A Quick Guide to Herbs (Reader Question)

This is part of an ongoing series of aromatics and their culinary use. Other articles in this series include A Guide to Spice Blending, An Abridged List of Aromatics and Spices and Flavor Pairings.

I asked you guys for questions and you delivered some great ones. Thank you so much for that! Unfortunately, to adequately answer your questions will take a lot of time and attention, so I’m going to take them one at a time and clear through them over the next couple weeks. That said, I’d like to start off with this one:

I love herbs and want to use them more in my cooking, but I just can’t figure out when to use them and how. Can you speak about some common herbs and their use?

I would love to, actually. Although I make reference to herbs in my Guide to Spice Blending, I didn’t go into any specifics with them. I also previously categorized all of the herbs I’ve worked with into one of the four blending categories: Savory, sweet, delicate and pungent. The following chart depicts the interaction between the categories (you can read more about my blending paradigm in my guide to spice blending):

Article 020 - Charts - 1 (2)

The following is an abridged list of herbs and which category they fall into:

Herbs List - 2017.04.20

The italicized ones above are the most common in use in the United States, so I’ll specifically address those in more detail along with flavor notes, suggested pairings and recipes.

Parsley

Parsley, specifically the flat-leaf or Italian variety, is a delicious, delicate herb that adds a fresh and uncomplicated herbaceous note to food due to its high chlorophyll content, along with a mild sweetness, especially apparent in the stems. Since the flavor is so delicate, it’s best to always use fresh parsley in your cooking and only as a topping or garnish. Cooking for more than a brief period will dull the freshness.

Ideal pairings: Whitefish, garlic, bone broth or soup stocks
Additional pairings: Basil, carrots, chicken, chickpeas, shellfish, eggs, eggplant, lemon juice, lemon zest, mint, olive oil, pasta, pork, potatoes, tomatoes, veal

Suggested recipes: Pasta with shrimp and mussels, spicy garlic roasted potatoes, French country chicken stew

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Cilantro

Cilantro is also in the parsley family, but tastes entirely different, like lemon meets mustard plus an intense citrus zest and green herbaceousness care of its chlorophyll. To some, cilantro is among the most delicious herbs around, serving as the freshness backbone to dishes from Mexico to Thailand. Unfortunately, it’s not for everyone and can taste soapy to those with the OR6A2 gene (thought to be present in about 10 to 14 percent of the population) due to their ability to perceive the presence of aldehyde chemicals in cilantro. The bright flavors of cilantro are best enjoyed from the fresh leaves and stems, never dried. You should use it primarily as a topping or garnish, but it can impart its flavor to a soup or stew via the stems with very light cooking.

Ideal pairings: Chili peppers, coconut milk, rice, dill, mint, garlic, ginger
Additional pairings: Avocados, cumin, whitefish, Thai basi, parsley, pork, lemon juice, lemongrass, lime juice, octopus, tomatoes, yogurt

Suggested recipes: Thai basil pork, grilled pork tenderloin tacos with avocado and heirloom tomatoesGalician-style grilled octopus

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Thyme

Interestingly, thyme is in the mint family of herbs but its namesake flavor component, thymol, gives it a strong, savory herbaciousness. Its ubiquity in the foods of Spain, France and Morocco are legendary. Those cuisines would be entirely different without it. Due to its strong flavor, it works fresh or dried. If using dried, as with all dried aromatics, store in a vacuum-sealed container and use within one year.

Ideal pairings: Bay leaf, goat cheese, chicken, beef, pork, fish, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, rosemary, vegetable soups, stews, tomatoes, olive oil
Additional pairings: Beans, chives, cilantro, corn, eggplant, garlic, lamb, lemon, marjoram, octopus, oregano, parsley, tarragon, sage, winter vegetables

Suggested recipes: Spicy garlic roasted potatoesGalician-style grilled octopusFrench country chicken stew

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Basil

Basil, also from the mint family, has a flavor comparable to a combination of oregano and mint with peppery undertones, slightly sweet, slightly bitter and very aromatic. Originating in India, it is used widely today throughout the Mediterranean and Asian. It can be used fresh or dried.

Ideal pairings: Mozzarella, parmigiano-reggiano, pecorino, ricotta, eggs, garlic, olive oil, pasta, tomatoes, summer vegetables, zucchini
Additional pairings: Roasted red bell peppers, chicken, cilantro, cinnamon, eggplant, fish, lamb, lemon juice, lime juice, mint, oregano, pine nuts, rosemary, shellfish, soups, balsamic vinegar, vanilla, watermelon

Suggested recipes: Perfect marinara on toast squares, pasta with prosciutto and fresh mozzarella, Summer chicken stew

IMG_3529

Bay Leaf

Bay leaves comes from the laurel family and commonly come in two varieties: Turkish and Californian. The Turkish variety have a sweet and warming flavor that works great in longer duration cooking, both fresh and dry. The Californian variety is similar, but substantially stronger flavored with added menthol tones. Given the stronger flavor, longer cooking is not advisable with the Californian variety. It also works well fresh or dry.

Ideal pairings: Soups, stews, poultry
Additional pairings: White beans, fish, beef, pork, parsley, potatoes, rice, thyme, celery, tomatoes

Suggested recipes: French country chicken stewroasted poultry

Oregano

Oregano names two plants that are entirely unrelated by biology or geography, and yet at their core taste quite similar. The first, Mediterranean oregano, is from the mint family and is sweet with notes of pepper and licorice. Very little is lost to high quality drying of the leaves, so I favor the dried variety in my kitchen over fresh for convenience. The other oregano hails from the verbana family of plants and is native to Mexico. It’s flavor is quite a bit sweeter but in place of the mild pepperiness and licorice is a strong citrus zest flavor. Mexican oregano is best when fresh. Ideally, you should use each herb in its native cuisines, however, you can to some extent use them interchangeably with fairly good results.

Ideal pairings: Bell peppers, oily fish, garlic, lemon juice, lemon zest, marjoram, red meat, mushrooms, pasta, pork, potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini
Additional pairings: Basil, beef, white beans, chicken, eggs, eggplant, olives, olive oil, soups, summer vegetables

Suggested recipes: Beef brisket tacos with pickled onion and verdant greenspasta with prosciutto and fresh mozzarellaFrench country chicken stew

img_3558

Rosemary

Rosemary is a flavor bomb and is incredibly versatile. Also from the mint family, it’s flavor is bold and assertive with a base of menthol, pine and sage, with a sharp sweetness. Although it can easily overwhelm a dish, used thoughtfully, it can add considerable beauty to other bold flavors.

Ideal pairings: Beans, fish, garlic, lamb, beef, chicken, olive oil, onions, oregano, parsley, peas, pork, potatoes, sage, tomatoes
Additional pairings: Bell peppers, breads, butter, cabbage, duck, eggs, eggplant, game meat, lavender, lemon juice, lemon zest, lentils, marjoram, mint, orange juice, shellfish, soups, stew, winter squash, thyme

Suggested recipes: French country chicken stewgarlic confit on toast squares

Have a question? Ask me anything!

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. Kim says:

    This is a fantastic compilation of herbs!! Thanks!

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