The dried herbs in your cabinet can spice up meals in a pinch. But nothing beats fresh herbs for enhancing the flavor and appearance of even the most mundane dishes. They also reduce the need for added salt and fat — and offer vital nutrients.
Most herbs available in the United States are the fragrant leaves of plants from either the mint or the carrot family. Their strong flavor comes from essential oils that are a plant’s first line of defense against predators. Mint-family herbs (like basil, oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme) carry pungent oils on their leaves. Carrot-family herbs (including cilantro, dill and parsley) store their aromatic oils in canals within the leaf. Look for herbs that are deep green and crisp, and free of dark spots, yellowing and signs of wilting.
Both dried and fresh herbs provide vitamins, phytonutrients and antioxidants that promote cardiovascular health, reduce inflammation and prevent cancer. But fresh herbs are almost always tastier and more nutritious (the drying process reduces flavor and nutrients).
Basil is a good source of vitamin A and magnesium, which can improve cardiovascular health. It also contains flavonoids — plant compounds that act as powerful antioxidants, which inhibit the production of cancer-causing free radicals in the body. Oregano delivers more healthful antioxidants than any other herb; 1 tablespoon provides as much antioxidant punch as an apple. The oils in parsley combat tumor formation in the lungs, and its high levels of vitamins A and C bolster the immune system and help combat diseases including atherosclerosis, diabetes and asthma.
Fresh herbs’ delicate flavors are lost when cooked for long periods, so it’s best to use them raw or add them near the end of cooking time. When substituting fresh herbs for dried, use 3 teaspoons of fresh for every 1 teaspoon dried.
- Avoid combining equal portions of strong herbs because their flavors will compete. Instead, reduce one of the herbs by half so it complements the other and elevates it as a main flavor.
- Fresh basil complements tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, nuts, vinegars, squash, peppers, eggplant, mushrooms and poultry. Its flavor is best when cut into thin strips. Stack the leaves and roll tightly, then cut the roll into thin strips using a sharp knife or gently tear by hand.
- Fresh oregano adds a dynamic dimension to chicken, lamb, peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, egg dishes, salad dressings, olive oil and breads. To prepare, wash, pat dry with a paper towel, strip from stems and chop into small pieces.
- Pick up fresh herbs close to the time you plan to use them, and wash only prior to using to prevent wilting.
- Loosely wrap fresh herbs in paper towels and place in plastic bags pierced with holes in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator.
- Use potted herb plants as edible decorations in your kitchen. The plants will provide convenient opportunities to add delicious flavors to your favorite dishes.
- Freezing excess herbs for later use is a more nutritious alternative to drying. Wash, pat dry, wrap loosely in freezer wrap and freeze in plastic bags. Or chop herbs into small pieces, place in ice cube trays, fill with filtered water and freeze. Add frozen herb cubes directly to sauces, soups or vegetables.
Chef Cary Neff is the president of the consulting firm Culinary Innovations and the author of the New York Times bestseller Conscious Cuisine (Sourcebooks, 2002).