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Fact Sheet

 

 
 

 

Buying herbs

 

While it's handy to keep a few dried herbs in the larder, most taste best fresh, and some (such as basil) have a disappointing flavour when dried. Among the most useful dried herbs are oregano, bay and the herbes de Provence mixture. If you make a lot of Middle Eastern food, dried thyme and mint are also worth buying, but make sure you renew your jars and packets each year, as chopped dried herbs stale quickly.

 

Supermarkets now sell a wide range of cut herbs in packets, and some varieties by the cut-and-come-again pot. Pots of herbs can last longer, but need to be cared for as houseplants; otherwise you'll just wind up throwing them out. Depending on the types of dishes you like to cook, you may find it better to buy small packs of cut herbs and supplement them with a couple of favourites grown in the garden.

 

Remember that speciality greengrocers often sell a wider range of herbs than supermarkets do. Look out, too, when you visit farmers' markets for unusual varieties such as salad burnet, angelica, lovage, pennyroyal, and uncommon varieties of thyme, mint and sage.

 

Herb collections 

 

A bouquet garni is a bundle of herbs added to casseroles, stocks, sauces and soups. It traditionally comprises parsley (or parsley stalks, which have lots of flavour), a few sprigs of thyme and a bay leaf. These herbs may be bundled into a strip of leek or a piece of celery stalk, or tied in a muslin bag or with string, to keep them together during cooking and allow easy removal before serving.

 

Herbes de Provence is a fragrant mixture of dried herbs typical of southern French cooking. Exact recipes vary, but thyme, savory, rosemary and an aniseed-scented herb such as fennel or tarragon are typical. Marjoram or basil may also be included.

 

Fines herbes is a mixture of tender fresh herbs also used in French cooking, particularly with egg dishes such as omelettes. It is made from chervil, chives and tarragon, sometimes with parsley added.

 

Speciality herbs

 

A sprig of chervil - which looks like a petite feathery version of flatleaf parsley adds a final flourish to many a restaurant dish. It has a mild, sweet aniseed flavour and works well with fish, elegant soups, and butter sauces.

 

Curry leaves are increasingly available in supermarkets. A staple of South Indian cooking, they release a deliciously nutty aroma when briefly stirred in hot oil. Add them to curries near the beginning of cooking, just before you fry the spices.

 

Kaffir lime leaves are essential for Thai cooking. They have an unusual double-leaf shape and (although the flavour is completely different) are used in a similar manner to bay leaves - bruised and added to dishes early during cooking.

 

Shiso is familiar to many people in Britain thanks to its use in sushi and other Japanese dishes. Also known as perilla, it is used raw as a garnish rather than cooked and is worth trying if you like basil.

 

Borage was introduced to Britain by the Romans and grows wild in some areas. It tastes a little like cucumber and is good in salads, yoghurt or cream cheese mixtures, or served with shellfish. The leaves are furry, so they need to be chopped finely.

 

Sorrel can be treated as a herb, vegetable or salad leaf. It has a lemony taste and pointed leaves. It's a pretty addition to mixed salads and works particularly well with baby spinach.

 

Storing herbs

 

Cut herbs with short stalks should be wrapped in a plastic bag (left open, not sealed) or in a damp paper towel and kept in the fridge. Bunches of herbs with longer stalks can be treated like cut flowers: sit the base of the cut stalks in a tall jar or jug with a few centimeters of water in the bottom. If you are lucky enough to get coriander with the roots still attached, do not clean them: instead, simply keep them wrapped in a damp paper towel inside an open plastic bag and store in the salad drawer of the fridge, where they should last five to six days.

 

Some robust herbs, such as curry leaves, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, can be stored whole in the freezer, wrapped in a freezer bag. Sage can be stored in a jar, well-covered in coarse salt.

 

How long potted herbs bought from the supermarket last is variable and is affected by how much is cut off for use in cooking. They are best kept on a sunny window sill, with the soil regularly moistened. Alternatively, try planting them out in a larger pot on a balcony: a good plant will then last you the rest of the season.

 

Preparing and using herbs

 

Apart from those such as bay that are used whole, herbs are best prepared by picking the leaves from the stalks then chopping them as finely as desired with a chef's knife or a two-handled rocking knife (mezzaluna). Some people find it easier to cut bunches of tender herbs, especially chives, into small pieces with kitchen scissors and this is a handy quick technique to use when your dish is rustic or informal.

 

It's not always necessary to strip the leaves from the stems either: the stalks of dill and coriander can be chopped or snipped right along with the leaves and added to dishes such as soups and sauces.

