Fresh herbs can alter and enhance the flavor of any dish. To chefs, they’re basic ingredients. To novices, they’re intimidating. It can be tough to identify herbs and even more difficult to know how to use them. This simple guide is a good place to start.
Description: Cilantro is distinctive and bright. It has smaller, rounder leaves with long stems. Pairs well with Asian or Latin American foods.
Preparation: To use cilantro, coarsely chop the leaves and delicate stems or use the leaves whole.
Uses: Try stirring chopped cilantro into cooked long-grain brown rice, adding a squeeze of lime. Or mix it into a salsa of avocado, pineapple, and scallions.
Description: Basil is fragrant with a slightly sweet taste. It’s green and leafy. The ultimate summer herb.
Preparation: Basil is delicate and easily bruised. We recommend tearing the leaves or using them whole.
Uses: Basil is the backbone to pesto. You can also try tossing fresh basil leaves into a salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, and goat cheese. Or stir basil leaves into fresh tomato sauce just before serving.
Description: Dill has a mild anise flavor that wakes up any dish. It’s long and wispy without well-defined leaves.
Preparation: Dill can be coarsely chopped.
Uses: Toss coarsely chopped dill with roasted carrots and parsnips. Or stir it into potato salad dressed with a whole-grain mustard vinaigrette.
Description: Flat-leaf parsley (aka Italian parsley) is slightly peppery and very versatile. Its leaves are smaller and often in bunches.
Preparation: To use flat-leaf parsley, cut the leaves from the stems and coarsely chop them.
Uses: Toss flat-leaf parsley into a butter lettuce salad with sliced apples and toasted sliced almonds. Or try it combined with basil to add a twist and long-lasting green color to pesto.
Description: Curly parsley tastes much milder than its flat-leaf cousin. Its leaves look just like you’d expect – curled at the edges.
Preparation: Curly parsley can be finely chopped.
Uses: Use finely chopped curly parsley in tabbouleh – a bulgur wheat salad with cucumbers and lemon. Or swirl it into melted butter with wine and garlic to make a quick sauce for chicken or shrimp.
Description: Tarragon is aromatic with a distinctive licorice flavor. Its leaves are long and thin.
Preparation: Tarragon can be chopped or snipped with scissors.
Uses: Add chopped tarragon to chicken pot pie. Or stir it into a pasta with lemon zest and peas.
Description: Chives have a mellow onion flavor. Their long leaves are round and hollow.
Preparation: Chives can be cut to desired length with a knife or scissors.
Uses: Try chives in scrambled eggs with brie cheese. Or mix them into your favorite cornbread or biscuit recipe for a savory twist.
Description: Chervil’s flavor is a cross between parsley and anise. It has long stems with small, lacy leaves.
Preparation: Chervil can be chopped or used as a garnish.
Uses: Try chervil sprinkled over blanched asparagus with Parmesan and lemon. Or use it in a green salad with a mix of chopped chives, tarragon and parsley.
Description: Peppermint has a cool aftertaste. Its leaves are green and look a little waxy. It’s often used in desserts and drinks.
Preparation: Peppermint leaves can be used whole, torn or muddled.
Uses: Use whole or muddled peppermint leaves in iced tea, lemonade or mojitos. You can also add torn leaves to sliced strawberries tossed with sugar, or scatter them over sliced honeydew with a sprinkle of salt.
Description: Spearmint is milder than peppermint, but still has that cool aftertaste. The leaves look similar to peppermint, though less waxy.
Preparation: Spearmint can be chopped or used whole.
Uses: Try tossing whole spearmint leaves with tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. Or combine chopped spearmint with chopped shallot, rice vinegar and olive oil to make a fresh sauce for lamb.
Description: The aromatic bay leaf comes in two main varieties: the Turkish bay leaf (which has 1 to 2-inch-long oval leaves) and the Californian bay leaf (which has 2 to 3-inch-long narrow leaves.)
Preparation: Use whole leaves to flavor a dish, but remove before serving because they are bitter if eaten.
Uses: Add a bay leaf or two to soups, stews and rice dishes. Store bay leaves in an airtight container in your pantry.
Description: Oregano is pungent and slightly peppery. Its leaves are shorter and wider.
Preparation: Oregano leaves can be used whole or chopped.
Uses: Sauté oregano with eggplant, tomatoes and garlic, then toss with pasta. Or toss oregano with sliced roasted red peppers, olives and crumbled feta.
Description: Rosemary is woodsy with lemon and pine aromas. Rosemary has thin leaves that look a little like pine needles.
Preparation: Using your fingers, simply pull the rosemary needles from the sprig and use them whole or chopped.
Uses: Use rosemary to make a marinade for beef or chicken by combining it with garlic, lemon zest and olive oil. Or try it sauteéd with white beans, garlic and chopped arugula.
Description: Thyme is fragrant with mint and lemon aromas. Thyme leaves are small and grow in sprigs. It’s a very versatile herb.
Preparation: Simply pull thyme leaves from the sprigs – there’s no need to chop.
Uses: Try thyme roasted with grape tomatoes and olive oil to make a sauce for pasta or beef. Or drop a few sprigs of thyme into soups and stews while they simmer, then remove the sprigs after cooking.
Description: Sage is earthy and pungent. Its leaves are medium width with a velvety texture. With sage, a little goes a long way.
Preparation: Sage can be used whole.
Uses: Toss whole sage leaves with sweet potato wedges and olive oil and roast until tender. Or mix them into a bread stuffing with apples and onions.
When you’re picking up herbs at the grocery store or the farmer’s market, they should always look fresh. Watch out for discolorations or wilting. Take a quick whiff to see if you like their potency and their flavor.
Once you get the herbs home, it’s best to store them on the top shelf of the refrigerator, which is often the warmest area. They should be wrapped in a damp paper towel and placed in an unsealed plastic baggie. If the roots are still attached, you should leave them on the countertop in a glass with a little water. Wash your herbs just before you use them, not before you store them.
Keep in mind that robust herbs such as rosemary and thyme can withstand long cooking times. But tender herbs such as basil and cilantro should be added right before the dish is done cooking. Tender herbs can also be eaten raw.
The quality of the herb suffers a bit once frozen. They’re best used in cooked dishes rather than as a garnish or raw. Chop the leaves or use them whole straight from the freezer (do not thaw).
To freeze: Rinse the herbs and pat completely dry. Spread out on a sheet pan and freeze. Transfer the frozen herbs to freezer-proof bags, and freeze for up to 1 month.
Best herbs for freezing: rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, parsley, tarragon, dill and chives.