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Herbs: The Bare Essentials

This post sticks to ‘need to know’ about herbs for cooking purposes.  Short and sweet and maybe a few ah-hahs. We focused on: rules of thumb when cooking with herbs; how to keep herbs fresh; how to substitute dried for fresh herbs; and how to freeze herbs. We’ve listed a few good references below if you want more detailed information. We would love to hear any pearls of wisdom or tricks that work for you.

herbs: the bare essentials

How To Keep Cut Herbs Fresh for Weeks

Wash first or not? For fresh herbs, yes, first wash them under cool water. Dry very well with paper towels. (Some say to wash just before use, but most say wash first before you store them to avoid bacteria growth. We’ve successfully done both.) To store:

  • 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 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 fridge.
  • Woody Herbs (no stems or woodier) – thyme, oregano, rosemary, sage, marjoram, bay leaves
    • For all woody herbs: Wrap in slightly dampened (not wet) paper towel. Place in ziploc bag or sealed container in fridge. Keeps for 2-3 weeks
  • Dried Herbs
    • Store in tightly closed containers in cool, dark place. Keeps for 1-3 years

Using Herbs in Cooking: Rules of Thumb

  • When to Add Herbs During Cooking
    • Use tender herbs toward the end of cooking or for garnish (cooking kills the taste).
    • Use woody herbs during cooking process to infuse flavour.
    • For all herbs, gently rub leaves before adding to food to release flavour.
  • 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.
  • Measuring Herbs
    • 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 Dried for Fresh Herbs
    • The general rule of thumb is 3:1.  3 parts fresh = 1 part dried. For example: 1 tablespoon fresh = 1 teaspoon dried; 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh = 1/2 teaspoon dried.
    • Exceptions: 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 great 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)

For more information on herbs, check out these references

Serious Eats, Life as a Strawberry (Herbs 101), Cooking LightKitchn


Here’s a couple of other Bare Essential posts by Two Kooks in The Kitchen you might like:

Salt: The Bare Essentials get the post

Onions: The Bare Essentials get the post





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