 

Some tender herbs - particularly basil, tarragon and mint - bruise easily, a problem exacerbated by blunt kitchen knives. To prevent bruising and discolouration, avoid chopping these herbs finely and make sure you use a sharp knife. Alternatively, add the whole leaves to dishes, or tear them into small pieces with your fingers.

 

The volatile oils that give flavour and fragrance to the tenderest herbs dissipate quickly after exposure to heat, so it's best to add them to dishes towards the end of cooking, or just before serving. Robust herbs such as bay, sage, rosemary and common thyme are best when given time to meld with the other ingredients in the dish, so should be added earlier during cooking.

 

The tender herbs - basil, chervil, chives, coriander, dill, mint, parsley, tarragon and so on - can also be used raw and make delicious salad ingredients.

 

 
   

 

Basil
There are 2 types grown - sweet and bush. Sweet is the one normally sold, it has largish shiny leaves, with a strong but sweet flavour. It is one of the best herbs to add to tomatoes, eggs, mushrooms and pasta dishes, and is an essential part of Italian pesto sauce. There is also a 'Greek' basil which has tiny green leaves

 

  Bay Leaves
Sweet bay or bay laurel is a Mediterranean tree. The leaves are shiny, smooth and dark with a strong aromatic scent. It forms part of a classic bouquet garni and is very versatile. Add to stocks when poaching fish, or to marinades, casseroles, soups and stews. It is often used to flavour milk for use in sauces or even custard.
 

 

Borage

Borage tastes refreshing and cooling with a slightly bitter, cucumber flavour. The light purple flowers are most commonly used and look great as a garnish on salads or desserts. The leaves are not really that palatable as they are ‘hairy’ or slightly ‘prickly’, if you do use them for their taste select the small young leaves, they can be raw in salads or lightly cooked with other green vegetables. The flowers can be set in ice cubes or crystallised, both of which look very impressive

 

  Chervil
A member of the parsley family and traditionally part of the 'fines herbes' mixture used in French cookery. It has a delicate fern-like leaf with a mild aniseed flavour. It is especially good in soups, egg and cheese dishes, or added for flavour to green salad. Use also as a garnishing leaf.
 
   

Chives
A member of the onion family, chives have a mild onion flavour and long, spiky, green leaves. Chopped chives can be added to omelettes, cheese dishes, stews, soups and salad dressings. Also try mixed with soured cream, yogurt or soft cheese as a topping for baked potatoes. Very useful for garnishing dishes.
 

 

 

Coriander
Coriander has flat feathery leaves and is often confused with flat parsley. It has a distinctive spicy flavour

 and is often added to Southern European, Indian and South East Asian dishes. The leaves are chopped

 and added to curries, stews, soups and marinades. Often it is added towards the end of cooking times

and is also used for garnishing.

 

 

Dill
A delicate, feathery herb with an aromatic, sharp but sweet flavour. Often used in Scandinavian dishes,

it is especially good with fish if added to the marinade, cooking liquid or accompanying sauces.

Also try adding to vegetables, cream or cottage cheese.
 

   

Fennel
Fennel grows wild by the roadside and may even be in your garden! It looks a bit like dill and tastes much the same. Small quantities of the leaves can be chopped up finely and put in salads or sprinkled over steamed vegetables. Fennel goes well with fish, soups, egg dishes and sauces. The seeds are used too, and have a stronger flavour.

Bronze Fennel has distinctive dark feathery leaves and makes a particularly stunning garnish. It tastes similar to green fennel.

   

Horseradish
Horseradish is a hot tasting root which is scrubbed, peeled, grated. Small amounts of grated horseradish may be added to salads or steamed vegetables as a flavouring. It can also be mixed with lemon juice, vinegar and / or and cream or sour cream to make horseradish cream or sauce - a perfect accompaniment to beef, smoked fish and egg dishes. Horseradish loses much of its piquancy when added to hot dishes. Young leaves are excellent in salads and sandwiches, especially with smoked fish.

 

 

Lemon Balm

A perennial herb; grown in full sun to partial shade .  Taste of lemon with a hint of mint.  Used in Poultry dishes (or stuffing) and with pork chops; with shrimp, lobster and mussels; with vegetables; in green or fruit salads; to make vinegars. Dried leaves make a pleasant tea or addition to black tea. Add leaves to white wine.

 

 

 

Lemon Grass
A common ingredient in South East Asian cookery, both the bulbous base and the long lemon flavoured leaves are used. The base should be peeled and chopped finely before use. It freezes well. Use anywhere you want an aromatic lemony flavour, it is especially nice with fish, chicken, rice and vegetable dishes. Try adding some leaves to water as you cook rice, or wrapping around a whole fish before cooking.

