The Ultimate Guide to Fresh Herbs
Herbs can magically flavor up dishes without resorting to loads of salt, butter, and cheese. Adding a little green to a meal not only makes it prettier and tastier, but can pack some awesome health benefits, too.
And while those 5-year-old dried and bottled versions are convenient, it’s worth it to splurge on the fresh stuff every once in a while (or grow your own at home)! While adding herbs — dried or fresh — to any dish can add healthy vitamins and antioxidants, they may lose nutritional value during the drying process, so stick with fresh if available . Read on to find out how to use some of the most popular herbs in their fresh state, and how to store them for later use.
Store Fresh Rinse herbs with cool water to remove dirt, gently shake off excess moisture, and pat dry with paper towels or a clean dishcloth. Find a medium-sized jar and fill with a few inches of water. Trim the ends of the herb stems so that the bunch fits with the leaves above the jar’s edge. Leave them on the counter, or store in the refrigerator, covered loosely with a plastic bag.
Mincing Made Easy A microplane mill allows users to mince herbs quickly without bruising them or making a big mess. Not a fan of kitchen gadgets? Get yourself a sharp knife, and dry those fresh herbs very well. For best chopability, make sure to pat herbs dry with a clean dishtowel or paper towels before they hit the blade.
Grow Your Own Try growing your own herbs in an indoor herb garden or use a few small planters and an empty windowsill. Then you’ll have a fresh, healthy way to give flavor to dishes right at your fingertips.
Air Dry While we often prefer fresh herbs, sometimes they can quickly rack up a grocery bill. Try buying in bulk, and drying them yourself for later use. Secure stems with twine or a rubber band and hang them upside down in a warm, dry place that’s away from direct sunlight. Pop a paper bag over the herbs to prevent them from getting dusty.
Let’s Talk Herbs
Thyme to get herby fully loaded! If you don’t hate us too much after the herb puns, then read on for descriptions of some of the most common herbs, what they taste like, and how to use them.
Basil comes in green and purple varieties, but the green one is probably what we’re most used to. Add the fresh leaves at the end of cooking for max flavor (and to preserve greenness — they turn brown if exposed to heat for too long!). Added Bonus: Basil is believed to have anti-inflammatory properties from its oil eugenol, which can block enzymes in the body that cause swelling . Since the leaves are easily bruised, try using fresh basil whole or tearing it gently with your hands.
Taste: Minty and slightly peppery, with a touch of sweetness
Perfect for: Sauces, sandwiches, homemade pizza Greatist Recipe Pick: Two cups of fresh basil leaves make this Fresh Pesto and Cheese Pizza something special. For dessert, try this lemon-basil sorbet.
There are two types of bay leaf — Mediterranean and Californian. The Mediterranean is milder in flavor. Bay leaves are usually used dry to reduce some of their bitterness. Commonly used in classic chicken soup, some compounds in bay leaves may help relieve upset stomachs .
Taste: Woody, sweet, citrusy, nutty
Perfect For: Soups, stews, and sautéed dishes.
Greatist Recipe Pick: Pop a leaf into this colorful beet and chickpea salad, but don’t forget to remove it before serving!
(Photo: Eva the Weaver)
This herb, which looks a lot like the grass in your front lawn, is filled with antioxidants, vitamins A and C, and phytochemicals (which have antioxidant-like benefits)  . Easy chive-chopping tip: Try snipping with a sharp set of kitchen shears.
Taste: Light oniony flavor
Perfect For: Cutting down the heaviness of rich foods like cream sauces and risotto.
Greatist Recipe Pick: Chop n’ top a healthier loaded potato with a dollop of plain Greek yogurt (our favorite sour cream stand-in), or use to season baked “fake potato” wedges.
Cilantro has got a distinct flavor that you’ll either love or despise. The green herb that’s sometimes confused with parsley has high concentrations of carotenoids, which are a good source of vitamin A . Cilantro is multifaceted — its dried seeds are called coriander, which is often used for pickling and in curries.
Taste: Bright, and citrusy. Some say it can taste a little soapy.
Perfect For: Salsa, chutneys, guacamole, and Mexican dishes.
Greatist Recipe Pick: Add to peachy pan-seared fish tacos.
Known as the classic flavoring for pickles (and as Tommy’s younger brother on Rugrats), dill is a wispy little herb traditionally used to treat insomnia. Dill may also help protect against age-related cognitive impairment . It’s also a staple to flavor classic chicken noodle soup.
Taste: Sweet, grassy
Perfect For: Pickling, fish dishes, and dressings
Greatist Recipe Pick: Combine dill with avocado and Greek yogurt as a light tangy topping for fish, or transform boring eggs in these dill and red pepper scramble.
