Tips & Techniques Ingredients All About Herbs

An Italian roast lacking rosemary, a Thai salad in need of cilantro, Scandinavian gravlax missing dill, Lebanese tabbouleh minus mintwithout fresh and fragrant herbs, cuisines around the world would lose their heart and soul.

As immigrants share their traditional dishes and as travelers explore the tables of distant countries, cooks everywhere are discovering the power of herbs. Grocery stores now offer an ever-expanding selection of fresh herbs. Alongside curly parsley appear bouquetlike bunches of delicate chervil, heady oregano, velvety sage and perhaps three different varieties of thyme.

Whether simmered in a simple broth, stirred into a sauce or sprinkled over a fruit tart, fresh herbs enliven dishes with their perfume and infuse them with their distinct flavors. Although leafy and delicate herbs may lose significant flavor when dried, many other herbs, such as rosemary, dill and thyme, dry well. Convenient to use and handy for last-minute inspirations, quality dried herbs are an important part of any kitchens basic pantry. Since dried herbs have more concentrated flavors, use about one-fourth the amount of the dried form in place of fresh.

Herb or Spice?
Although the two are used for similar purposes, herbs and spices actually refer to distinct categories of seasonings. Herbs are the fragrant leaves and tender stems of green plants, having an almost floral bouquet and more delicate flavors.

Spices, on the other hand, generally come from woody plants, many of them native to the worlds tropical regions. Most familiar in their dried forms, spices can be taken from the rhizomes, stems, buds, seeds or bark of the plants, where concentrated amounts of their complex aromatic components result in significantly stronger flavors. Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and clove all display the intense aromatic qualities of spices.

Choose fresh herbs that look bright, fragrant and healthy. Avoid those with wilted, yellowed or blackened leaves or moldy stems. Herbs may be packaged in plastic bags or thin plastic containers or simply gathered with rubber bands. Young, tender hothouse herbs make delicate garnishes but have less flavor than larger, hardier field-grown herbs. Although herbs with blossoms make attractive edible garnishes, leaves picked from plants without buds or flowers will have more flavor.

When buying dried herbs, purchase small amounts from a reputable specialty market that sells them in bulk with a high turnover, or choose small glass jars containing large bright green flakes. A higher-priced brand usually ensures better quality.

Wrap fresh herbs in damp paper towels, then wrap in a plastic bag and refrigerate for 3 to 5 days. Take care with fragile herbs, such as chives and basil, for they bruise and discolor easily. To keep long-stemmed herbs, such as parsley, basil and cilantro, for up to 10 days, trim off the ends of their stems, remove any yellowed leaves and place the bunch in a container of water, like a bouquet of flowers. Drape a bag loosely upside down over the leaves, secure with a rubber band around the mouth of the jar and refrigerate. Remove sprigs as needed.

To prepare a large amount of herbs in advance with little loss of flavor, chop them up to 24 hours ahead. Then, place them in an airtight container, cover them with a damp paper towel, seal the lid and store in the refrigerator.

Store dried herbs in airtight containers away from both light and heat. Buy in small amounts, replacing them after 4 to 6 months, as they fade in color, fragrance and flavor. Although cork tops and prominently displayed racks add decorative touches to your kitchen, they only allow herbs to lose their flavor more quickly.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion: The A to Z Guide to Everyday Cooking, Equipment and Ingredients (Time-Life Books, 2000)