 

 
Lovage
Lovage leaves have a slightly yeasty flavour and are a welcome addition to salads, casseroles, soups and sauces. Young lovage leaves and stalks can be chopped and simmered or sauteed and used as a vegetable by themselves, treat as you would celery. Lovage is not very widely available.

 

 

Marigold
Marigold flowers, very similar to calendula, make an attractive edible garnish for all sorts of dishes. They can also be added sparingly to salads. The petals can be used in place of saffron and will give colour in many dishes, especially rice and egg dishes

   

Marjoram
Marjoram and Oregano are often confused with each other, the difference is that sweet marjoram has small, furry leaves and a similar flavour to oregano but is sweeter and milder. It can be added to most savoury dishes, especially Italian ones. Also good with marrow, potatoes and rice. It is used mostly in Scandinavian, German and Austrian dishes, and in the cuisine of the South Western United States.

 

   

Mint
The most common type of mint used is Spearmint, named after it's spear-shaped leaf. Mint is a really versatile herb used in a lot of countries, from Middle East salads to British new potatoes to American mint julep cocktails. The peppermint leaf is rarely used in cooking, but the oil is used for making sweets and medicinal flavourings. Pennyroyal used to be a favourite in black puddings and herb teas

  Oregano
A herb used in many Mediterranean cuisines - especially those of Italy and Greece. The flavour is similar to Marjoram but stronger and the leaves are larger and darker. It will enhance many meat dishes and it is often added to salads, pizza and tomato based dishes.
 
  Flat and curled Parsley
An essential part of a bouquet garni. Parsley livens up the most savoury dishes and is often used as a garnish, either chopped or as sprigs. The most familiar varieties are the curly leaved parsley and the French or flat parsley, which has more flavour. Add chopped leaves to salads, soups, sauces and cooked vegetables. It is said that if you chew it after garlic it will remove the smell.
   

Rosemary
Rosemary grows best in a mild climate; it is an evergreen and has lavender-blue flowers. It is a pungent, fragrant shrub with small, narrow leaves, set densely on the branches. It is often used with lamb but it can be used with other meats, in Italian dishes such as 'pasta e fagioli' (soup with pasta and beans) and in vegetable dishes such as ratatouille or added to marinades.
 

  Sage
A strong flavoured herb with narrow, pale grey-green leaves with a rough texture. Traditionally used with pork, liver and in stuffing. But it can be used with any richly flavoured meat, and in cheese and tomato dishes.
  Salad Burnet
Salad burnet has a very delicate and pleasant flavour. It is sometimes described as being like a cucumber with a slightly almond taste. It should always be used raw as it tastes bitter when cooked. As the name suggests salad burnet is great in salads, use only the very young leaves and discard the stems. It is also a very attractive garnish.
  Savory
There are two types of savory, and both are available commercially in limited quantities. Both taste a bit like thyme but are hotter and peppery. They can be used raw or cooked, whenever you want a warm-hot flavour. Summer savory has a more delicate flavour than winter savory. Savory can be added to stuffing, sausages, cheese dishes, steamed vegetables and salads.
  Sorrel
(Seldom available commercially) Sorrel has a sharp taste and gives soups, sauces, omelettes and salads a tangy and refreshing flavour. Sorrel goes well with spinach and silver beet dishes or indeed can replace spinach in a recipe. It has an attractive leaf which looks a bit like young spinach and is a good addition to a green mixed leaf salad
  Tarragon
One of the classic 'fine herbes', there are two varieties of this herb - French and Russian. French is harder to grow but it has more flavour than the Russian. It has a distinctive flavour and shiny, narrow leaves. It is widely used in vinegars, soups, stuffing, sauces and salad dressings. Also good with roast meat, poultry dishes and fish.
 

Thyme
This is one of the favourite of the robust herbs and is indispensable to most stocks, sauces, stews and braisings. It should be used in a bouquet garni. The small dark green bushy leaves have a strong flavour, so use with care! Try combining with meat, fish, soups, stews and vegetables.

 

  Verbena
(December - April) Lemon verbena is available commercially and can be used raw to impart a subtle lemon flavour to salads or drinks. Verbena flowers are great garnishes and are available in white and a range of pinks / reds
  Wasabi (Japanese horseradish):
Wasabi stems are used to make the green pungent paste which is served in dishes like sushi and sashimi (raw fish). It is usually served in partnership with soy sauce and is considered essential in Japanese cuisine. The finely chopped leaves and stem are also commonly used in Japanese preserves. The taste of wasabi is similar to normal horseradish. Wasabi is grown in fresh water streams with heart-shaped leaves measuring 3 - 4 cm across when mature.