What Good Cooks Know
How to Buy, Use, and Store Fresh Herbs
A comprehensive guide to your favorite herbs.
11-04-2016
America's Test Kitchen

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Whether you’re cooking with the fresh stuff or the dried versions, herbs are key to unlocking and augmenting flavor in so many of your favorite dishes. Below, you’ll find everything you need to know about buying, storing, and using your favorite herbs.

Basil

Sometimes labeled Genoa basil, this slightly acidic herb balances licorice and citrus notes. Avoid the basil sold in plastic clamshell boxes: It is of inconsistent quality and is usually overpriced. A bunch of basil sold with its roots attached is a far better option. Not only will the leaves of this basil be more flavorful, but the basil will also last longer if you store it upright in a glass at room temperature, with the roots submerged in an inch or two of water (change the water every day). Don’t use dried basil in place of fresh. (Try it in: Thin-Crust Whole-Wheat Pizza with Garlic Oil, Three Cheeses, and Basil)

Bay Leaf

Bay leaves are a standard addition to soups, stews, and bean dishes. We prefer dried bay leaves to fresh; they work just as well in long-cooked recipes, are cheaper, and will keep for months in the freezer. We prefer Turkish bay leaves to those from California. The California bay leaf has a medicinal and potent flavor. Turkish bay leaves have a mild, green, and slightly clove-like flavor. (Try it in: Pan-Seared, Oven-Roasted Thick-Cut Pork Chops)

Cilantro

Cilantro, the fresh leaves and stems of the coriander plant, is also called Chinese parsley. This love-it-or-loathe-it herb is frequently used in Southeast Asian and Latin cuisines. Store it with its stems in water, or wrap it in damp paper towels and store it in a zipper-lock bag in the crisper drawer. Don’t use dried cilantro in place of fresh. (Try it in: Thai Chicken Curry with Potatoes and Peanuts)

Dill

Dill’s feathery fronds are slightly bitter, with a refreshing, lemony quality and aroma akin to caraway seeds. Dill matches perfectly with cucumbers (both pickled and raw); its summery freshness also works well for seafood, potatoes, and eggs. It’s best used as a finishing herb. Store fresh dill in the refrigerator with its stems in water. Avoid dried dill weed, which is tasteless, but for dishes that require an assertive dill flavor beyond the power of fresh dill, try dill seeds from the spice aisle. (Try it in: Broiled Salmon with Mustard and Crisp Dilled Crust)

Marjoram

A member of the mint family, fresh marjoram is often mistaken for oregano. Its flavor is sweet, with a delicate, fleeting spiciness. Marjoram is often paired with poultry, lamb, or vegetables, and is best used as a finishing herb. To store fresh marjoram, wrap in damp paper towels and place in a zipper-lock bag in the crisper drawer. Dried marjoram is widely available and acceptable in cooked applications. (Try it in: French-Style Chicken and Stuffing in a Pot)

Mint

Although there are more than 2,000 varieties of mint, spearmint is the most common. The flavor of mint can be described as smooth and bright, with a eucalyptus quality. Store fresh mint in the refrigerator with its stems in water. Don’t use dried mint in place of fresh. (Try it in: Lentil Salad with Olives, Mint, and Feta

Oregano

This hardy perennial shrub has fuzzy, spade-shaped leaves and tough woody stems. Another member of the mint family, it has a potent flavor that can be described as earthy and musty, with a spicy-hot bite. Oregano is great in tomato sauces, chili, and Mexican and Latin dishes (like Tinga), and sprinkled on pizzas. To store fresh oregano, wrap it in damp paper towels and place in a zipper-lock bag in the crisper drawer. Dried oregano does not have the same sharp bite as fresh, but it does have a distinct and recognizable floral element. (Try it in: Italian Sausages with Grapes and Balsamic Vinegar)

Parsley

In the test kitchen, we prefer flat-leaf (or Italian) parsley, which is more assertive than curly-leaf parsley. Store parsley either with its stems in water or wrapped in damp paper towels and refrigerated in the crisper in a zipper-lock bag. Parsley freezes well (with some discoloration that doesn’t affect flavor) in an airtight container for up to four months. (Try it in: Penne with Toasted Nut and Parsley Pesto)

Rosemary

This evergreen-like herb has an obvious pine aroma. When it’s used in moderation its taste is clean, sweet, and floral, but if overused it can be like Vicks VapoRub. Rosemary works well in long-cooked dishes (especially those with Italian flavors) like soups, stews, and braises. Too much dried rosemary can turn a dish bitter, so use sparingly. For a gentle hint of rosemary in a soup, stew, or sauce, try adding a sprig of fresh rosemary during cooking and then remove it before serving. To store, wrap in damp paper towels and place in a zipper-lock bag in the crisper drawer. (Try it in: Rosemary Focaccia)

Sage

Perhaps best known as the main herb in poultry seasoning, sage flavors a range of foods, from breakfast sausage to Thanksgiving stuffing. The flavor of sage is earthy and floral, with a musky bite. To store, wrap fresh sage in damp paper towels and place in a zipper-lock bag in the crisper drawer. Because of its cottony texture when raw, sage should be cooked. In its dried form, we prefer rubbed (or finely crumbled) sage to the ground and chopped kinds. (Try it in: Potato Gnocchi with Browned Butter and Sage

Tarragon

Tarragon is very assertive, with a mouth-numbing, anesthetic quality and a sweet orange-anise aroma. Tarragon can be used in fish, egg, and chicken dishes. Store fresh tarragon in the refrigerator with its stems in water. (Try it in: Quick Chicken Fricassee)

Thyme

Thyme is good in long-cooked soups and stews and with roasted meats and poultry; it pairs well with mustard and lemon flavors. Its flavor mellows with cooking, so we often add extra at the end of a recipe. Wrap thyme in damp paper towels and store in a zipper-lock bag in the crisper. (Try it in: Roasted Carrots and Shallots with Lemon and Thyme)

General Rules for Substituting Dried Herbs

  • Use only about one-third as much dried herbs as you would fresh.

  • Add dried herbs at the same time you would add fresh.

  • Avoid dried forms of delicate, leafy herbs such as basil, parsley, chives, mint, and cilantro.

  • Heartier herbs, such as oregano, sage, and thyme, dry well and are good substitutes for fresh in most recipe—especially those in which the herbs will cook in liquid (such as sauces and stews).
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