Take Your Tastebuds on a Journey with Herbs for Cooking
Herbs have been used to add depth of flavor, aroma, and visual appeal to dishes since ancient times. But not all herbs complement all cuisines. Certain herbs provide the signature notes that define the flavors associated with Italian, Mexican, Thai, Indian, Chinese, and other ethnic cooking styles. Read on to discover how to use versatile herbs to take your tastebuds on a global flavor journey!
- Herbs like basil, oregano, cilantro define signature flavors of Italian, Mexican, and Thai cuisines.
- Classics like pesto, chimichurri, and salsa verde rely on herbs to provide standout flavor.
- Lemon balm, mint, and chili peppers represent citrusy, minty, and spicy flavor profiles.
- Growing a windowsill herb garden ensures fresh herbs to elevate home cooking.
- When possible, use fresh herbs instead of dried to maximize the flavor impact.
What Are Herbs to Cook?
Herbs are aromatic plants used to provide flavor, color, aroma, and zest to both savory and sweet dishes. They are different from spices in that herbs come from the leafy, green parts of plants – either fresh or dried. Popular herbs include basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, cilantro, parsley, sage, mint, and dill.
Herbs contain unique combinations of phytonutrients, antioxidants, and essential oils that deliver health benefits along with infusing recipes with sensory appeal. When harvested at the peak of flavor, which is just before flowering, herbs offer the perfect way to turn any dish into a culinary delight.
Why Are Culinary Herbs Important in Cooking?
Herbs offer a world of benefits to transform ordinary cooking into extraordinary cuisine:
- Provide signature flavors that define regional and ethnic cuisine styles
- Allow cooks to layer and build complex flavor profiles
- Offer versatility to complement meats, seafood, vegetables, grains, and more
- Contribute visual vibrancy with greens, purples, reds and other colors
- Deliver antioxidants and nutrition along with taste
- Allow cooks to reduce salt and fat while boosting flavor impact
- Offer convenience and intensity through dried herb options
- Make recipes shine with optimal flavor when harvested at peak freshness
Whether providing minty zest to a fruit salad, transporting tastes to the Mediterranean with basil pesto, or sparking up salsa with a fresh cilantro kick, herbs put palates on a global flavor tour in each bite.
What Are Different Types of Cooking Herbs?
Herbs offer diversity, ranging from floral, lemony, warming, peppery, minty, anise, and earthy flavors. Popular culinary herb categories include:
- Soft, leafy herbs – Basil, mint, parsley, cilantro, chives
- Heartier herbs – Rosemary, thyme, oregano, marjoram, sage
- Edible flowers – Chive blossoms, lavender, nasturtium, pansies
- Citrusy herbs – Lemon balm, lemon verbena
- Savory herbs – Chervil, tarragon, lavender
- Spicy herbs – Cumin, chili peppers, mustard, horseradish
In addition, some herbs can lend a slight sweetness, like stevia, mint, and fennel. Herbs also range from rapid growing annuals (basil) to hardy perennials (thyme). This diversity allows cooks to create infinite flavor combinations.
How to Choose and Store Herbs
Follow these tips for selecting and storing herbs:
- For fresh herbs, look for vibrant colors and perky, unwilted leaves. Avoid brown spots.
- When possible, choose herbs sold with roots attached for extended freshness.
- Wrap herbs loosely in damp paper towels, or stand stem-ends in water in the refrigerator. Most fresh herbs keep for 3-7 days.
- To dry herbs, hang herb bundles or spread leaves on a drying rack out of direct light. Store dried herbs in airtight containers for up to a year.
- Frozen herbs maintain more color and flavor than drying. Blanch leaves first, then freeze in ice cube trays with olive oil or broth for easy use.
- Store dried herbs in a cool, dark place. Heat and light degrade flavor.
Proper post-harvest handling maximizes the flavor, color, and nutrition of herbs at their peak.
How to Use Herbs in Cooking
Herbs provide maximum impact when thoughtfully incorporated into dishes. Follow these guidelines:
- Add fresh herbs near the end of cooking for best flavor. Dried herbs can handle longer cooking.
- Use herb infused oils and vinegars to quickly punch up flavor in marinades, salad dressings, and sauces.
- Blanch sturdy herbs like rosemary, thyme, or sage in liquids for fuller flavor extraction.
