Herbs are the leaves of aromatic plants and
are used primarily to add flavor to foods. Most herbs are available both
fresh and dried, although some like thyme, bay leaf and rosemary dry more
successfully than others. Aroma is a good indicator of quality in both
fresh and dried herbs. Herb's scent can be tested by using your fingers to
crumble a few leaves and then smelling those leaves. A weak or stale aroma
indicates old and less potent herbs.
Fresh herbs also may be judged by the
appearance. They should have good color (usually green), fresh-looking
leaves and stems, and no wilt, brown spots, sunburn, or pest damage.
Herbs can be used to flavor numerous
preparations. They should enhance and balance, not overpower a dish's
flavors. Only occasionally, and with a purpose, should the herb's flavor
be dominant. When used with discretion, herbs can transform the taste of
plain foods into something special. Overuse or inappropriate use can
cause, at best, a dish that tastes of nothing but herbs and, at worst, a
Certain herbs have a special affinity for
certain foods. Guidelines stating which herbs are most effectively paired
with which foods are not cast in stone, but following them can familiarize
the chef with the way herb-food combinations work and can serve as a
springboard for future experimentation. Fresh herbs should be minced or
cut in chiffonade as close to serving time as possible. They are usually
added to a dish toward the end of the cooking time, to prevent the flavor
from cooking out. Dried herbs are usually added early in the process. For
uncooked preparations, fresh herbs should be added well in advance of
serving, to give them a chance to blend with the other elements.
In general, herbs should be stored by
wrapping loosely in damp paper or cloth. If desired, the wrapped herbs may
then be placed in plastic bags to help retain freshness and reduce wilting
of leaves and should be stored at 35 to 45oF (2 to 7oC).
Some herbs, especially watercress and parsley, may be held by trimming the
stems and placing the bunch in a jar of water. Wrap damp toweling around
the leaves to prevent wilting.