There’s scarcely a dish out there that won’t benefit from the use of fresh herbs, one of the easiest ways to build flavor while cooking and add a smattering of color just before serving.
Lucky for us, spring is about to make its entrance — which means fresh herbs will show up en masse at the farmers market. Here’s a quick overview of the ones you’re most likely to see out there now.
You’ll find parsley in either the curly or flat-leaf (Italian) varieties. Both have a clean, peppery bite that helps to cut through heavy creaminess and can really brighten up starchy dishes, though flat-leaf parsley is a bit easier to chop and work with. Widely used in the Middle East, Europe and the US, parsley is a central ingredient in tabbouleh and sauce verte/salsa verde, and it makes a tasty twist subbed for some or all of the basil in pesto. A sprinkling of chopped parsley is a classic way to finish many dishes, and you can use the stems to build flavor in homemade stocks and soups.
Fresh cilantro looks a lot like flat-leaf parsley, except its leaves are flatter and more delicate and the stems are thinner. Cilantro is used most commonly in the cuisines of Mexico, North Africa, India and Southeast Asia, but in the US, you’ll find it sprinkled over more and more varying types of dishes.
Fun fact: Some unlucky folks have a gene that causes cilantro to smell and taste like soap. So while they usually run screaming from the herb and ask to have it left out of their dishes, the rest of us might describe cilantro’s flavor as grassy and slightly citrusy, and we get to enjoy it tossed liberally over salads, rice, beans, grilled veggies, stir-frys, tagines, steaming bowls of pho, or stuffed into bánh mì, tacos and whatever else strikes our fancy. [Ed. note: mac ‘n cheese + sriracha + piles of fresh cilantro = heaven.]
Dill, or dill weed, has fine, thin leaves that resemble fennel fronds or even ferns, and a light, bright flavor that can be described as grassy and clean or even earthy. Popular throughout the cuisines of Europe, the Middle East and Russia, it pairs well with most seafood and can brighten up vegetables, salads and light or creamy pasta or rice dishes. Try mixing it with plain Greek yogurt, minced garlic and lemon juice for a simple sauce to accompany grilled chicken or fish. Dill is also a crucial component of most pickling brines.
A cousin of the onion, chives taste a bit like very mild scallions and look like thin, wispy blades of grass. They’re a wonderful garnish over seafood, chicken, beef, roasted vegetables, salads, hearty soups, eggs, potatoes and basically anything you think could benefit from mild oniony notes.
Aside from being the name of one of our favorite cookware collections, rosemary has a bold, pine-like aroma and flavor that pairs well with pork, lamb, beef, potatoes and mushrooms. When cooking with rosemary, you’ll most likely remove the leaves from the stem, but you can use whole sprigs for extra flavor — just discard the woody stems before serving. It’s also tasty in soups and stews, baked into breads and crackers or even infused into olive oil.
Chervil looks a bit like parsley or cilantro, with a mild, anise-like flavor. Sometimes called French parsley, it’s popular in French cuisine, where you’ll find it in Béarnaise sauce and in springtime dishes with asparagus, leeks, baby potatoes, carrots, fresh fish, or eggs, or mixed into green salad blends. Try sprinkling it, either with other herbs or on its own, over any dish you’d normally finish with a little fresh parsley.
So now you have herbs. How do you keep them fresh?
First off, get them out of those little plastic boxes they came in, if you weren’t lucky enough to find them in unboxed bunches. It’s also a good idea to hold off on rinsing your fresh herbs until just before using them. This will help ensure they stay perky for as long as possible.
To store flat-leafed herbs like cilantro, parsley and chervil, treat them like you would a bouquet of flowers. Remove any bands or ties that are holding the bunches together and snip the stems. Place the bunch in a glass jar filled with an inch or two of water (enough to barely cover the tips of the stems), and then loosely cover them with plastic bags. Herbs can be stored like this in the refrigerator for about two weeks — just change the water every day or so.
To store herbs like chives, thyme, dill or rosemary, loosely wrap them with a damp paper towel, and then loosely wrap them again with plastic wrap, and keep them in a warmer part of your refrigerator (usually the door). They’ll keep this way for at least a week.
Herbs can also be frozen in ice cube trays. Just finely chop or purée them, then fill the trays with the herbs and a little bit of water (just enough so that a cube will form). When you’re ready to use them, just drop a cube or two into your pan as you cook.
You’ll want to discard fresh herbs when they start to discolor — look for yellowed or brown leaves and brown spots on the stems.
What about handy tools for fresh herbs?
Herbs can be finely chopped with a chef’s knife or santoku, but sometimes it’s quicker to simply snip what you need directly over your dish with shears.
Mincers and mills
If you’re working through a big pile of herbs, a mincer or mill can come in handy. With just a few twists or rolls, you’re ready to go!
To cook with herbs like rosemary and thyme, you’ll often need to pluck the leaves from the woody stems. You can do this with your fingers pretty quickly, but an herb stripper works even more quickly and usually has a handy container for collecting the leaves.
Handy pods allow you to keep your fresh herbs in the fridge in a setup that’s a bit more high-tech than a glass jar. If you want to freeze your herbs, dedicated freezing tools are great ways to free up your ice cube trays and remind yourself that the herbs are in there!
So what are your favorite ways to use fresh herbs? And by the way — is that h silent or what?? Let us know!