Essential in Thai cooking, studies suggest that lemongrass can have anti-inflammatory powers that reduce swelling and help with fluid balance in the body (at least in rats) . Lemongrass is used to season dishes from pad thai to curry. When cooking with the stalks, make sure to remove and discard off the bulb (the rounded white part at the bottom) and remove the tough, outer leaves.
Taste: zesty, slightly spicy, lemon flavor
Perfect For: Curry, Asian soups, scented rice, marinades
Greatist Recipe Pick: Use three stalks of fresh lemongrass in this ginger chicken dish.
This herb is often mistaken for its close cousin oregano because of their similarly shaped oval leaves. The major difference? Marjoram is a tad sweeter. The herb is also said to help alleviate stomach pain, insomnia, and a lack of appetite.
Taste: Grassy, lemony, slightly sweet
Perfect For: Flavoring meats and poultry, as well as stuffing.
Greatist Recipe Pick: We like to use marjoram in this cauliflower crust pizza.
Mint comes in many varieties, but the two most common are peppermint and spearmint. Spearmint is lighter, sweeter, and more palatable, while peppermint has a stronger bite from the menthol in its leaves. These bright green little leaves can aid digestion, and mint tea has been known to soothe hangovers  .
Taste: Refreshing, cool
Perfect For: Mojitos, paired with lamb, or combined with chocolate (peppermint patty, anyone?)!
Greatist Recipe Pick: Try it in this lentil tabbouleh.
This herb usually falls into two categories: Mexican and Mediterranean. They're similar, but Mexican oregano may taste more citrusy than the sweet, peppery Mediterranean variety. Oregano is a source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for heart health. Oregano may also help combat some types of cancer cells (though what we add to dinner will likely have a minimal effect) .
Taste: Lemony, minty, peppery (depending on type)
Perfect For: Seasoning pizza crusts and pasta dishes, as well as homemade dressings and poultry rubs.
Greatist Recipe Pick: Add fresh oregano to this five-ingredient veggie-packed quinoa.
This powerful little green gets some brain-boosting clout from quercetin, a chemical found in the herb that helps protect brain cells from free radical damage . Added bonus: Parsley’s polyphenols and carotenoids may help protect skin from sun damage. Find it in curly or flat-leafed varieties.
Taste: Grassy, mild, slightly peppery (flat-leaf only)
Perfect For: Pasta dishes, eggs, fish and meat
Greatist Recipe Pick: Top Mexican-style sweet potatoes with some fresh parsley, or use a bunch on top of this fig and onion flatbread pizza.
This needle-y herb is often used in mashed potatoes or infused in oil. When using it at home, make sure to strip the needles from the woody stems before chopping and adding to recipes. Rosemary is rich in carnosic acid, an antioxidant that may help limit weight gain and improve cholesterol levels .
Taste: Like pine, faintly lemony
Perfect For: Potatoes or poultry dishes
Greatist Picks: Add a punch of flavor to quinoa and veggie stuffed mushrooms or an adult beverage like rosemary-cucumber lemonade.
Behind it’s soft, fuzzy leaves, sage hides hordes of antioxidants, including flavonoids and phenolic acids, which can help lower risk for cardiovascular disease  . Sage is also on our list of foods that fight pain!
Taste: slightly peppery, faintly minty
Perfect For: Brussels sprouts, anything using brown butter, roasted squash, rich or creamy dishes, sausage
Greatist Recipe Pick: Use these in goat cheese quesadillas.
Often paired with chicken or eggs, this long-leafed herb has a distinct licorice-like flavor. The ancient Greeks chewed on tarragon to treat toothaches. It’s also been touted as a digestive aid and may help those with diabetes by reducing blood sugar .
Taste: like licorice or fennel, sweet
Perfect For: French cooking, béarnaise sauce, chicken, fish, and egg dishes
Greatist Recipe Pick: Use tarragon to whip up homemade green goddess dressing, or in this tomato and peach gazpacho.
(Photo: Kathleen Farley)
This tiny-leaved herb’s most often used in French cooking. Make sure to strip the leaves from the woody stems before adding them to recipes (unless it’s used to flavor a roast or soup and then removed before serving!). Run the back of a knife along the stems (the opposite direction of growth) to easily remove the leaves. Added bonus: Thyme is known for its antioxidant content .
Taste: Lemony, slightly peppery and minty
Perfect For: Stews, rice dishes, dips, and sauces
Greatist Recipe Pick: Use a few sprigs in these healthier mashed “potatoes” or as a major player in this cranberry-orange sauce.
What are your favorite herbs to cook with? How do you use fresh herbs? Let us know in the comment section below or tweet the author @nicmcdermott.
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