What are Culinary Herbs?
Culinary herbs are herbs used for cooking. Herbs are the leaves, and seeds are the spices. You can use herbs fresh or dried, in sweet or savory dishes.
Culinary herbs are used in things from rich sauces to light salads. They are also used in baked goods. Often they are used in herbal medicines as well, and are good for both skin care and used internally.
Herbs can be grown at home, either indoor or out. Fresh culinary herbs are expensive because they are so delicate, but are very easy to grow yourself. Save money, and enjoy the freshest herbs around by growing your own!
How to Prepare and Use Culinary Herbs
When using culinary herbs, fresh is usually best. Since fresh herbs are so delicate, they are usually added to the end of a dish.
Dried herbs are more robust, and are usually added at the start of cooking to allow flavors to come out. Often dried herbs have lost some of the flavors from fresh, so you might end up with a different flavor profile if you use dried when the recipe asked for fresh.
Though some dried herbs taste different than fresh, some are fine dry. Those you can use dry or fresh. In general, swap each tablespoon of fresh herb for a teaspoon of dried, since dried herbs are more concentrated.
To store fresh herbs, place them in a jar filled with water in your fridge and replace the water regularly. You can also wrap them in a damp paper towel and keep in an airtight container in the fridge.
When using your fresh culinary herbs, start with clean and dry stems. For most, you should strip the leaves from the stems, then slice or chop the herbs.
Use a large sharp knife to chop your herbs, as a dull knife will dull bright green herbs. Slice the herbs after stacking large leaves together, or mince them finely. The finer you chop, the more oils and fragrance are released for your meal.
Add the leaves after the dish is taken off the heat, or right before serving. Cooking the fresh herb will remove some of the flavor.
Common Culinary Herbs
Basil is best fresh, as it loses flavor when it is dried. Use it in Italian sauces, meat dishes, and Asian curries. It is delicious used with tomatoes, grilled meats, and mozzarella cheese.
Mint is great for tea, cocktails, and used in Asian dishes. It is good dried for tea, but best fresh for cooking.
Parsley is often used as a garnish here, but it is an important ingredient in chimichurri sauce and tabbouleh. Like basil, parsley is better fresh.
Cilantro is often used in Mexican, Asian, and Middle Eastern cuisines. Cilantro is best used fresh at the end of cooking
Oregano is a robust herb that dries well. Use it in tomato sauce, as well as Mediterranean and Mexican dishes.
Thyme is great for cooking, as it holds up well to heat. Use it with pork, chicken, and fatty meats.
Rosemary is a woody herb, and is delicious with roasted vegetables, fresh cheeses, and baked goods. Make oils and butters with it for meat and vegetable dishes.
Sage is good fresh or dried, and is great in sausage. Pair it with fall vegetables and warm dishes. It’s great for pasta, stuffing, and soups.
Dill is best used fresh, for pickling, salad dressings, and eggs.
Marjoram is tasty with poultry dishes, herb butters, and eggs. Use it fresh.
What to Do with Extra Culinary Herbs
Since culinary herbs are expensive, when you buy them, you’ll want to make sure you use them all. If you grow your own culinary herbs, hopefully you’ll have more than you can use!
Herbs don’t last long once they are cut, so ideally you’ll buy or cut just what you need for the dish you plan to make that day.
You can dry extra herbs, or save them in the freezer, frozen into ice cubes of water or olive oil. Small amounts of extra herbs can be frozen this way for later dishes.
If you are fortunate enough to have a lot of extra fresh herbs, there are lots ways to save them for later! You can dry them for herbal teas, chop them and make herb butters, make herb salts, vinegars, oils, or your own herb mixes for teas and seasonings.
Using herbs in vinegars, salts, or oils can elevate your dishes to gourmet for little money and effort. Simple, quality ingredients make the best meals.
Making your own herbal teas is a great way to use fresh herbs from the garden. Drying herbs for tea means you can enjoy high quality tea later. Using herbs fresh will give a different tea experience than buying tea from the store.
Some culinary herbs you might want to try as single teas would be mints, oregano, thyme, rosemary, or sage. Each has a different flavor, and potential health boost.
