By Chef Alli on July 27, 2020
I know I say this a lot but cooking with fresh herbs significantly adds to the flavor of any dish. It’s simply a fact.
Think of how a sprinkle of sweet basil over homegrown tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, or a nod of rosemary to a savory grilled pork chop sends both dishes right over the moon.
The power of fresh herbs (added just as a dish is served, mind you) magnifies every ingredient, taking our recipe from “Oh, that’s good,” to “Wow, this is totally delicious!”
But sometimes choosing between all the varieties of fresh herbs can become so overwhelming that we completely opt-out in exasperation. I remember this feeling so well when I first began cooking with herbs.
Fortunately, the five most common cooking herbs come from just two plant families - parsley and mint. All six of these cooking herbs are easily grown and readily available at your favorite grocer, whichever route you opt for.
One of my very favorite, rosemary is super versatile; its pine-like flavor compliments everything from meat and potatoes to fruits and desserts. Use rosemary sparingly because its powerful flavor can easily overtake a dish.
To use rosemary, always strip the leaves from the stem before chopping or mincing. Since rosemary takes the heat well, I love to use the thick, woody stems as flavorful grilling skewers for shrimp and vegetables.
Sweet basil has under tones of anise and clove and is the most common of more than 150-160 basil varieties. Basil can be strong, though cooking mellows it out. Heat can make basil turn black, so take care to add it toward the very last minutes of finishing your recipe.
To cut basil into very thin, even strips (this is called the chiffonade cut), lay five to six leaves on top of each other, rolling them up into a cigar. Slice narrow incisions across the basil cigar from end to end with a sharp knife. When you unroll each one, you’ll find beautiful long strips of basil.
Also known as Italian parsley, this herb is commonly thought of as the “gourmet” cooking parsley that offers a peppery bite.
Flat leaf parsley and curly parsley differ far more in texture than they do in flavor. When chopping fresh parsley, place it into a small, deep bowl using kitchen shears to snip it into small pieces.
Like rosemary, thyme can be very pungent and withstands cooking heat very well. There are many varieties of thyme, with just two that faithfully appear in the kitchen: lemon thyme that imparts a citrus flavor and aroma, or English thyme which is a readily available garden thyme.
Like rosemary, thyme stems are too tough to eat. To remove thyme leaves, use your fingertips to gently grasp the stem at the top with one hand, gently pulling the leaves toward you with the other.
Pungent and spicy Greek fresh oregano is what we associate with pizza and other Italian cuisines.
The oregano most often sold as a fresh herb at your local grocer is known as “common oregano,” which has a hint of sweetness along with a bit of spiciness. Unlike Greek oregano that can be pungent and overpowering, common oregano is more on the mild side.
Cilantro is definitely an herb, hailing from neither the mint or parsley families (as are the top culinary herbs listed above), but rather the Apiacea family. Cilantro is familiar to most everyone here in the U.S. and is readily available.
Cilantro is sometimes referred to as Mexican parsley or Chinese parsley and is commonly used in Latin American and Asian dishes.
An interesting fact about cilantro is based on our ethnicity. Most people perceive the taste of cilantro as having a tart lemony flavor. However due to a specific gene, 2-3 percent of people say cilantro tastes like dish soap. It seems there is no in between with cilantro – you either love it or you hate it.