Fresh herbs and how to use them
Fresh herbs have the ability to elevate a dish to the next level, livening it up with a hit of freshness before serving, or adding a delicious depth of flavour throughout cooking.
Herbs can be classed as being either woody herbs, like rosemary and thyme, and soft herbs, like basil, coriander and parsley.
Woody herbs are tougher and are generally too powerful to be eaten raw. Instead, they’re usually cooked alongside whatever they’re intended to flavour and are often removed before serving.
Soft herbs aren’t quite as strong as woody ones – they can be eaten raw in salads, or scattered over and stirred into cooked food. There are so many exciting and interesting herbs out there, so we’ve picked the most commonly used ones to guide you through.
Basil is central to Italian cooking and rightly so – with a sweet, slightly aniseed flavour, basil livens up pasta dishes and salads, forms the base of delicious pesto, and is great combined with eggs and ripe cherry tomatoes for a mega-tasty omelette. Basil is good friends with tomato, mozzarella, garlic, aubergines, artichokes, balsamic vinegar, seafood and even strawberries. Try it in this salsa spaghetti, on bruschetta with ripe tomatoes or paired with mint in these tasty arancini cakes.
As a member of the onion family, chives have a similar, yet more delicate flavour. Great for sprucing up salads, chives can add a hit of freshness to savoury dishes. Chives are common in French cooking, and taste best when paired with potatoes, eggs and cheese. Stir them through Swedish pytt y panna, use them to liven up a potato salad, or top off this gorgeous goat’s cheese tart or your morning eggs on toast with them.
Oregano is a soft herb that behaves like a hard one. With its strong flavour, it pairs well with red meats, slow-cooked veg, and sumptuous pasta dishes. It also features in a huge number of classic Italian recipes, and is a mainstay in Italian-American classics like spaghetti and meatballs.
Marjoram is oregano’s little brother. Look at their leaves to tell them apart: marjoram has thinner, more delicate leaves which are rounded rather than pointed. It’s used a lot in northern European cuisine and is great friends with beetroot, carrots, pork and baked fish. It’s perfect in salads, and is particularly good with goat’s cheese. Try tossing it through pasta with garlic and juicy tomatoes. Although it’s a strong herb, marjoram is just mild enough to be eaten raw.
With its bitter, fresh flavour, parsley is perhaps the ultimate garnish for rich dishes. Having it to hand in the kitchen will mean you’re never without the perfect finish to most recipes. Whether flat-leaf or curly, sprinkle some torn fresh parsley over roasted lamb, beef stroganoff, grilled fish, a spicy chorizo omelette, or a beautiful bubble and squeak breakfast. Make sure you save the stalks – you can use them to flavour stocks.
Mint is a surprisingly hardy herb that survives all year round if treated well. There are lots of different kinds, but the most common varieties are peppermint and spearmint. Fresh mint goes really well with fruit – try it in this super-fresh fruit salad or sprinkled on grilled pineapple, or use it to take a homemade mojito to the next level. Mint is great in savoury salads, stirred through mushy peas, served with fish or stirred through cooling yoghurt in a curry.
Rosemary, along with thyme, is a woody herb. Its comparatively tough leaves are usually stripped from the stalks and used in dishes with longer cooking times (the stalks are also great for adding flavour to soups and stews, as long as you remember to take them out before serving!). Rosemary is often used with roast meats, as well as roasted potatoes, on breads like focaccia, and in slow-cooked stews and pies. You can even use rosemary stalks to skewer and grill vegetable or meat kebabs! Rosemary also pairs perfectly with gin, as shown in this delicious gin fizz recipe.
Thyme is a short sturdy bush with long thin branches and tiny perfumed leaves. Like bay and rosemary, it’s a very popular ingredient in stews and stocks. It’s also delicious when roasted with meat or vegetables like squash, leeks or carrots, and is a great addition to slow-cooked stews. Thyme also pairs well with cheesy bakes, like mac ‘n’ cheese. Because of its strong flavour, it’s a good idea to use thyme sparingly.
Sage is another hardy herb, and will survive most weather conditions. It’s incredibly aromatic, and goes beautifully with deep flavours, but in a very different way to the sharp taste of parsley – its powerful flavour amplifies everything around it, instead of cutting through. Combine it with a proper plate of bangers and mash, slow-cooked onion and strong Cheddar cheese in Jamie’s English onion soup, or with lovely, sticky pork chops.
With a citrusy, light and sweet flavour, coriander is a great herb for garnishing finished dishes. It’s widely used in Latin American and Mexican cooking, from chopping it up into guacamole or fresh salsa, to stirring it through ceviche or pairing it with chilli, avocado and eggs in this South American-style brunch. It’s also a brilliant herb for adding beautiful fresh flavour to Asian cooking and is often paired with mint – try it in Asian curries, salads, soups and broths. When crushed in a pestle and mortar, the stalks have even more flavour than the leaves and are a key ingredient in curry pastes.
Dill looks similar to fennel but has a slightly different flavour. It’s used all over eastern Europe, from Scandinavia down to Greece, and most famously in gravadlax. A fragrant herb, dill is delicious with fish, and in particular smoked salmon, as well as in salads, with potato, eggs and carrots.
Sorrel is a brilliant seasonal English herb. With a lemony sourness, sorrel is best used in cooked dishes. It’s great friends with eggs, fish and goat’s cheese, and a great herb to liven up potato and grain salads.
Tarragon is a delicate plant with long, floppy, green leaves. It has a flavour quite like aniseed and goes really well with chicken, eggs, tomatoes and potatoes. It’s also great chopped into salads.
Chervil is similar to tarragon but its flavour isn’t quite as strong. It has very delicate leaves and is good in salads and lightly flavoured creamy soups. Chefs love to use chervil leaves for garnishing food because they make just about anything look beautiful!
How to store your herbs
Although they’re best when fresh, you will definitely find yourself needing to store your lovely herbs at some point. There are a number of ways to do this:
Dry, woody herbs at home by bunching them up. Do this by making bunches about the diameter of an OK-sign made with your thumb and forefinger. Bind with a tight roll of string, and hang them upside down in a warm, dry place. Once they’re dry, make sure not to bash around too much, as the leaves will fall off easily.
Soft herbs are best stored in the freezer. Pick the leaves, rinse, and chop finely before drying on a tea towel and storing in freezer bags. Press out as much air as you can before laying them on top of one another in the freezer (make sure you label each bag). They will last a few months and can be used straight from frozen.
You can also combine your herbs into lovely flavoured oils and salts, which make for store-cupboard secret weapons or lovely homemade gifts. To make oils, simply push a few stems into a bottleful of quality extra virgin olive oil. For salts, spread your herbs in a single layer over a baking tray and dehydrate in a very low oven – keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t lose their colour – then cool and crush into salt grains.
Pick your herbs for storing when the leaves look their best and freshest – at that point the sun will have penetrated them well, and they will release all their oils when used.