Thursday

Cooking with Herbs

Lots of people love to cook with herbs -- in theory -- but approach them with caution in practice. Here's why: Herbs do impart flavor and aroma to food. In some cases they can add texture, too. A little thyme in an omelette can make those mild, fluffy eggs taste earthy and richer (more robust) somehow. Add too much, though, and you end up with a pile of yellow curds that smell and taste moldy and pretty darned unappetizing. If you've work with herbs for any length of time, you probably have a horror story or two to tell. Mine is from over a decade back when I had some lovely fresh sage I wanted to use in homemade Thanksgiving stuffing.

My Kitchen Herb Horror Story

I was raring to go. I made my own croutons out of stale French bread baguettes. Heck, I even made the bread myself. This stuffing was going to be my crowning Thanksgiving achievement. I was in a new house, had a brand new garden and was ready to shine. I went out to my herb patch and piled plenty of sage into a basket. This was one of those charming wicker baskets (I wanted the fairytale). Once indoors, I removed the stems from the sage, washed the leaves, minced them and added them to the croutons I'd drizzled with butter and olive oil. Then I dried the whole shebang slightly in the oven.

By this time, the kitchen smelled delicious. My husband was duly impressed and looking forward to sausage and giblet stuffing the way grandma used to make it down on the farm. The only problem was that I overestimated the amount of sage it would take to give the stuffing that homemade goodness -- by about five times. My stuffing that year turned out smelling like a musty basement. If possible, it tasted worse than it smelled -- more like medicine than anything you'd ever eat voluntarily.

Tips for Using the Right Herb Quantities in Cooking

This turned out to be a good lesson because I never made the same mistake again (I have made many others, though). When it comes to herbs you haven't used in cooking before, or used fresh before, less is always more. In most cases, you can add more of a particular herb later in the preparation process if you need to. Thyme, sage, rosemary, cilantro, dill and cumin are all potential recipe assassins if you use them too generously. Here's my tip for using herbs with which you are unfamiliar:

Do research - Check a number of recipes similar to the one you plan on preparing. The goal here is to become familiar with the seasoning options experienced cooks have used before.

Fresh or dry makes a difference - Pay particular attention to whether an herb is used fresh or dried in the recipe you have in mind. The classic ratio is three to one: If the recipe calls for a dried herb, you'll typically need three times that amount if you're using the herb fresh.

Balance the ratio - If you decide to add additional herbs to a basic recipe, cut down on the amount of the other herbs involved. If that marinara sauce recipe calls for a teaspoon of oregano and you want to add some marjoram or thyme, cut back on the amount of oregano by a like amount until you have a chance to perform a taste test. Don't make a judgment call right away, either. Wait fifteen minutes or so to give the herbs a chance to release their oils and flavor into the mixture. If you want to add more after that, fine.

Cooking time matters - Here's another tip: Some herbs can hold up to a long cooking time while others can't. With the exception of sturdy herbs like, say, rosemary and bay leaf, adding an herb to a dish too soon can turn it bitter. Recipes are pretty good about explaining when herbs should be added, but barring guidance from a recipe you trust, prefer adding herbs no earlier than a half hour before the dish is supposed to be ready to serve. In the case of herbs destined for soups and stews, it's a good idea to get in the habit of adding them in a tied bundle (or a length of cheesecloth) and removing them once the long-cooking stock is ready. You'll avoid a bitter bite as well as an unsightly flotilla of spent herbs suspended in your recipe.

Flavors fade - There are just a couple of last minute considerations and we're done.  Dried herbs in your cupboard lose flavor as they age.  The herb police have adjusted the old rule that herbs are only viable for six months -- extending that timeline to a year if the herbs have been stored well (in a dark, dry place).  That doesn't mean that all herbs will retain their flavor that long.  For the best results, taste test your recipes every time.  It's the only way to be sure that the herbs you're using are giving you the flavor punch your recipes deserve.

Some herbs don't dry well - Some herbs lose almost all their flavor when dried. This doesn't keep enterprising companies from selling them, though.  The problem with using them, and dried ginger is an excellent example, is that they have very little flavor, and what flavor they do have seems to fade quickly.  I wrote a post about this last year, and I'll link to it here so I don't have to repeat myself.  It's a list of herbs that really aren't worth buying dried. Most can be cultivated in your garden or on a windowsill pretty easily.  Others, like ginger, that are more difficult to maintain, can be purchased fresh, or in the case of basil, frozen. I even have a nice tip on preserving fresh ginger root so you don't waste any.  

Have a great day.


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Photo 1 - FreshIngredientsMF.jpg courtesy of morguefile: http://morguefile.com/archive/display/106260

Photo 2 - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_seven_herbs.jpg by Blue Lotus at http://www.flickr.com/photos/bluelotus/83354711/. It was reviewed on 5 January 2007 by the FlickreviewR robot and confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

Photo2 -  By BrokenSphere (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/74/Proven%C3%A7al_herbs%2C_Saint-Paul_de_Vence.JPG

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