Herbs Working with Herbs & Leaves

Herbs are generally fresh or dried leaves of low growing plants. While there are a vast number of herbs of medicinal interest, this page is about those of culinary interest, though most have medicinal properties as well.

Spices are generally dried barks, berries, buds, seeds and other non-leafy plant parts and are to be found on our Spices Page but this page includes links to related spice items..





Fresh or Dried?

In general, fresh is better than dried - but this is not always true.
In general, 1 teaspoon of dried is roughly equivalent to 1 Tablespoon fresh (1 to 3) - but this is not always true.

Never substitute dried ginger for fresh or the other way around - the flavors are totally different.

For some recipes, particularly dressings and mixes, dried is called for and fresh would definately change the flavor. You need to use your own judgement. Also, there are ethnic quirks. In particular Turkish recipes prefer dried mint even if fresh is available.

Many cookbooks and recipes, particularly older ones or those calling for ethnic herbs, list dried even though fresh would be far better - because they expect fresh would be difficult to obtain. This is no longer true in many regions of North America where fresh herbs now abound year round.

When using dried herbs you want to get them in the recipe in the early cooking stages so they have time to release their flavors. When using fresh they generally go in late, some even after taking the pan off the heat.

Many herbs completely lose their character when dried, particularly a number of ethnic herbs, but despite this they are sold dried - but using them that way is a desparation measure. My listing of individual Varieties of Herbs will have information about this.

Buying & Storing Herbs & Leaves Fresh Herbs & Leaves

Fresh herbs are highly perishable. Some will last only a couple of days under even the best conditions. Most will last a week if losely bagged in plastic and refrigerated, but some may last a couple of weeks - but decline noticeably in quality.

To avoid disappointment, a good rule is to buy the basic herbs you use once a week, every week, "whether you need to or not". These will probably include at least:

  • Flat Leaf Parsley
  • Cilantro
  • Scallions

It is best to buy herbs at an independent market that serves one or more ethnic communities. The price is likely to be way below that asked in supermarkets, the bunches will be bigger - and they'll be fresher because of the fast turnover and likelyhood they were locally grown.

Keep them cool and get them home as soon as possible - then:

  1. Remove the rubber bands or other ties and cut off 1/2 to 1 inch of the stem ends - particularly important if you try to refresh wilted herbs.
  2. Remove any substandard leaves.
  3. If the herb is slightly wilted check "Details and Cooking" for the individual herb for the best way to refresh. For parsley and cilantro this is stem end down in a cup with an inch of fresh water for an hour. For basil and mint this is complete immersion for an hour, then dry in the salad spinner.
  4. Shake off any excess water and bag loosely in clean plastic.
  5. Store in the refrigerator in a location where they won't be damaged. In my refrigerator the drawer labeled "Snack Drawer" is actually the herb drawer. Note that basil and perilla are chill sensitive and should be kept in the wamest part of the refrigerator, probably the door.
Dried Herbs & Leaves

Buy from a source that has high turnover, particularly one that serves an ethnic community that makes considerable use of that particular herb. Dried herbs lose their flavor rather quickly and you don't want to buy packages that are already badly degraded.

Buy only whole leaf or flakes, ground to powder they will be seriously degraded by time they're on the store shelf. They are easy to grind in a mortar or spice grinder as needed.

Dried herbs should be stored in tightly sealed containers in a cool place and away from light, particularly direct sunlight which will kill them very quickly.

As a general rule dried herbs should be discarded and replaced about every 6 months, but this varies with the particular herb and storage conditions.

Drying Herbs & Leaves

Herbs should be dried quickly in a warm place (but not over 85°F/30°C with very good air circulation. If practical leaves should be removed from stems as flavors may be withdrawin into the stems. Never dry herbs in direct sunlight as it will bleach out the goodness before they are dry.

One way hebs are dried is hanging upside down in small bunches. another is drying on a screen.

Some leaves, including some that are normally useless dried, can be dried quickly on a comel, tava or dry frying pan. They will retain good flavor for several weeks tightly seales and away from heat and light. In particular curry leaves take well to this treatment.

Cooking with Herbs & Leaves

In general, dried herbs go into the recipe early so they have plenty of time to exude their flavors.
In general, but not always, fresh herbs go in late during cooking, some even after the pan has been removed from the heat (Thai basil in particular).

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