For me, "reliable" means I can predict how they'll behave in a new recipe pretty accurately. This can be an important factor when dealing with any seasoning. If you don't know how it will behave, it'll likely just sit in its pretty jar until you decide -- a few years down the line -- to throw it away.
Before I get to the list, I wanted to review a few general guidelines for using herbs and spices in the kitchen:
Timing - When you add a specific herb or spice to a recipe can be important. Most spices lose their flavor and become bitter over a long cooking time, so it's usually better to add them late in the process. Some exceptions are bay leaf, sage, rosemary and garlic. Good candidates for late (within the last half hour) addition include thyme, oregano and marjoram.
Candidates for very late handling (within the last five minutes of cooking) include dill, tarragon, cilantro and chives. When in doubt, follow the instructions on the recipe. If you're experimenting and have to guess, later is better than sooner.
Fresh for dried herbs and vice versa - In many recipes, using fresh or dried herbs is spelled out for you. Simple recipes showcasing convenience often use dried herbs over fresh. You can usually switch from on to the other, though, with a few caveats and adjustments. The typical conversion is three to one. A recipe that calls for one teaspoon of a dried herb will require three teaspoons (or one tablespoon) of that same herb used fresh. There are some exceptions. With strongly flavored herbs like garlic, rosemary and cilantro, for instance, it's a good idea to start with a two to one ratio and perform taste tests from there until you're satisfied.
Using old herbs - Herbs lose flavor during long term storage. The experts used to recommend pitching herbs and spices after six months to a year, but nowadays, that's changed. Freshness for most herbs has been extended from one to two years or so -- about double the old recommendation. That's certainly a money saving proposition, but an herb that was packaged a month ago will still have more oomph than one that's been sitting around for 18 months. The solution is to use a little more of an older herb to achieve the same flavor power. Twenty five percent more is probably a good compromise, but here again nothing beats taste testing for the best results.
If you're buying an herb or spice at the market and know the quantity on offer will last you a long, long while, prefer whole pods, seeds or sticks (if applicable) to pre-ground alternatives. Ground nutmeg will taste like sawdust after six months, but the whole, shelled nutmeg seed will stay fragrant and flavorful a couple of years or longer. Just use a grater to shave off what you need.
Dried herbs that don't bring the flavor - Some herbs don't have much flavor once they're dried -- period. They likely contain delicate flavor compounds that don't survive the drying process very well. It's best to use these herbs in a form other than dried whenever possible. This can include fresh purchased herbs from the market, herbs overwintered indoors, frozen herbs harvested from the garden or fresh garden herbs. Here are some delicate candidates for the "do not buy dry" list: ginger, tarragon, chives, cilantro and basil.
I do use questionable, dried herbs on occasion (yeah, I admit it) but only if there's no other option. It's always a good idea to use the best ingredients you can find, though. This is particularly true with herbs because they have a huge impact on the final flavor profile of a dish -- and often you won't realize you've blown it until serving time. Curses!
Okay, with that behind us, here's my list of five more herbs that belong on your table -- at least occasionally:
Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus sativa)
Tarragon has a flavor somewhat reminiscent of licorice but in a different way from both bail and fennel. It is quite mild, and for want of a better word -- smooth. It tastes particularly effective with fowl and is quite refreshing in cold dishes like chicken and pasta salad. I've said before that if you're not using tarragon now, it can revitalize your recipes, giving them a more grown up, subtle flavor. That's pretty good value from an herb that's easy to grow.
Although it's somewhat less well known, there's also a Mexican tarragon variety that has the characteristic anise flavor associated with tarragon, but shares more with Russian tarragon than the true and tasty French friend we've come to know and love.
The word "tarragon" actually comes from the French, meaning "small dragon." Beyond that, the origins of the name are unclear, but some herb historians believe it relates to the fact that tarragon was once used to treat snakebite.
Artemisia dracunculus sativa (French tarragon) is a perennial that likes rich, well-drained soil and good sun. Hardy from Zones 4 through 9, it grows to about 28 inches in height. Special note: If you experience hot summers, choose a spot for tarragon that gets some dappled light or afternoon shade.
How to Grow Tarragon
Tarragon Mustard Recipe
What's a Good Tarragon Substitute
Dill (Anethum graveolens)Dill was once considered an aphrodisiac, but that was long before people realized how wonderful this herb can taste in pickle making! Dill is actually pretty versatile. You've probably added it to salmon and other fish, but it's also delicious baked into herbed rolls or breads, added to hummus or as a garnish on fried or grilled liver. (Really -- it's tasty with chicken or beef liver.) This annual self-seeds like crazy and tends to bolt when temps rise in late spring and early summer. Unlike some herbs on this list, dill holds its flavor when dried, so it's a great harvesting herb throughout the season.
