Basic Guide on Using Herbs

Basic Guide on Using Herbs

Need flavor? Add herbs. They are the simplest way to boost the character of a dish. Use them in baked recipes too. When choosing fresh herbs, look for herbs with a vibrant color and aroma. Black spots, off odors and yellow leaves indicate old, tired herbs that are losing much of their flavor. Farmer's markets carry field-grown herbs, which have a stronger aroma than the greenhouse herbs usually sold in grocery stores.

When washing herbs, put them in a large bowl of cool water and swish them about with your hands to loosen any bits of grit. Lift the herbs out of the water, leaving the grit in the bottom of the bowl. If the herbs are very gritty, repeat the process. Then, spin them dry in a salad spinner or blot dry by rolling up in a kitchen towel.

To store those tender fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro, basil, dill and tarragon, just remove any rubber bands or fasteners from the herbs, then trim the stems. Put the unwashed herbs, stem side down, in a tall container with enough water to cover the stems. Cover loosely with a plastic bag, then store on the top shelf of the refrigerator (the warmest part) for up to 5 days. The exception here is basil which can be stored loosely covered in a container of water at room temperature to protect its delicate leaves from the cold, which could cause them to turn brown. As for those hardy fresh herbs like thyme, rosemary and sage, simply wrap the stem ends in a damp paper towel. Then put the herbs in a plastic bag and refrigerate unsealed for up to 2 weeks.

 The Basic

  • To dry fresh herbs - tie hardy herbs such as thyme and rosemary together in a bouquet. Then hang it upside down in a dry, well-ventilated area until crumbly, 3 to 6 days. If the herb has seeds you'd like to catch for future plantings, tie a bag around the stems so that the seeds fall into the bag as the herb dries. To dry tender herbs, such as basil and parsley, spread them on a mesh screen and leave in a dry, well-ventilated area until crumbly. Then store in airtight containers.

  • To coarsely chop fresh herbs - stuff the leaves into a glass, insert the pointed end of scissors into the herbs, and snip, rotating the scissors 90 degrees with each snip. Or just tear the leaves into pieces with your fingertips.

  • To shred fresh herbs - stack the leaves no higher than 1/4 inch. Roll the stack lengthwise into a cigar shape. Cut crosswise into paper-thin slices, also known as chiffonade.

  • To mince fresh herbs - use a large, tapered chef's knife, and quickly chop back and forth across the herbs, using the point of the knife as a pivot. Or tear the herbs coarsely and chop them in the work bowl of a mini food processor.

  • To choose dried herbs - the flavors of hardy herbs such as rosemary, thyme, and sage are well reserved by drying. But don't waste your money on dried basil, parsley or cilantro. The delicate flavors of these tender herbs fade when commercially dried. If possible, smell dried herbs before buying them. The best-tasting dried herbs will have a powerful aroma. If they don't, pass them by.

  • To store dried herbs - keep them tightly sealed, away from heat and light. Next to the stove in clear containers is the worst place. For easy access, store opaque bottles of dried herbs in alphabetical order in a closed cabinet. To keep track of freshness, write an "expiration date" on the bottles. They usually lose most of their flavor within a year of opening the bottle.

  • To substitute dried for fresh - generally, use about one-third as much dried as fresh. But avoid adding more than a teaspoon or two of any dried herb to a dish, unless you are cooking in large quantities. Excessive amounts of dried herbs can easily overpower the other flavors in the food.

 Time Savers

  • To quickly remove leaves from hardy fresh herbs - for thyme, rosemary and oregano, pluck off the tender top leaves, then pinch the top of the stem and run your fingers down the length of the stem to strip off the rest of the leaves.

  • To quickly dry fresh herbs - place fresh herb leaves in a single layer between paper towels. Microwave on medium power for 2 to 4 minutes, or until almost dry. Set on a rack and let sit overnight until herbs are crumbly. Place in a tightly sealed container and store in a cool and dark place. Use as you would store-bought dried herbs.

 Flavor Tips

  • To get the best flavor from fresh herbs - add tender herbs such as basil, parsley, cilantro and dill toward the end of cooking time. Or sprinkle on top of the finished dish. Cooking these tender herbs rapidly diffuses their flavor. Add strong-flavored hardy herbs such as thyme, marjoram or rosemary earlier in the cooking process so that they have time to mellow. Added at the end, these hardy herbs may be too overpowering.

  • To get more flavor from dried herbs - just before using, rub dried herbs between your fingers to release their flavor-carrying essential oils. Also add dried herbs at the beginning of cooking time so that they have a chance to heat up and release more flavor.

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