Spice up your life with herbs and spices! Enkindle your natural fire within! These are subliminal messages that have made spices and herbs indispensable in modern cooking. Wait a minute. What’s the difference between spices and herbs? Good question. Generally, spices are the seeds, fruits, roots, stem, bark, and flower heads of plants. Herbs are the fragrant leaves and sometimes the tender green stems. A number of plants are both herb and spice, like the cilantro or coriander. Its leaf is an herb, but the roots, stem, seeds and flower are spices.
And then there are dried and fresh herbs. The dried and powdered are naturally convenient and readily available by far. So why use fresh herbs? For one thing, it’s the fresh herbs that have an aroma that is absolutely irresistible. For another thing, their flavor is richer and simply exhilarating. A benefit of using fresh herbs is that you will not have to use as much salt or fatty ingredients in your cooking. This in itself brings obvious health benefits, in addition to the fact that herbs are loaded with antioxidants that protect from cancer and heart disease. Moreover, can you imagine using for garnish herbs other than fresh?
It’s worth noting, of course that dried and fresh herbs are far from being mutually exclusive. Dried herbs infuse the dish while being cooked with oil, butter, water or any liquid. The fresh ones are sprinkled later.
Familiarize yourself with the distinct taste of herbs, one by one. You can do this by mixing minced herb with a little plain butter and leave for about an hour. Then spread some on bland bread or cracker and sample to taste. Be sure the taste is no longer in your tongue when trying another fresh herb.
- Herbs can be classified by intensity of taste. Rosemary and sage, for example, have intense flavor and can usually stand as single seasoning ingredients. Generally, strong herbs are not paired together. Some herbs are strong enough to be used singly but mild enough to blend well with other flavors. In this category fall the dill, tarragon, mint, thyme, oregano, sweet basil, sweet marjoram. Chives can always be allied with other herbs.
- To enhance sweetness, use nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger. In order to add heat, add white, red or black pepper. Better still, explore, expand, create.
- As a rule of thumb, use three times as much fresh herbs as you would of dried herbs.
- To release more flavor, the leaves of fresh herbs must be chopped finely.
- Put in the herbs near the end of cooking time as flavor diminishes when exposed to heat for long. Sage and rosemary can stand longer heat and are thus ideal for meats.
- Fresh tender herbs such as chives, marjoram, oregano and basil can be sprinkled on top of other ingredients so as to maintain their refreshing flavor.
Like many a cook, you may fall sufficiently in love with fresh herbs that you can’t help but venture into producing them yourself. Gardening, why not? Set yourself up for an almost guaranteed success experience. Start not from seeds. Potted seedlings are not difficult to find. You can bury them in your sunny backyards or in an elevated box by your kitchen window. Position them in such a way that taller plants like the basil, tarragon and cilantro do not deprive the smaller ones like oregano, parsley and thyme much needed sunlight. If they are in bigger pots, buried or not, they will have the advantage of being easily transferable for best sunlight exposure.
When harvesting, don’t forget that the best herbs come from plants that are in the leaf-making, not flowering or reproductive stage. During the flowering stage, leaves are woody, grassy, yellowed and bitter because most of the plant’s energy is used up in reproduction. You can delay flowering by harvesting often. The best time to pick herbs is in the morning, after the dew has dried just before the sun gets hot. This will assure optimum flavor and optimum storage time line.
When storing herbs in the refrigerator, I recommend storing them bouquet-like in a perforated plastic bag. If the herbs have long stems, cut them at an angle. Change the water daily and they can last up to a week. Accompanying them with a damp paper towel that will absorb their moisture will retard wilting. Be aware that longer herb storage will result in diminished flavor.