Kitchen Basics: Fresh Herbs

September 26, 2011

In her bi-weekly column, Kitchen BasicsSusan Pachikara of Cardamom Kitchen demystifies essential cooking skills with step-by-step instructions and her own handsome photos. Whether she's showing us how much brown sugar we're meant to "pack"(or is it cram?) into measuring cups or how to detect when our onions are properly caramelized, Susan is the nonna we never had -- until now. Now, go on and get cozy under her wing.

This week, Susan demonstrates that when it comes to fresh herbs, one size does not fit all.

fragile hardy herbs susan pachikara
Fragile herbs like cilantro and parsley (at top) have tender stems, while hardy herbs like thyme, rosemary, and oregano have woody stems (below).

- Susan

Herbs offer home cooks the complexity of fine wine. Low in calories and immensely flavorful, they transform scrambled eggs, green salads, and mashed potatoes from the ordinary to "oh my gawd" exceptional. With the power of a pied piper, they draw us to pesto, tabbouleh, and even mint chocolate chip ice cream.

Types of Herbs

Basil, parsley, love-it-or-hate-it cilantro, and other fragile herbs have delicate leaves and tender stems. Sensitive to heat, they are best eaten raw or added at the end of the cooking process. 

By contrast, rosemary, thyme, and other hardy herbs have thick leaves and woody stems that can withstand prolonged heat. Their raw leaves are rubbery, but become palatable with cooking. Hardy herbs should be chopped before they are cooked or added with their stem intact and removed before serving. 

Fresh vs. Dried Herbs

Fresh herbs have greater complexity than their dried counterparts. Fresh rosemary, for example, has notes of cloves, lavender, nutmeg, and pine, but when dried often loses all but its pine flavor. Opt for fresh herbs whenever possible. If dried herbs are your only option, purchase them in small quantities as they quickly degrade.

fresh versus dried herbs
Rosemary, fresh (at left) and dried.

Guidelines for Prepping Fresh Herbs

Grab a sharp knife (to avoid bruising and crushing your herbs), a cutting board, and a few sheets of paper towel, and follow these simple steps:

Wash herbs and pat them dry with a paper towel.

washing herbs

To chop fragile herbs, like parsley and cilantro: 

Remove the leaves from the stem (this step is optional when prepping cilantro). Pinch the base of your knife. With your other hand, wad up the loose leaves. Slice through the leaves. 

chopping parsley

Hold the knife over the sliced leaves. Place your other hand on the back of the knife and rock it back and forth over the leaves.

chopping parsley fine

To chop hardy herbs, like rosemary, thyme, oregano, and marjoram:

Remove the leaves from the woody stem. With one hand, hold the knife pinching the base. Place the other hand on the back of the knife and rock the knife back and forth over the leaves.

chopping rosemary chopping rosemary fine

To shred or finely cut (chiffonade) basil or mint:

Remove the leaves from the stems and stack five or six leaves in a pile. Roll the leaves lengthwise into a tight cylinder, then hold the tip of the cylinder with one hand and slice it into thin strips with the knife.

chiffonade basil

All photos by Susan Pachikara.

I’d love to hear about your adventures with herbs! Do you have tips or interesting techniques? Share them with your fellow cooks in the comments section below.

Are you new to cooking? Tell me what skills you'd like to learn and your idea could be featured in an upcoming post!

Want more basic tips from Susan? Check out her previous post: Kitchen Basics: Garlic.

Susan writes the blog Cardamom Kitchen to share her culinary experiences as an Indian-American rooted in the Midwest. 

susan cardamom kitchen

28 Comments Add a Comment
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    carolw says: Great advice on the fresh herbs! I just used a recipe that told me to "chiffonade" the basil and I didn't know how. So glad I'll do it right next time. Regarding dried rosemary, I have crushed it with mortar and pestle. What do you think of that method?

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
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    Susan_P says: Thanks for your comment, Carol. That method is fine with most dry herbs.

    over 2 years ago
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    ThymeOut says: Susan p - another great article, which I learned a ton about cooking. All my cook books skip over these facts! They are great to know. I learned new things, and I found out (finally!) why we do the things experts say we are suppose to do!

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
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    seamars43@earthlink.net says: Great info re herbs and beautiful pics. I love basil but how to preserve it? It deteriorates so quickly. Sally M.

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
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    Susan_P says: Basil can't hack the cold so you don't want to refrigerate it. Instead, treat it like you would freshly cut flowers. Snip the ends and place them in a vase with water.

    over 2 years ago
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    ThymeOut says: I just put a bunch of farmers market beautiful basil in a vase with water in the refrigerator. The next day, it was black and shriveled, and I couldn't figure it out. Now I know! Thank you, Susan P!!!

    over 2 years ago
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    rpplsrpplsr says: This information on the herbs is excellent. As someone who loves to grow some of the herbs such as mint, cilantro, oregano, and thyme, it is great to understand the differences among the herbs in cutting and using. Being a novice in growing verious herbs, is it possible to except them to grow year round or are they seasonal?

