Fresh herbs are perhaps the fastest way to wake up a lackluster dish. Whether you’re whizzing them into a bright green herb pesto or sprinkling them over a simple plate of scrambled eggs on toast, freshly chopped herbs take almost any savory dish to the next level.
Despite how easy they are to use, herbs are something I get a ton of questions about. Like, A LOT. When I polled my readers last year about what they wanted help with in the kitchen, 15% said learning how to use fresh herbs was at the top of their list.
Since this is such a hot topic, I decided to put together a guide to the basics of using fresh herbs. Now, this isn’t a list of flavor pairings — though I am working on that. The below guide is my top 10 cardinal rules when it comes to using fresh herbs. Keep in mind this list does not apply to dry herbs. That’s a whole different list on a whole different day.
So if you’re at all bored with your food, I highly recommend you get familiar with fresh herbs and learn how to leverage their flavor. Once you know how to use them, it’s a whole new world!
1. Be picky when selecting herbs.
Herbs are pure fragrance! There’s a reason we call them “aromats,” and every single thing you do with them — or to them — should respect this fat. The volatile compounds that make herbs fragrant and flavorful are easily damaged, so make sure the herbs you buy are in good shape when you select them.
This means avoid herbs that are bruised, brown, moldy, overly aged, or obviously abused. Before you make a final selection, give the herbs you’re considering a quick pinch to see how strongly they smell. (Yes, they should smell strongly.)
2. Give fresh herbs the royal treatment.
The fresher herbs are when you use them, the more flavorful they will be when you eat them. If you can, grow herbs in a small pot in your window and pick them right before using. If you don’t have space to grow them (or like me, you have a fuzzy Eat Beast who likes to destroy potted plants) try buying herbs with the roots still in tact, and then put them in a special herb box made for storing in the fridge.
Even if the herbs you buy don’t still have the roots attached, an herb box is a great investment. These containers hold a small amount of water and essentially create a little greenhouse for your herbs. Herbs will last for up to a month in one of these containers, sometimes longer if the conditions are right. The $20 you spend on the box will be quickly returned when your herbs last for a month and you don’t have to replace them as often!
3. Seasonality: Timing is everything.
Herbs are seasonal. They tend to taste better during the season in which they are naturally grown, and they also go best with other foods that are in season at the same time. Think basil and tomatoes, or rosemary and pumpkin. If they grow together, they’re probably good eats together.
4. Give fresh herbs a good rinse.
Herbs need to be washed and dried completely before using. They can pick up dirt and bugs just like any other produce, so they benefit from a thorough rinse. I recommend washing and drying fresh herbs shortly after you buy them, which will give them plenty of time to dry before you cook with them. This is important because……….
5. Dry them completely before cutting.
Wet herbs are a nightmare to chop. They stick to your knife and turn to literal mush on your cutting board, and any water that sits on them after they’ve been cut will dilute their magical fragrant compounds. To dry herbs naturally, lay them in a single layer on a paper towel for an hour. If you’re in a hurry to dry them, feel free to use a salad spinner.
6. A sharp knife is really important.
Herbs bruise really easily, so it’s important to to use a very sharp knife when chopping so that they’re not bruised or ripped while you cut them. Bruising causes herbs to oxidize and give up their flavor compounds much faster than if they’d been cut cleanly with a sharp knife. It’s also an aesthetic problem, since herbs can turn a gross black and brown when they’ve been abused. No one wants sad-looking black specks on their delicious dinner!
7. When chopping, show some restraint.
Do not overchop herbs! Even the sharpest knife will turn them into a pesto-like paste if you go at them with too much gusto. Herbs should be chopped evenly and only to the point that they are the size you need. Do not obliterate them by chopping them into dust.
8. Or try not chopping at all!
Gordon Ramsey said something very interesting once: The best part of parsley stays on the cutting board. And he’s right. Fresh herbs are very fragile — once you cut them, they leave a lot of their best compounds as a stain on your cutting surface. So consider dropping leaves of fresh herbs into your dish whole, leaving them entirely in tact. This will make them perfect little flavor bombs once you bit into them, letting not a fraction of their goodness go to waste. (FYI, this won’t work with tougher or strongly-flavored herbs like rosemary.)
9. Add herbs at the end.
This is maybe the most important rule here: Don’t add fresh herbs to your dish until the very end of cooking. Fresh green herbs are delicate and their volatile oils are literally vaporized by long exposure to heat, so sprinkle them in at the very end of cooking, or right before serving, for maximum impact.
10. Don’t waste the stems and clippings!
Leftover herb bits have other uses, so don’t waste them! Parsley stems should be saved and used for making stocks (just toss them into the stock pot with your soup bones). Sage and thyme stems can be simmered in soups or sauces for extra flavor, then plucked out just before serving. Rosemary stems are incredibly fragrant and flavorful skewers, and cilantro roots will take coconut-based dishes to the next level. Get creative! Try to waste NOTHING in your kitchen, using your imagination to see where you can make good use of little bits that are left over. This is a great sign of a creative home chef.