When it comes to cooking, the sheer variety of herbs and spices can be overwhelming. With all the powders, jars, and plants available, how do you know what to buy and when to use it? When is fresh better than dry? Should you eat the stems, the leaves, the roots? In Herb & Spice Companion (Wellfleet Press, 2015), Lindsay Herman has created an accessible guide to seasonings, with over one hundred profiles of the most-used herbs and spices across the globe. From sage and parsley to licorice and saffron, Herman provides a comprehensive look at each plant’s history, how to prep and serve and store the seasoning, and how to grow your own herbs from seed to harvest. That’s not even mentioning her instructions on various techniques for drying, freezing, frying, mixing, crushing, and chopping that are both brilliant and simple. A book for everyone, from cooks just starting out to old pros adding excitement to their dishes, Herb & Spice Companion is a must for any kitchen.
Cooking With Herbs
Culinary herbs can be divided into two general categories that will help you determine how to cook them: robust herbs and tender herbs.
Herbs with robust, deep flavors — such as thyme, rosemary, curry leaves, garlic, and sage — will hold up well to heat. These herbs can cook for long periods of time and are often added at the beginning of a recipe, so the rich flavors have time to simmer and emanate thoroughly into a dish while cooking. Robust herbs are great for stews, soups, roasts, and dishes that are braised or grilled. Of course, if a slow-cooked dish needs more flavor after cooking, you can add chopped herbs to taste before serving (But use caution: a little goes a long way!).
Robust Herbs: Bay leaf, Culantro, Curry leaf, Lavender, Lemongrass, Myrtle, Oregano, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Winter Savory
At the other end of the spectrum are tender herbs, such as cilantro, basil, dill, parsley, and chives. The leaves and stems of tender herbs should be added at the end of cooking or just before serving, as they can’t withstand much heat and will lose their flavor if cooked for too long. These herbs are delicious additions to fresh salads, soups, eggs, fish, vegetable dishes, and potatoes.
Tender Herbs: Basil, Catnip, Chervil, Chives, Cilantro, Dill, Fennel, Fenugreek, Garlic, Horseradish, Marjoram, Mint, Parsley, Scallions, Summer Savory, Tarragon, Watercress
Preparing Fresh Herbs
Herbs can be prepared in a variety of ways depending on their uses in a dish. There are several delicious herbs that require special preparations: garlic, horseradish, lemongrass, and wasabi. Check out their specific prep instructions to handle them properly for cooking.
The first step with leafy green or flower herbs is to wash and dry them thoroughly. Leafy herbs must be completely dry before chopping; even a little moisture can leave them soggy and mushy when they’re cut with a knife. Use a salad spinner or shake them dry over the sink, then lay them out over paper towels to dry completely.
Then they’re ready for prepping!
Removing Leaves from Stems
Whole sprigs are used to flavor soups, stews, marinades, and sauces; these are removed from dishes before serving because the stems are usually inedible. To prepare herbs that will be chopped and eaten, you must first separate the edible leafy parts from the tough stems. Methods vary by the type of herb: Some leaves can be plucked one by one, while others call for more efficient techniques.
Use the following tips for quick and easy herb prep:
Large-leaf herbs: basil, mint, sage
Pluck leaves from their stems, and use them whole or tear them into pieces—no chopping necessary.
Herbs with woody stems: rosemary, thyme, tarragon, marjoram, oregano
Hold the top of the stem in one hand. Grasp it with the fingers of your opposite hand and slide them down the stem to knock off the leaves.
Herbs with delicate stems: dill, fennel
Dill and fennel leaves can be plucked upward from their thick stems, branch by branch.
Herbs with thick bottom stems: cilantro, parsley
Cilantro and parsley have thick bottom stems, but their slender branches are edible. Simply slice off the bottoms. Or, try this easy trick: Hold a bunch upside down by the stems, and shave downward with a knife to slice off the leaves and their delicate branches. (Cilantro and parsley stems can be used to flavor broths and sauces.)
Chopping and Crushing
When slicing or chopping herbs, use a sharp chef’s knife with a broad blade. And, of course, you’ll also need a cutting board.
Here are the basic prep techniques for herbs:
Chop coarselyto cut herb pieces that are roughly 1/4- to 1/2-inch big; they don’t have to be uniform in size. Coarsely chopped herbs will retain their flavor for longer than those chopped finely.
• Collect the leaves into a pile.
• With the knife in your cutting hand, rest the tip on the cutting board and hold it in place with the fingers on your opposite hand.
• Slice through the pile of herbs using the back of the blade, rocking the knife back and forth along its cutting edge (rather than lifting the whole blade up and down).
Chop finely to immediately release as much of their flavorful oils as possible. Finely chopped herbs generally don’t withstand much cooking, since their oils escape quickly and their flavors soon dissipate. Add to dishes immediately after chopping and just before serving.
• Chop herbs once, then gather them into another tight pile and chop through them again.
• Repeat a third time — and a fourth — to get a finer chop.
Chiffonade are finely sliced leaves that are used as either garnish or seasoning.
• Remove thick stems or veins from the leaves, then stack several leaves on top of one another.
• Roll the stack of leaves tightly into a thin tube.
• Holding it in place with one hand, slice through the rolled leaves to create slender strips about 1/8- to 1/16-inch wide.
Crush herbs using a mortar and pestle to release their oils and soften them for sauces like pesto and aioli. Garlic is especially flavorful when crushed using a mortar and pestle.
• Place leaves in the mortar (or bowl) and pound them with the pestle. Their oils will gradually seep out during the pounding and create a paste.
• Add oil, vinegar, yogurt, or mayonnaise to make any variety of sauces, dips, dressings, or marinades.
This is a delicious and clever way to use herbs in an everyday condiment. Combine 1/2 to 1 cup of finely chopped herbs with 1 cup unsalted butter in a food processor. If you like, add up to 2 tablespoons of lemon juice for a touch of acidity, and blend. Store in an airtight container in the fridge.
Any of the following herbs, or a combination of them, will make a delicious herb butter:
• Lemon Verbena
Flavor Cheat Sheet
Looking for a particular flavor? Use this list to find an herb that fits the bill:
• Anise: chervil, dill, fennel, tarragon, anise hyssop
• Bitter: chicory, fenugreek, hyssop, lovage, myrtle
• Tart or Citrus: bergamot, hottuynia cordata, lemon balm, lemon verbena, lemongrass, sorrel
• Fresh: borage, parsley, perilla, salad burnet
• Minty: catnip, mint, nepitella (or lesser calamint)
• Onion: chives, garlic, scallions
• Pungent, earthy, or spicy: arugula, cilantro, culantro, curry leaf, epazote, horseradish, marjoram, oregano, rau ram, rosemary, sage, savory, thyme, wasabi, watercress
• Sweet: angelica, basil, bay leaf, chamomile, elderflower, lavender, marigold, myrtle, pandan, rose, scented geranium, sweet cicely, woodruff
More from Herb & Spice Companion:
Reprinted with permission from Herb & Spice Companion: The Complete Guide to Over 100 Spices & Herbsby Lindsay Herman, published by Wellfleet Press, an imprint of Quarto Publishing, 2015.