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
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    Susan_P says: This is a great question. I know more about cooking with herbs than raising them. My guess is that they're seasonal, though I have had friends that managed to grow basil indoors year-round.

    over 2 years ago
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    Mary C says: Susan, Good information about herbs! "If dried herbs are your only option, purchase them in small quantities as they quickly degrade" is something important to know. To keep cilantro fresh for a longer time,I keep it in water, in a wide mouth bottle(like you keep flowers in a vase) in the fridge. Make sure the bottle is wide and will not tip and spill the water all over the fridge.

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
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    realgardner says: Great article. I struggle with fresh thyme. The woody stem and small leaves. I love using fresh Thyme, especialy when I can toss it in whole. Removing the leaves and chopping is something else. Any tips?

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
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    Susan_P says: To remove the leaves, hold the tip of the spring with one hand. With your other hand, run your fingers in the opposite direction (toward the bottom of the stem). When you chop thyme, you should have enough leaves to form a little mound otherwise the leaves move around and are hard to chop. Once you've got enough leaves, run you knife over the mound as you would to chop rosemary. (See picture above). You can also opt to throw the leaves in whole as they're small and soften when cooked.

    over 2 years ago
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    Nathaniel02 says: As a city dweller, what's the best way to find fresh herbs? I've only seen them in glass or plastic bottles/jars in the spice aisle.

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
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    Susan_P says: Fresh herbs can be found in the produce section of grocery stores. Fragile herbs, like parsley and cilantro, are typically sold uncovered in bunches. Rosemary, thyme and other herbs with woody stems are stored in plastic containers.

    over 2 years ago
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    Maria42 says: This is probably a really dumb question, but I never know what herbs go well together taste-wise. Are certain combinations better suited than others -- or is it all just up to a personal preference?

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
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    Susan_P says: Great question, Maria. Some herbs pair well, others clash. So start with combinations that are common in your favorite ethnic foods. For a more thorough take on the topic, check out The Flavor Bible. It's a remarkable book that lists ingredients A to Z (including herbs) and identifies which ingredients pair well together.

    over 2 years ago
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    Susan_P says: The first thing that comes to mind is pesto. It calls for lots of basil and you can freeze it. You can also chop basil in a food processor with olive oil and freeze it in a plastic bag or airtight container. (Toss it into recipes when you're knee-deep in snow). I've heard that the ice tray method works, but I've never used it.

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
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    New_Yorka says: Thanks for the chopping techniques! Spending part of my childhood in a Puerto Rican Kitchen, one of the things that I learned to do was to chop herbs with garlic and store them in oil and put them in everything (rice, beans, soups, stews, even seasoning for roasted chicken). I generally just throw in whatever I feel like having and it comes out, but I've definitely been chopping wrong :-). Susan, do you ever create seasonings like this? If so, recipes would be appreciated.

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
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    Susan_P says: I'm glad to hear this is helpful. I'd play around with flavors from your favorite ethnic cuisines. If you like Italian food, blend basil and parley. A fan of Indian food? Combine cilantro and mint.

    over 2 years ago
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    New_Yorka says: I AM a fan of Indian Food. Cilantro and Mint sounds amazing...cannot believe I've never thought of that!

    over 2 years ago
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    freshfig says: Gorgeous photos and helpful (as always) tips. Thanks!

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
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    mjax says: If a recipe calls, say, for a teaspoon of dried thyme, how much of fresh thyme should I use for the same effect ?

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
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    Susan_P says: Great question. The general rule is 1:3. So for a teaspoon of dried thyme you should substitute 3 teaspoons of fresh thyme (which is equivalent to a tablespoon). If, on the other hand, you're substituting dry herbs for fresh, be sure to smell the herb to assess its potency. If it smells faint, you'll need to add more than the conversion requires. Another trick: rubbing dry herbs between your fingers can help to release their flavors.

    over 2 years ago
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    Annette says: I learned a new term and a new technique! The next time I use fresh basil in a salad, I'll chiffonade it. Fresh herbs can be expensive to buy. I'd be interested in reading a column with tips on growing herbs at home.

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
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    realgardner says: I would also love to see an article on growing fresh herbs in the kitchen. I tried bringing in my rosemary but failed.

    over 2 years ago
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    415Rani says: Susan, As someone who finds cooking daunting (and has largely ceded the responsibility of getting daily food on the table to my husband, who enjoys cooking immensely and finds it relaxing), your explanations and instructions feel totally approachable. I particularly love your photos - just beautiful -- I can practically smell the aromas and feel the textures of the food items here at my desk. Thank you - I feel inspired to get back into the kitchen and look forward to your further insights!

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
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    Amy4 says: I have basil coming out my ears, what do I do with all of it? I've thought about freezing the fresh chopped basil in ice trays, do you think it will work?

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
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    Susan_P says: If you freeze it in a plastic bag, make a thin layer so you can break of a piece when you need it.

    over 2 years ago
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    ThymeOut says: I have frozen pesto flat in a plastic bag like Susan recommended, and it worked out great, breaking it off in pieces when I need it. I also started making my son baby food and freezing it in ice tray cubes (old plastic kind and silicon trays). You have to wait until it is completely frozen (1 day) before you take it out and put it into a labeled freezer bag.

    over 2 years ago

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