Essentials: Herb Guide

Herbs can elevate a dish from simple to sublime. For the best flavor and refreshing lightness try using fresh herbs instead of dried.

Herbs 101

Fresh herbs add a burst of flavor and color to whatever's on the menu.

Using Fresh Herbs

Herbs can either dominate a dish (imagine tomato, basil, mozzarella salad sans basil or a cilantro-free salsa), or they can infuse salads, apps and entrées with subtle but serious flavor. Some herbs are more potent than others, so taste a pinch before tossing it into a recipe.

Delicate herbs like basil, parsley, chives, dill and coriander are usually chopped, snipped or torn and often get added late in the game to maximize their effect. Hearty herbs like thyme, oregano and rosemary can be added earlier so the flavors can settle. Don't hold back: These are the herbs you add by the stem and remove before serving.

Dried vs. Fresh

Basically, dried herbs are more intense than fresh herbs, but they have a less-refined flavor and a shorter shelf life. When substituting dried for fresh, use about 1/3 the amount to balance the potency. Store dried herbs in an airtight container, always in a dim and dry place, and check freshness by crushing the leaves and smelling the aroma. Dried leaves should be green, not gray or faded.

Selecting Herbs

The good news: You can grow your own. Small flowerpots or window boxes work just fine and supply pretty much all the herbs you need for basic cooking. When buying at the store or farmers' market, choose herbs that look vibrant and smell fragrant. Avoid any with black marks, and try to sample a bit before you buy.

Washing Herbs

Some herbs — like basil, parsley and cilantro — can get a little gritty and sandy. Fill a bowl with cool water and stir the herb in it until all the sand sinks to the bottom. Repeat a few times.

Storing Herbs

Store herbs in a cup of water in the fridge (or on a cool, dry part of the counter), or wrap them in a damp paper towel and store in a loosely opened plastic bag in the fridge. Either way, make sure the herbs stay slightly damp.


This licorice-like herb is equally at home in a Thai coconut curry, an Italian pesto or a Provencal soup. Dried basil is a far cry from fresh, so consider freezing and thawing fresh leaves. Try this: Blend basil with olive oil and store cubes in the freezer for a later date.

Bay Leaf

Bay leaf is a classic supporting player — you might not notice it, but you'd definitely miss it if it weren't there. Longer, narrower California bay leaves are more pungent than Turkish ones, so know what you have before following a recipe. Fresh bay leaves, which are more flavorful than dried, are easier to find these days.


Chives are like onions but with less bite. Snip them and sprinkle as a garnish or place them elegantly across a plate. Chives are delicate, so add them at the very end of your recipe for maximum color and flavor. Purple chive blossoms, which are nice and pungent, make a great salad topping.


Cilantro is popular all over the world, particularly in Asia and Latin America, and some people are pretty passionate about it. Cilantro stems, which are slightly sweet, can be used along with the leaves, and the roots can be used for Thai curry pastes.


Dill's feathery leaves bring a light, licorice edge to seafood, soups, salads and heaps of other dishes. Used in borscht or paired with smoked salmon, dill is usually added at the very last minute.


Not just for desserts, mint lends its cooling, peppery bite to lots of savory dishes, particularly Middle Eastern and North African ones. Perfect for salads or sauces, leftover fresh mint can also be used to brew homemade tea.


This pungent herb used in Mediterranean and Mexican cooking is one of the few that taste just as good dried as fresh. Use dried oregano for longer stewing or dry rubs, but remember to use about half as much dried oregano as you would fresh, since the flavor is so intense. Oregano can also be used as a substitute for marjoram.


Choose flat-leaf or Italian parsley when you can (curly-leafed parsley is best as a garnish); dried parsley lacks both flavor and color, so stick with fresh. Like basil, this herb gets sandy. Soak it in cool water until it's clean. Then, dry it completely by squeezing in a paper towel — damp parsley tends to lose that green sparkle.


Rosemary is a tough, woody herb with a sharp, vibrant flavor. Its spiky leaves can be used fresh or dried for soups, meats, stews and sauces. Because it's so pungent, add rosemary sparingly at first. Fresh rosemary can be refrigerated for about a week, either in a plastic bag or a glass of water.


Check your pantry. You may already have an ancient container of dried sage that gets pulled out every year at Thanksgiving. But this delicious herb has so many other uses, particularly in dishes with pork, beans, potatoes and cheese, not to mention the classic sage and brown-butter sauce. Its flavor can be overwhelming — particularly dried sage — so start small and go from there.


Unless you're a French chef, you may only know tarragon from dried herb mixes. Experimenting with this anise-like herb in classic French favorites like béarnaise sauce, creamy tarragon chicken or fresh vinaigrette is a great way to learn how this herb boosts flavor without overpowering a dish. Store tarragon the same way you would dill.


A mainstay in American and European cooking, this strong herb works with any kind of meat, poultry, fish or vegetable. Using fresh thyme, run your fingers along the woody stem to peel off the leaves. Bits of the stem may break off with the leaves — particularly with younger thyme — but this is not a big deal. Thyme can be refrigerated for about a week, wrapped in a damp paper towel and stored in a plastic bag.

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