Sunday, October 25, 2009

Dried Herbs - A Primer

Fresh herbs are generally better for things like salads and sauces, but dried herbs have an honored place in my kitchen. Dried herbs are often better in dishes like stews, casseroles, and other dishes that require long cooking times.

Unless you're growing your own fresh herbs, dried herbs are also more readily available in most supermarkets. They seem to cost less, too.

Dried herbs are also better for food storage. They should be stored in airtight containers, in cool, dark places. Sunlight and heat will compromise the flavor and quality of dried herbs, so keep them away from your stove until you need them. Depending on who you talk to, dried herbs can be kept this way for anywhere from a year, to five years, without significant flavor deterioration. If you've got containers of dried herbs older than that, get rid of them.

Dried herbs add great aroma, color and flavor. The drying process concentrates the flavors of the herbs, so you really only need about half as much when substituting dried herbs for fresh ones.

Here are six common herbs and one common herb blend I recommend for most pantries.

One of my favorite herbs to cook with, basil has a sweet and spicy flavor, with just a hint of mint – the dried form a bit more so than the fresh. Traditionally partnered with garlic, basil is used in salad dressings and long-cooking Mediterranean sauces and casseroles. Tomatoes and basil are match made in heaven. It's almost as if God had them both in mind during the creation.

Dried bay leaves have a pungent, resinous flavor and are well suited for long cooking times. They are excellent for inclusion in most stocks, soups, stews, and sauces. They are part of the traditional bouquet garni and are commonly used for infusing white sauces with savory flavors. They are also great with fish. I like to break them apart into a couple of pieces before adding them to a dish, to maximize the flavor. Just make sure to remove them before serving.

Dried dill is less pungent than fresh dill. It has a subtle, almost anise like tone. Traditionally it's used in marmalades, dressings, and other Northern and Eastern European dishes. It is excellent paired with cucumber (thus, the famous dill pickle), fish and root vegetables. I like adding a pinch to scrambled eggs.

Dried oregano has a powerful, almost spicy flavor. A variety of wild marjoram, oregano is used in many Mediterranean and Italian dishes. It's especially good with tomato dishes, pasta sauces, and sprinkled on pizza. It is also frequently used in Mexican cooking.

Dried rosemary has a pungent, spicy, almost refreshing flavor. Dried rosemary is different from most herbs, in that it is milder than its fresh counterpart. I love using it in casseroles and marinades for lamb, pork, or chicken. I like to toss it with roasted potatoes, too. It's common to many Italian dishes and is used to flavor many breads. What I don't like is how hard the spines of it can be. Crushing dried rosemary under a rolling pin easily solves this problem, and helps release its flavors. The aroma is intoxicating!

Dried sage has a subtle, slightly bitter flavor. It's good with most meats, especially fatty pork, duck, and sausages. I like using it occasionally with beef stew or as part of a rub for roasts. It can also be good with some egg and cheese dishes. Use it sparingly, though. Too much will ruin a dish.

Italian Herb Blend
A blend of common herbs, this is a great shortcut for adding flavor to almost any savory dish. Typically it's a mixture of marjoram, oregano, rosemary and thyme. I like using it in sauces, stews, and cooked tomato dishes. It's also great sprinkled over pizza.

I've got a spice primer posted around here, as well, if you're interested.

Photo by Tijmen van Dobbenburgh


Mark "Dutch Oven" Hansen said...

This is one area that I feel like is sadly missing from my culinary education. That's a fancy way of saying I don't know much. I just don't know and understand herbs and spices very much. I kinda fumble my way through it, but not much confidence there...


John Newman said...

Thanks, Mark! I'm no expert, by far, but I learned a lot about them simply by reading, tasting, smelling, and experimenting. One thing I've learned through experience is that, unless you want a strong herb flavor, less is more. Herbs can really enhance a food's natural flavor by bringing out subtle tones in the food, if you let them. It can be kind of like an "EQ" filter for food. :-)

Acai said...


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