Herbs add depth and complexity to dishes. From brightening a fresh salad to adding earthiness to a hearty winter meal, when used properly herbs can be the difference between a good entree and an unforgettable meal.
We've compiled a dozen essential culinary herbs that everyone who cooks, whether a culinary student or professional chef, should know.
This staple of Italian cuisine comes in two distinct varieties, sweet basil and Asian basil. Sweet basil pairs beautifully with tomatoes and Mediterranean flavors. Whether used fresh with tomatoes and mozzarella cheese to make a caprese salad, pureed with pinenuts to create pesto, or used to bring brightness to meat or seafood dishes, sweet basil is a staple of Western cuisine. The aroma and flavor or Asian basil is closer to anise than that of sweet basil. As a result, Asian basil is ideal for curry pastes or savory stews.
A delicate herb that often gets passed over in favor of parsley or tarragon, chervil should not be overlooked. Perfectly scrambled eggs topped with chervil are a great way to highlight this mild, spring herb. Chervil is great addition to salad dressings, especially when used in conjunction with parsley, tarragon, and chives to makefines herbes. If you cook chervil, add it at the end of cooking to preserve its light flavor.
Most commonly known as a milder alternative to onion, chives can be added raw at the last minute to nearly any savory dish. Chives are bright green with hints of garlic alongside its delicate onion flavor. Often paired with potatoes, salad, omelettes, and dairy, chives complement other light flavored herbs such as parsley and chervil.
The flavor of cilantro, which is also known as coriander in certain parts of the world, may be the most divisive herb in the culinary world. Popular in a range of cultural cooking, especially Asian and Latin cooking, cilantro has a refreshing, citrus flavor. A small percentage of people describe cilantro as soapy. Recent studies have shown "the prevalence of cilantro dislike differs widely between various ethnocultural groups," and suggest the possibility of a genetic cause for this dislike. Regardless of the number of people who cannot stand cilantro, it remains a staple in many cuisines and is most often used raw.
Dill's distinctive airy fronds have a light, anise flavor that pairs well with delicate proteins. Dill complements almost any seafood and is popular to use in sauces, pickling, and vegetables.
Mint is one of the rare herbs that is versatile enough to be used with equal success in sweet and savory dishes. Whether paired with chocolate to cut the rich flavor or to add an element of coolness to a spicy curry, mint's distinctive flavor shines through. Mint is also popular in many beverages, from teas to juleps.
The pungent, earthy flavor of oregano is a staple in Mexican and Mediterranean cooking. Oregano is one of the few herbs that can complement a rich lamb entree as well as more delicate dishes such as fish or bread. The flavor of oregano becomes more concentrated, as it dries. As a result, the substitution ratio for fresh to dried oregano should be 2:1 to avoid overpowering the dish. .
While often added as the final touch to a dish, parsley is more than a beautiful garnish. The flavor of parsley is light in comparison to many other herbs, but it's peppery bite enhances and complements other flavors without overwhelming them.
The strong, pungent flavor of rosemary is hearty enough to withstand long cooking times, making it ideal for stews, soups, and large proteins such as pork loin or leg of lamb. It is important to note that due its woodsy stems and spiked leaves, you may want to remove rosemary from the dish before serving.
Sage is an fragrant, evergreen herb with a strong, earthy flavor. It pairs well with sausage, poultry, and the distinctive flavor it adds to holiday stuffing. As an evergreen herb, sage can be overpowering. Using fresh sage and adding it near the end of cooking will keep the flavor light, while using dried sage or adding fresh sage at the beginning of cooking will give the dish a more robust flavor.
A staple of French cooking, tarragon is a key ingredient in the fines herbes blend. Tarragon pairs famously with chicken, but also complements the delicate flavors of poached fish, mushrooms, and vegetables.
A versatile herb, common in North American and Northern European cooking, thyme can be added to nearly any meat or seafood. Due to its subtle flavor, thyme is often used in conjunction with other herbs to add complexity.
While the protein of an entree is often considered the main event, the success of dish lies within the supporting flavors. The savory and aromatic attributes of herbs have the potential to change the entire characteristic of dish. Knowing how to use herbs, especially fresh herbs, is a great way to elevate your cooking.