Dill, like tarragon, likes rich soil, a well-drained location and dappled light on very hot summer days. Standard varieties can grow to five feet and get floppy, so keep dill staked or away from the windward side of your garden.
How to Grow Dill
How to Keep Plants from Bolting
Fresh Lemon and Dill Spice Blend for Fish
Garlic (Allium sativum)What can we say about garlic? It has been rhapsodized by great gourmands and adopted as the patron herb of entire cultures. Its small, whitish bulbs are fragrant, flavorful and easy to use in cooking either fresh, pickled, in oil, powdered or added to salt mixtures. Of course, we like our garlic fresh. Cloves pulled right from the bulb have a distinctly sweet flavor that reveals itself spectacularly when used with mild ingredients like potatoes.
Garlic can be a big boon in the garden, too. It repels all manner of pests and doesn't ask much by way of compensation. It has a long growing cycle, though. The garlic cloves you plant this season won't be ready to harvest until next year. Once you get a rotation going, though, you'll have a regular supply of garlic for as long as you have a garden. You can use grocery store garlic as starter stock in the garden, too, so planting this herb doesn't necessarily require a trip to the nursery.
Starting Garlic from Cloves
Herbal Mosquito Repellent Recipe
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)Thyme is the herb that can. It has been use for centuries as an ingredient in stews, soups and sauces, helping to bring out the native flavors of meats and aromatic vegetables like onions, carrots, celery and turnips. It's also a key ingredient in some popular spice blends you may recognize like: Jamaican jerk, Cajun rub, Bouquet Garni and Herbs De Provence.
There are a number of thyme varieties, including groundcovers (creepers), silver cultivars and thymes with special fragrances like lemon, lime or caraway. It's a good idea to stick with classic thyme for kitchen duty, though.
This little perennial likes good sun and rich but somewhat alkaline soil. A determined survivor, thyme can thrive under somewhat adverse conditions. It will do well in a windy spot or one that receives occasional foot traffic or tends to get hose burn from the garden hose. Thyme does require soil the drains well, though.
Thyme for the Garden
Oregano (Origanum vulgare)Oregano is a popular herb in both Italian and Greek cooking. It has a strong flavor that's an excellent counterpoint to the bright, acidic bite of tomatoes. It adds zip to sauces and works well with meats like lamb and pork.
A perennial, oregano is hardy from Zones 5 to 12, and it's another candidate for rich but slightly alkaline soil. Although it likes bright light, heat can sometimes be a problem. In warm climate locations, offer oregano a little afternoon shade if possible. There are a number of oregano varieties, but Origanum vulgare hirtum, is widely considered the most flavorful for culinary applications.
I like to add oregano to prepared fare, like jarred spaghetti sauce, stewed tomatoes and pizza sauce. It's a good flavoring agent for vegetable dishes that include squash, eggplant, bell pepper or green beans, and it's an essential herb for tasty minestrone. I simply strip young leaves from their stems, mince them and add them during the last half-hour of simmering time. Unlike some herbs, oregano tends to have a more resinous and intense flavor when fresh, so it's one candidate for a "less is more" approach when switching from dried to fresh in recipes. A two-to-one ratio is a good start until you know how this herb will behave for you.
For a recap of the first five kitchen worthy herbs, please visit: 5 Easy Culinary Herbs You Should Be Growing In Your Garden
Photo1 - Dried Tarragon By KVDP at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c1/Dried_Taragon.JPG
Photo 1A - Tarragon Plant By Roger Bamkin (Wikipedia Takes Coventry participant) (Uploaded from Wikipedia Takes Coventry) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/01/WTC_Victuallers_Allesley_Wiki_takes_Coventry_351676542.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWTC_Victuallers_Allesley_Wiki_takes_Coventry_351676542.jpg
Photo 2 - Dill By Audrey from Central Pennsylvania, USA (Dill Drops Uploaded by Fæ) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/14/Dill_Drops_%283749120575%29.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADill_Drops_(3749120575).jpg
Photo 3 - Garlic By Zack Dowell (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c3/Garlic_Scape.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGarlic_Scape.jpg
Photo 4 - Thyme By Ghislain118 http://www.fleurs-des-montagnes.net (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/86/Thymus_vulgaris_4_%28Espagne%29.JPG http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AThymus_vulgaris_4_(Espagne).JPG
Photo 5 - Oregano By Roula30 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0b/%CE%A1%CE%AF%CE%B3%CE%B1%CE%BD%CE%B7_%28Greek_Oregano%29.JPG http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A%CE%A1%CE%AF%CE%B3%CE%B1%CE%BD%CE%B7_(Greek_Oregano).JPG