- Finely mince herbs before adding to a dish for thorough distribution.
- Pair herbs based on their regional popularity. For example, use Mediterranean herbs like oregano, basil and parsley in Italian cooking.
- Start with smaller amounts of strong herbs like rosemary and work up to the desired intensity.
With their diversity and versatility, herbs let cooks become flavor explorers, continually discovering new taste frontiers. Now that you understand the foundations for choosing and using herbs, it’s time to look at popular herbs that define global cuisine styles and dishes.
Herbs for Specific Cuisines
The herbs used in different world cuisines provide signature notes that make the flavors immediately recognizable. Learning which herbs pair with which ethnic cooking styles allows home cooks to infuse cultural flavor into everyday meals.
While we’ve only scratched the surface of signature herbs used in various global cuisines here, I have written extensive individual guides exploring the intricate flavor profiles of the different cuisine herb art of cooking. You can discover more about building authentic and balanced flavors in each of these beloved cuisines by browsing our wide selection of articles through the below links. We dive deep into the usage of various herbs and how to cook what define and distinguish these regional styles.
Transport your cooking to the vibrant flavors of Italy with these foundational herbs:
Basil – The king of herbs in Italian cuisine. Its sweet, peppery flavor shines in pesto, marinara sauce, Caprese salad, and pizzas. Pairs perfectly with tomatoes, garlic, mozzarella, and olive oil.
Oregano – The distinctly aromatic, earthy flavor of oregano makes it a perfect match for Italian dishes like pasta sauce, eggplant Parmesan, roasted vegetables, meatballs, and pizza.
Rosemary – The pine-like flavor of rosemary complements roasted meats, mushrooms, focaccia bread, tomato sauce, and olive oil. It pairs especially well with chicken, pork, and lamb.
Thyme – Offers a woodsy, slightly minty flavor. Use thyme with roasted meats and vegetables, pasta sauces, risottos, and bean dishes for flavor depth.
Parsley – The mild, fresh taste of Italian flat leaf parsley brightens up pasta, sauces, salads, roasted vegetables, fish dishes, and more as a flavorful garnish.
Sage – Earthy, musty notes pair wonderfully with hearty fall and winter dishes like butternut squash ravioli, mushroom risotto, osso buco, roast pork, and pumpkin gnocchi.
These flavor powerhouses define the taste of Southwestern and Mexican fare:
Cilantro – The pungent, citrusy taste of cilantro is essential in salsas, guacamole, tacos al pastor, and chimichurri sauce. Cooling and refreshing.
Cumin – A key spice, cumin teamed with oregano gives a trademark flavor to chili con carne, enchiladas, tacos seasons, and rice dishes. Toasty and earthy.
Oregano – Echoing its role in Italian cuisine, oregano provides a savory, slightly peppery background flavor to beans, salsas, chili, and meat dishes like carne asada.
Epazote – This pungent, potent herb is used in small amounts. Its minty, licorice-like flavor cuts the richness in dishes like black bean soup, quesadillas, tamales, and moles.
Thai cuisine derives its signature fragrance and flavor from these herbs:
Lemongrass – The superstar herb of Thai cooking. Lemongrass stalks infuse curries, soups, and marinades with intense lemony aroma. Also used to make tea.
Kaffir lime leaves – The double leaves add an intense lime essence. Use in Thai curries, soups, and noodle dishes. Essential for tom yum soup.
Galangal – Resembling ginger, galangal has a piney kick paired with some citrus notes. It’s used in curries like Thai red and green curry along with soups.
Thai basil – Flavor has a hint of licorice-like anise. Use its purple leaves to finish dishes like pad Thai, curries, stir fries, and spring rolls.
Cilantro – Just as in Mexican cuisine, the cool brightness of cilantro balances the heat in Thai dishes ranging from curry pastes to noodle soups.
Transport your palate to India with these fragrant staple herbs:
Coriander – The seeds are used as a key spice. Fresh coriander leaves lend a cooling counterpoint to curries and are used as a finishing garnish.
Cumin – Another essential spice, cumin adds its toasty, nutty flavor to countless dishes from curries to dals to vegetable dishes. Often dry roasted before use.
Turmeric – Earthy and pungent, turmeric adds its signature golden hue and slight bitterness to curries, rice, meats, lentils, and vegetables. Also used as a dye.
