Herbs in Cooking

Why should you use herbs in cooking?

Caraway in bloom
Caraway in bloom

Herbs enhance the variety, flavor, aroma, color, and interest of your foods.  Fresh herbs in salads add green chlorophyll to freshen your breath and benefit your digestion as well.

What is the difference between an herb and a spice?

Herbs are the floral and leafy parts of the plant. (Leaves, petals, stamens, buds)
Spices are everything else (Roots; stem; bark, seeds; seed pods; rhizomes; etc.)

What kind of tools do I need in my kitchen to deal with herbs?

Whether growing your own herbs in your garden or buying them from a good-quality supplier, certain tools are a must for dealing with herbs and spices.   Your well-stocked kitchen should include kitchen scissors, string, a hand mill for peppercorns and berries, cheesecloth, mortar and pestle (different sizes and textures are good), and a coffee grinder that has been dedicated to spices and herb blending.  Infusion balls and strainers are helpful for adding flavor without adding plant material.

What are the best ways to use herbs in cooking?

Keep in mind that when preparing hot dishes, herbs will release their flavors quickly, and generally get added toward the end of cooking.  For longer cooking stocks and sauces, add heavier (stemmed) herbs and spices earlier in the cooking process.  For cold preparations, allow the herbs to stand for several hours before serving so the flavors have a chance to meld.   If a recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of a fresh herb (minced), substitute 1 teaspoon dried herb, or ½ teaspoon powdered herb.  (Try not to use powdered herbs, unless you grind them yourself.  Too much flavor is lost if they are ground in advance.)

Cold Preparations

 Butters, Spreads, and Cheeses – an easy way to experiment with new flavors.  Add chopped fresh herbs or dried herbs to butter.  Use one herb if experimenting with tastes, use a blend with garlic, seeds, or even essential oils for fun combinations.  Mix softened butter with flavors, then place on waxed paper and roll into a log.  Freeze in airtight container to prevent flavors from crossing over either from or to other foods in the freezer.  When ready to use, cut discs from the log and place on freshly grilled steak or fish, noodles, rice, baked potato, and other starches.

One classic example of this is:
Maitre d’Hotel Butter

¼ cup butter
½ tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. white pepper
1 tsp. finely chopped parsley
¾ to 1 ½ tsp. lemon juice

Cream butter and spices until soft.  Add parsley and blend.  Stirring constantly, add the lemon juice slowly.  Makes 4 servings. (from The Joy of Cooking)

Herbed Compound Butter
Herbed Compound Butter set-up with fresh sage, chives and curly-leaf parsley.

Add any other herb you like to this, omitting the parsley or not, it won’t change the flavor much, and compliments most herbal flavors well. (I like garlic in mine;)

The same can be done with cream cheese for spreads on bread or crackers.  A combination of cream cheese, mayo, and/or sour cream will yield firmer or softer spreads/dips, depending on the texture you want to achieve.  Neufchatel, farmer’s cheese, cottage cheese, and even soy-based cheeses can all be used this way.

Gaspatcho –  This cold blended or chopped soup is traditionally made with tomatoes and other vegetables.  Fresh herbs such as cilantro, parsley, and celery leaves are wonderful additions to the flavor.

Purple Basil
Purple basil fresh from the garden. It makes deep purple/almost black pesto!

Pesto – Originally made with basil, this garlic, herb and nut sauce can be made with many aromatic herbs such as cilantro, oregano, parsley and even spinach!  Combine fresh basil (or whatever)  with several cloves of fresh garlic.  Add pine nuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds or other oily nut in equal amount to the garlic.  You can do all of this in a small food processor or blender, your if you are really hard-core, break out your big mortar and pestle and have at it!  Kids love using a mortar and pestle!  Sprinkle on Parmesan cheese and incorporate it to form a stiff ball, then add good extra virgin olive oil until a smooth paste forms.  (If using dried herbs, the addition of the spinach helps with color).  Sun-dried tomatoes are also an nice addition to this sauce.  When done, use on pasta, in soups, on crackers or toast, any number of ways!  Use your imagination to utilize the abundance of herbs that come from your garden.  You can keep pesto sauce in the fridge for a couple of weeks, or freeze it in ice cube trays to create single-use cubes, giving you a way to preserve the taste of summer long into the winter.

Vinaigrette – Don’t forget basic oil and vinegar dressings.  Use good quality oil and flavored vinegars, preferably apple cider vinegar with the ‘mother’, raw and unfiltered.  Try malt, balsamic, wine, and even ale vinegars for different flavors.  Add herbs to the bottles of vinegar to steep, or create flavorful dressings with ¾ cup of oil, ¼ cup of vinegar, ½ tsp. salt, fresh grated pepper, and 2 or 3 tablespoons of minced fresh herbs (less for dried herbs).  Add mustard, garlic, celery seed, etc. etc. as you see fit.   Mayo-based sauces also accept herbs well. Make sure you use a good quality prepared mayo or make your own.  Mix with oil & vinegar preparations to make creamy salad dressings.

While not technically a vinegar preparation, a quick Asian dip is made with soy sauce, a dash of toasted sesame oil, chopped chives or scallions, chopped garlic, chopped ginger, and sesame seeds.  Dip your favorite pot sticker, vegetable or meat dish into it and enjoy!

Cold Infusions –  A cold infusion is made by adding herbs to water, wine, vinegar or other liquids and allowing them to sit and steep at room temperature produces wonderful flavors without releasing potential bitter elements.  This works best with the more delicate herbs than with heavier spices or stemmed plants.  Drink as a tea or add to any dish.  Examples of cold infusions are hot tea, sun tea, and steeping herbs to make a cold compress for sunburns, strains and sprains.

Read Part II here: Herbs in Cooking part 2

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