightful ways. Its flowers, leaves and stalks are used extensively in French, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines. Use lavender to complement rich creams, oils, butter and eggs, as well as ice cream and baked products including cookies, shortbread and cheesecake. You can also use it in cream soups, sauces and dressings. Lavender is a staple in the traditional seasoning blend herbes de Provence. Use this herbal blend to season lamb or poultry, in a honey glaze for pork or roasted turkey, to awaken the Provencal stewed veggie dish ratatouille, and with roasted root vegetables. You can also combine lavender flowers with honey or sugar to sweeten iced beverages, or add extra flavor to baked goods by infusing lavender buds with sugar for two weeks. Try these lavender recipes:
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Festival Salad

Vegan Ratatouille

Lavender Shortbread Cookies

Lemon Balm

Brush your fingers between the leaves of a lemon balm plant for a wonderfully lemon-scented treat. This humble member of the mint family is often overlooked due to its aggressive growing tendencies, but it is an amazing addition to culinary dishes. Use the leaves to lend a light lemoniness to tea, salads, mayonnaise, sauerkraut, jellies, cordials, mixed fruit dishes, butters, wine, custard sauces and chilled summer drinks, as well as in stuffings or sauces for poultry or fish. Fresh lemon balm leaves are much tastier than dried ones, and the flowers make a sweet, lemony last-minute garnish to desserts and fruit salads. Try these lemon balm recipes:
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Shrimp Salad Pita

Lemon Vinaigrette

Lemon Balm Custard


Ancient feasts concluded by chewing a sprig of mint to settle the stomach and cleanse the breath. The refreshing taste and cooling effect of versatile mint makes it a popular herb among chefs, even today. Available in a range of flavors and fragrance, look for the common spearmint and peppermint to the equally appetizing apple, chocolate, lime, grapefruit, lemon and ginger. (Note: Do not eat pennyroyal, a variety of min that is not safe to consume.) Peppermint and spearmint are more readily available and most popular among chefs; use spearmint if you want a milder mint flavor, as it is less strong than peppermint. To give dimension to sweet and savory dishes, add chopped mint to vegetable dishes, rich bowls, fruit or vegetable salads, and soups (especially gazpacho). Mint is also a classic herb in lamb dishes, and complements summer foods such as tomatoes, eggplant, squash, watermelon and peppers. Dried mint is less assertive and commonly used in eastern Mediterranean dishes. You can also use mint to flavor sweet dishes, including ice cream, cakes, jellies, confectionery and liqueurs. Try these mint recipes:
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Apple Walnut Salad

Pineapple Mint Mango Salsa

Dark Chocolate Truffles


Oregano yields luxurious flavor–the essence of Mediterranean sun and sea. Its flavor varies greatly, so use plants that have been propagated from cuttings, division or layering. Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare spp. hirtum) is best for most culinary uses; both fresh and dried leaves and flowers can be used, although dried is preferred for its richer and less bitter flavor. This culinary herb highlights savory dishes in small doses, and goes particularly well with lemon, garlic, wine, meats, fish, salads, Greek and Italian dishes, eggplant, beans, and tomato-based sauces. Use sparingly, as too much oregano can quickly overpower a dish. Try these oregano recipes:
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Greek Salad

Roasted Chickpea Tacos

Tomato and Zucchini Bulgur


Parsley, the little green garnish that was once just a cook’s afterthought, bursts with nutrition. Because of its warm, gentle flavor–with a touch of camphor–it blends well with most other flavors. And although it may lack other herbs’ heady flavor, its mild, herbaceous flavor is just what makes it so universal. Cook fresh parsley into soups, stews or other water-based dishes for background flavor; sprinkle chopped fresh parsley atop noodles, vegetables or potatoes to add that perfect finishing touch; and snip it into sauces, butters, dressings and just about any other savory dish for great flavor. It is also the star of gremolata, an herbal garnish that tastes great over steamed or grilled veggies, and baked potatoes. The best-tasting parsley is flat-leaf parsley, although curly parsley keeps longer once picked. Try these parsley recipes:
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Carrots and Parsnips

Spaghetti Aglio e Olio

Chicken and Parsley Noodle Soup

The signature scent of the holiday season, rosemary is a classic flavor partner for poultry, and can add a delightful note to biscuits, dumplings and other winter treats. Its bruised leaves have a cooling pine-like scent with mint and eucalyptus overtones. If used too generously, its strong taste can overwhelm other flavors. Use it to complement similarly strong flavors such as wine and garlic; to add depth to rich meats such as lamb, pork, duck and game; and add flavor to veggies, sausages, stuffings, soups and stews. Rosemary also has an affinity for starchy foods such as bread, scones and potatoes. When using rosemary in the kitchen, fresh is best–but because this herb has a woody texture, flavor dishes with finely chop rosemary leaves. Alternatively, use whole sprigs tied in muslin, then remove just before serving. Although dried rosemary tastes similar to fresh, its hard texture won’t soften with cooking. Try these rosemary recipes:
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Baked Garlic

Chicken Confit

Cherry Focaccia


Fresh sage is deep, robust and earthy. Its lively, almost lemony, flavor component is most obvious in spring when its leaves are still young; as summer approaches, sage’s flavor becomes more robust; and sage reaches its peak flavor in autumn, when it is best known as an ingredient in holiday dressings or stuffings. When cooking with sage, start with a small amount and slowly increase the quantity to taste–this herb can easily overpower a dish. Both the flowers and leaves are edible; the flowers look attractive in salads, and the leaves are great for cooking with and for making flavored butter and vinegar. Finely mince leaves before adding them to dishes, as they can become rough and chewy, or add sprigs to whatever you’re cooking, making sure to remove them before serving. Sage mixes well with starchy, rich and fatty foods such as duck, poultry, pork and red meat, as well as beans, eggplant, tomato-based sauces, casseroles and soups. It also tastes great alongside cheese. Try these sage recipes:
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Toasted Brie and Sage Sandwich

Gnocchi with Sage Browned Butter

Cornish Game Hens


Tarragon skillfully flavors a great range of foods. Available in both French and Russian form, its Russian variety has little flavor so cook with the French variety. Its delicate, bittersweet and peppery flavor diffuses rapidly through cooked dishes, so use it carefully and toward the end of cooking–a little goes a long way. It tastes great with fish and shellfish, turkey, chicken, game, veal and egg dishes. Use chopped leaves in salad dressings, sauces and vinaigrettes. Cooks also find tarragon’s peppery and resinous qualities a welcome addition to rich cheese appetizers and soufflés. Tarragon also supports other herbs felicitously, especially the traditional fines herbesblend. Try these tarragon recipes:
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Ranch Dressing

4-Herb Dry Rub

Honeydew Melon and Tarragon Sorbet


Thyme’s scent and flavor, a complex combination of sweet and savory, is an essential culinary herb in most cuisines. When fresh, thyme has sharp, vegetal notes supported by strong herbaceous tones; when dried, thyme has a much deeper flavor. To use this endearing Mediterranean plant, simply strip the leaves off the stems with your fingertips. They’re small enough that they should require no extra chopping. Add full sprigs of thyme to soups, broths and poaching liquids, or stuff handfuls of thyme sprigs inside whole roasting chickens or fish. Thyme especially shines in slow-cooked casseroles and dishes containing meat, poultry or game, and pairs well with many fruits. It is even the primary herb in the classic bouquet garni, a grouping of French herbs that also include bay and parsley. Try these thyme recipes:
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Leek-Stuffed Squash

Grilled Rib-Eye Steak

Baked Tilapia

  • Updated on Jun 24, 2021
  • Originally Published on Jun 19, 2014
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