Use fresh herbs to make tea to see what flavors you prefer. Or try blending them with other herbs! You can use fresh or dried herbs, and can play with them to try out different combinations.
Blending teas is an art, but there are many recipes available to start with. Farm to Jar offers tea blending formulas and ideas along with recipes.
Starting with culinary herbs in the garden will allow you to experiment with your own herbal teas. It is easy to grow other herbs for blending later.
You can make your own fancy herbal butters easily and impress your family and guests. Fresh herbs are best, but dried can be substituted.
Mix about two tablespoons of fresh herbs (or half that dried) into a stick of softened butter. Roll the butter in plastic or waxed paper and chill for later. You could also put butter into molds.
Cut off slices of butter to add to grilled meats or fish. Add to roasted vegetables, corn on the cob, or mashed potatoes. Use compound herbal butters on breads, as garlic bread or as a simple appetizer.
Your herbal butters can be frozen up to six months, and are a great way to preserve fresh herbs for later use.
For sturdier herbs like rosemary, herbal salts are a great way to preserve herbal flavors for later. You can use herbal salts to finish a dish or at any time during cooking to impart flavor.
Salt will remove moisture from herbs and act as a preservative. By preserving the herbal oils in salt, you maintain the flavor and intensity of the herb much better than if you simply used dried herbs.
You can grind your herbs or chop them. You can grind herbs and then add salt, or chop them with salt. You can choose whether you want your salt coarse or fine.
Herbal salts can keep indefinitely once dried, though flavors will diminish over time. If you choose to make your herbal salt and keep it fresh, it will keep in the fridge for up to six months.
Dry your herbal salts either in the oven at 230F until dry to the touch, or in a well ventilated area for a few days. More humidity means slower drying time.
Herbal vinegars are easy to make and can be used both in the kitchen and while cleaning. They are great for salad dressings, marinades, roasted vegetables, pickling, with beans, and in soups and stews.
You can make herbal vinegars by simply placing herbs in your choice of vinegar, or you can heat vinegar and pour it over herbs. Heated vinegar brings out flavors better.
There are many types of vinegars to try. Apple cider vinegar is great for strongly flavored herbs. White wine vinegar pairs with dill and basil. Use red wine vinegar with sage and thyme. Try champagne, rice, and balsamic vinegars with other combinations.
If you don’t like your herbal vinegar after two weeks either let it sit another week or two and try again, or add more herbs. You can add fruit to vinegar as well.
Make a basic vinaigrette dressing with your herbal vinegars for extra flavors.
Herbal oils can be a great way to preserve fresh herbs as well. One simple method is to chop fresh herbs, place in an ice cube tray, and cover with olive oil. Freeze for later use.
You can also make infused oils to capture the herbal flavors and use later. They are delicious for salad dressings, grilled meats and veggies, and are easy to make.
Specialty herbal oils are expensive to buy and have often been sitting on the shelf for a while. Making your own is cheaper, fresher, and can be given as gifts as well!
Clean your herbs and allow them to dry completely. Bruise them a bit to release oils. Add herbs to a bottle and cover them with warmed oil like olive oil. Allow them to infuse, and remove fresh herbs when the oil has cooled.
You can make herbal honey as well! Use dried herbs, let infuse for 1 to 4 weeks, turning the honey over each day to mix.
If you want to use fresh herbs, you may want to acidify the herbs first to prevent botulism, and/or refrigerate the honey after infusing it. Warming the honey before infusing is a good practice as well.
Use herbal honey for desserts and in teas. Basil, thyme, peppermint, and lemony herbs are great for herb honeys.
Growing your own herbs is the best way to find yourself with lots of herbs to use. If you buy your herbs, plan to use them fully, by drying them, freezing them, or using in one of the preparations written about here.
There are so many ways to use your herbs, and lots of ways to gift them to others as well. Saving your herbs in oil, salt, or honey will help you to enjoy them all year long.
Your meals will be delicious when you use fresh herbs and herbal concoctions. Impress your friends, save money, and enjoy simple ingredients that taste amazing.