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Benefits of Using Culinary Herbs

Benefits of Using Culinary Herbs

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 culinary disaster.

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.

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