Ginger – Fresh ginger balances the heat from chilies and adds a bright, gingery punch to curries, marinades for meats and vegetables, chutneys, and tea.
Garam masala – This blend of up to 10 ground spices defines the flavor of Indian cuisine. Typical blend includes cumin, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and black pepper.
Fenugreek – Seeds lend a sweet, nutty maple flavor to Indian dishes. Leaves are bitter; used to make some chutneys.
These foundational Chinese herbs and aromatics make cuisine sing:
Star anise – The licorice-like flavor of star anise makes it a signature in dishes like pho, Chinese five spice powder, and braised meat dishes.
Ginger – Fresh ginger is essential for stir fries, noodle dishes, marinades, and teas, adding a bright, warm kick of flavor. Often used in pickled form as well.
Garlic – In addition to flavoring countless dishes, garlic is thought to provide health benefits in Chinese cooking. Pairs well with scallions, ginger and soy sauce.
Scallions – Fresh scallions finish many noodle and rice dishes. The greens are routinely used in stir fries, soups, and as a garnish.
Sesame oil – The nutty, aromatic flavor of sesame oil is perfect for salad dressings, noodle dishes and steaming or stir frying meats and vegetables.
Soy sauce – Chinese cooking employs soy sauce extensively to add a savory, umami richness. Used in marinades, as a table condiment, and to finish fried rice.
Now that you have a global flavor tour of popular cuisine-defining herbs under your belt, it’s time to look at specific dishes that allow herbs to star.
Recreate sun-drenched Mediterranean flavors with herbs like basil, oregano, thyme, parsley, mint, dill, fennel, and saffron. Mediterranean cooking relies on fresh herbs to create its signature flavors.
Oregano – Pungent oregano flavors quintessential Greek dishes like moussaka, dolmas, tzatziki sauce, and spanakopita. Its woodsy notes pair well with tomato sauces and olive oil.
Parsley – Flat leaf Italian parsley brightens up tabbouleh, hummus, salads, grilled meats, and more with its fresh, grassy taste. A flavorful garnish.
Thyme – Adds earthy, lemony flavor to classics like lemon chicken, roasted lamb, Greek salad, and eggplant. Use with tomatoes, olive oil, and feta.
Mint – Cool, refreshing mint punches up tabbouleh, yogurt sauces, lamb tagines, and vegetable sides throughout the Mediterranean.
Fennel – Licorice-like fennel accents Italian risotto, seafood stews, focaccia bread, and sausages with its mild anise flavor.
Saffron – Fragrant saffron infuses iconic Spanish and French dishes like paella, bouillabaisse, and rice pilaf with its signature golden color and flavor.
Basil – Sweet basil stars in summery Mediterranean salads, pesto, herb mixes, and delicious tomato salads with mozzarella.
Herbs for Specific Dishes
Beyond defining entire cuisines, herbs can make or break specific beloved recipes. Their intense flavors distill entire meals into a singular bite. Explore how herbs elevate these classic dishes into flavor celebrations.
This fresh, vivid basil and garlic sauce adds instant summer sunshine to pastas, sandwiches, chicken, fish and vegetables. Pesto’s herb-laced flavor comes from:
- Basil – Sweet, peppery basil is the superstar, providing pesto’s signature green color and flavor. Use more leaves for more prominent flavor.
- Pine nuts – Toasted pine nuts add textural interest and rich, nutty flavor to balance the basil. Walnuts or almonds can substitute.
- Parmesan cheese – Sharp, salty Parmesan provides a savory, umami counterpoint to the basil and garlic. Pecorino Romano is also suitable.
- Garlic – The cloves infuse pesto with a mellow bite. To taste, use more or less garlic.
- Olive oil – Quality extra virgin olive oil provides a smooth base for blending the ingredients. Avoid strong, peppery olive oils.
Simply blend these five pesto basics together to instantly elevate everything from scrambled eggs to fish fillets with sunshine-kissed, herby flavor.
The fresh, verdant flavors of avocado, tomato, onion, and lime get kicked up a notch with the addition of this herb:
- Cilantro – The cool, clean taste of cilantro perfectly offsets the richness of avocado. Its brightness balances the other flavors.
