Herb Basics (for cooking purposes)
This post on herb basics sticks to ‘need to know’ about herbs for cooking purposes. Short and sweet and maybe a few ah-hahs.
We’ve added research to our experience and summarized important tips on storing herbs, cooking with herbs, substituting dry for fresh and freezing herbs (with one brilliant shortcut).
How to keep herbs fresh for weeks
Wash first or not?
Opinions vary on this. Generally, most say to wash fresh herbs under cool water before storing to avoid bacteria growth. Dry very well with paper towels.
I have to admit, I usually don’t bother. If you wash them just before, I find my herbs last a long time if stored properly.
How to store herbs
Tender Herbs (soft stems)
parsley, cilantro, basil, mint, tarragon, chives, dill
- For tender herbs except basil,
- cut 1/2 inch off the bottom of stems.
- place in jar or glass filled with 1-2 inches water (don’t cover leaves).
- place glass in the fridge and loosely cover with plastic bag. (Or use plastic deli container and cover with lid.)
- change the water every 3-4 days.
- keeps for 2-3 weeks (chives 1 week).
- For basil, store as above at room temperature, not in the fridge.
Woody Herbs (no stems or woodier stem)
thyme, oregano, rosemary, sage, marjoram, bay leaves
- wrap in slightly dampened (not wet) paper towel.
- place in ziploc bag or sealed container in fridge. Keeps for 2-3 weeks
- store in tightly closed containers in cool, dark place.
- keeps for 1-3 years.
Cooking with Herbs: Rules of Thumb
When to add herbs
- Use tender herbs toward the end of cooking or for garnish (cooking kills the taste).
- Use woody herbs during cooking to infuse flavor.
- For all herbs, gently rub leaves before adding to food to release their flavor.
Stems or no stems?
- For tender herbs, discard larger stems, but smaller branch stems are fine to use.
- For woody herbs, only use the leaves.
Best for garnish
- Basil, thyme, rosemary (not too much, it’s strong), dill, cilantro, chives, chervil, mint, parsley. NOT sage (very strong flavour – needs to be cooked/fried first).
- Flat leaf or Italian parsley is often preferred for cooking as it’s stronger than curly parsley.
- When a recipe says e.g. “1/4 cup minced parsley”, it means mince parsley first, then measure 1/4 cup (once it’s minced)
- When a recipe says e.g. “1/4 cup parsley, minced”, it means measure 1/4 cup parsley leaves, then mince it (which will become much less than 1/4 cup).
- Don’t sweat this too much. If you’re not certain, add less, then taste and add more if needed.
Substituting fresh herbs with dried herbs
General rule of thumb is a 3:1 ratio.
- 3 parts fresh = 1 part dried
- For example: 1 tablespoon fresh = 1 teaspoon dried; 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh = 1/2 teaspoon dried.
- If dried herbs are strong or very fresh, use less than 3:1 ratio. If pale or on the staler end, use more.
- If the recipe calls for tender herbs, it’s best not to substitute dried herbs if possible as the taste won’t be the same or as good.
Garlic(We know this is not a herb, but it’s used so much, so….)
- 1 teaspoon or clove of fresh garlic = 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder = 1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic.
How to Freeze Herbs
- The basics are: wash, dry well, chop, lay out on pan, freeze, transfer to sealed container or ziploc.
- Another option for tender herbs is: wash, dry well, finely mince or process with a small amount of olive oil or water, place in ice cube trays, freeze, transfer to a ziploc bag. Keeps for 12 months.
- Shortcut: Buy packages of frozen cubes of herbs and aromatics (cilantro, parsley, garlic, ginger, chili peppers, basil). 1 cube = 1 teaspoon. Brilliant.
- Here’s a good article on freezing herbs from Serious Eats.
Past the Due Date: When to Toss Herbs
- Toss fresh herbs when leaves turn yellow/brown or stems become moldy or brittle.
- Toss dried herbs when colour and aroma fades (rub between thumb and finger to see if aroma is still there)
Need the basics on other ingredients?
Check out our quick guides for:
- Salt: Best salt for cooking (and what you should know)
- Onions: The Bare Essentials
- Cooking Oils: The Bare Essentials
For more information on herbs, check out these references: Serious Eats, Life as a Strawberry (Herbs 101), Kitchn