Cilantro’s distinctive flavor comes from the compounds eugenol and decanal. Along with the other guacamole ingredients, cilantro makes this avocado dip addictively delicious.
This vibrant Argentinian sauce adds a flavor packed, herbaceous punch to grilled meats. The lively herbal notes come from:
- Parsley – Fresh flat or curly leaf parsley delivers a grassy, light flavor as the base.
- Oregano – Dried oregano boosts the intensity with its woodsy, pungent notes. Use sparingly to prevent overpowering other ingredients.
- Garlic – Minced garlic provides a little bite to balance the herbs. Use more or less to taste.
- Olive oil – Fruity, grassy extra virgin olive oil provides the rich base to unify the other ingredients.
- Red wine vinegar – The tart acidity of red wine vinegar livens up and brightens the herby flavors.
- Chili flakes – A pinch of red pepper flakes contributes mild heat. Adjust amount to desired spiciness.
This quick, easy sauce punches up the flavor of simply grilled steaks, chicken, fish, and vegetables.
Mexican salsa verde gains its addictive flavor from herbs, particularly:
- Cilantro – The cooling, citrusy notes of cilantro pair perfectly with the tomatillos, chilies, and lime juice in salsa verde.
- Oregano – A small amount of oregano adds an extra layer of earthy, savory flavor.
Pair salsa verde with enchiladas, tacos, meat, fish, or use as a dip for tortilla chips. The cilantro and oregano round out the salsa’s bright flavors.
Herb Roasted Chicken
Classic herb roasted chicken achieves its signature flavor from a trinity of herbs rubbed under the skin:
- Rosemary – The piney flavor of rosemary enhances chicken beautifully. It also aids in browning the skin.
- Thyme – Lemony thyme notes mesh wonderfully with rosemary and sage on roast chicken.
- Sage – Savory, earthy sage perfectly seasons poultry. Its soft texture also readily releases flavor.
Sliding these herbs under the chicken skin allows their essential oils to deeply penetrate the meat as the chicken cooks. Serve herb roast chicken with roasted garlic, lemon wedges, or pan jus for added dimension.
Herbs for Specific Flavor Profiles
In addition to cuisine styles, herbs can be grouped by the flavor notes they contribute. Understanding these flavor profiles allows for more harmonious herb pairing in any dish.
Some herbs contain natural citral, citronellal, and other compounds that impart a lemon or lime essence. These herbs brighten up dishes:
- Lemon balm – As the name implies, lemon balm has an unmistakable lemony fragrance and flavor. Use with fruit, fish, poultry, teas.
- Lemon verbena – The long leaves contain more citral than lemon peel, providing intense lemon flavor. Ideal for desserts and beverages.
- Lemongrass – The lemon/lime flavor comes from citral in the tough, woody stalks. Ideal added to soups, curries, and marinades.
- Kaffir lime leaves – The double leaves provide an incredible lime essence to Thai dishes. Require brief cooking to release flavor.
Citrusy herbs all share the ability to instantly provide bright, fresh flavor to both sweet and savory dishes.
Mint’s refreshing, aromatic flavor makes it a versatile ingredient for fresh and cooked applications:
- Peppermint – The familiar flavor of peppermint dominates breath mints and candies. Its menthol delivers a cooling sensation.
- Spearmint – Sweeter and less sharp than peppermint. Spearmint is popular in teas, desserts, salads, and savory dishes.
- Chocolate mint – This mint variety pairs well with desserts, fruit salads, and beverages, imparting a mild chocolate overtone.
Any variety of mint brightens up fruit desserts, teas, lamb dishes, and adds a refreshing flair as a garnish. Spearmint and chocolate mint hold up better during cooking.
Licorice-like anise notes distinguish these unique herbs:
- Fennel – All parts of the fennel plant feature an anise flavor. The bulb, fronds, pollen and seeds flavor everything from salads to seafood.
- Star anise – This star-shaped Asian spice packs intense licorice flavor into rice dishes, broths, meats and teas.
- Licorice root – Thecompound anethole gives licorice root its signature taste. Used in small amounts in soups, stews, and sauces.
- Chervil – Sometimes called “gourmet’s parsley,” chervil has a delicate anise flavor excellent for eggs, chicken, seafood, and in fines herbes spice mix.
Anise-flavored herbs provide intriguing flavor depth but require judicious use due to their potency.
Some herbs contain tongue-tingling compounds that add heat and zing to dishes:
- Chili peppers – Range from mild to volcanically hot. Chili peppers lend their heat to salsas, curry pastes, soups, stir fries, and more.
- Horseradish – Fresh horseradish root is grated to produce a searing heat. Pairs well with beef and seafood. Also used in prepared sauces.
- Mustard – The heat in mustard comes from compounds like allyl isothiocyanate. Use mustard seeds whole in pickling or to flavor oils. Mix ground mustard into dressings.
- Wasabi – This fiery green Japanese condiment is made from a root vegetable. Often used with raw fish in sushi.
Spicy herbs are powerful, so start with small amounts and adjust upward. Their heat enhances savory dishes but use a light hand in sweets.
In contrast to all the savory herbs, some herbs impart a hint of sweetness. These herbs nicely complement desserts:
- Basil – The sweet flavor of basil pairs wonderfully with stone fruits, melons, oranges, strawberries, and mint in fruit dessert recipes.
- Stevia – The leaves contain natural sweet compounds called steviol glycosides. Available in both leaf and concentrated extract form as a calorie-free sweetener.
- Mint – Mint offers a gentle sweetness in addition to its cool, aromatic flavor. Use it in fruit salads, teas, smoothies, jellies, and more.
- Lavender – The flowers have a sweet, floral, almost honey-like flavor. Use lavender judiciously in scones, custards, teas, and jelly.
- Chamomile – Subtle honey notes complement chamomile’s soothing, floral flavor. Ideal for teas, desserts, and yogurt.
Sweet herbs satisfy cravings for sugar while adding their own complexity. Fold them into fruit desserts, beverages, and sweets.
Herbs offer an entire world of flavor possibilities to experiment with in the kitchen. Consider the cuisine and dishes you like to cook most often and explore new ways to incorporate global herbs that define those particular tastes and aromas.
Understanding herbs’ flavor profiles allows for combining them harmoniously. Citrusy herbs brighten, while minty herbs refresh. Anise herbs provide intrigue in small doses. And don’t forget the sweet herbs for dessert recipes.
Growing a windowsill herb garden ensures you always have fresh herbs on hand to elevate everyday cooking. Prioritize the herbs you use most in your family’s favorite dishes. Companion planting also helps deter pests.
The next time a recipe calls for dried herbs, consider substituting fresh herbs at a 1:3 ratio instead. The flavor magnitude difference is remarkable. And explore new herbs you’ve never tried before to expand your culinary skills.
With their diversity, versatility, and nuanced flavors, herbs empower home cooks to become flavor explorers. Use this guide as inspiration to travel the globe through your everyday cooking with vibrant, fresh herbs. Your tastebuds will thank you!
FAQ: Herbs for Cooking
What are some essential Italian herbs?
Basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, parsley, and sage are foundational herbs in Italian cuisine. Their flavors define classics like pasta sauce, pizza, roasted vegetables, and more.
What herbs are central to Mexican cooking?
Cilantro, cumin, oregano, and epazote provide signature flavors in Mexican dishes like salsa, guacamole, tacos, enchiladas, soups, and moles.
How do herbs create the distinctive taste of Thai food?
Lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, Thai basil, and cilantro are integral to Thai curries, soups, noodle dishes, and more. Their intense flavors define the cuisine.
What Indian herbs help create authentic flavor?
Coriander, cumin, turmeric, ginger, garam masala, and fenugreek are essential to Indian curries, lentils, rice, chutneys, and vegetable dishes.
What herbs are unique to Chinese cooking?
Chinese cuisine relies heavily on ginger, scallions, garlic, star anise, sesame oil, and soy sauce to create its signature flavor profile.
How can I incorporate more herbs into salads?
Chop soft herbs like basil, mint, cilantro, chervil, and parsley and add them to salad greens. Lemongrass, citrus zest, and licorice root also enhance dressings.
What are some sweet herbs to use in desserts?
Basil, mint, lavender, stevia, and chamomile add subtle sweetness and floral notes to fruit desserts, custards, teas, and more.
How should I store fresh herbs to retain flavor?
Trim stems, stand upright in water, and loosely cover fresh herb leaves with plastic bags in the refrigerator. Most herbs keep for 3-7 days stored properly.