Cooking Herbs

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Adding fresh herbs is a quick way to transform ordinary meals into extraordinary meals. Besides helping flavour foods when cutting back on salt, fat and sugar, herbs may offer additional benefits of their own. Researchers are finding many culinary herbs (both fresh and dried) have antioxidants that may help protect against such diseases as cancer and heart disease.Herbs are flavoring agents used for enriching or altering the flavor or odor of foods. Different herbs have different uses. Also different parts of the plant are used. It might be leaves, seeds, fruits, buds, barks, or roots.


[edit] Herbs collection

A bouquet garni is a bundle of herbs added to casseroles, stocks, sauces and soups. It traditionally comprises parsley (or parsley stalks, which have lots of flavour), a few sprigs of thyme and a bay leaf.The bouquet garni also contains whole peppercorns. These herbs may be bundled into a strip of leek or a piece of celery stalk, or tied in a muslin bag or with string, to keep them together during cooking and allow easy removal before serving.

Herbes de Provence is a fragrant mixture of dried herbs typical of southern French cooking. Exact recipes vary, but thyme, savory, rosemary and an aniseed-scented herb such as fennel or tarragon are typical. Marjoram or basil may also be included.

Fines herbes is a mixture of tender fresh herbs also used in French cooking, particularly with egg dishes such as omelettes. It is made from chervil, chives and tarragon, sometimes with parsley added.

[edit] Speciality herbs

  • A sprig of chervil - which looks like a petite feathery version of flatleaf parsley adds a final flourish to many a restaurant dish. It has a mild, sweet aniseed flavour and works well with fish, elegant soups, and butter sauces.
  • Curry leaves are increasingly available in supermarkets. A staple of South Indian cooking, they release a deliciously nutty aroma when briefly stirred in hot oil. Add them to curries near the beginning of cooking, just before you fry the spices.
  • Kaffir lime leaves are essential for Thai cooking. They have an unusual double-leaf shape and (although the flavour is completely different) are used in a similar manner to bay leaves - bruised and added to dishes early during cooking.
  • Shiso is familiar to many people in Britain thanks to its use in sushi and other Japanese dishes. Also known as perilla, it is used raw as a garnish rather than cooked and is worth trying if you like basil.
  • Borage was introduced to Britain by the Romans and grows wild in some areas. It tastes a little like cucumber and is good in salads, yoghurt or cream cheese mixtures, or served with shellfish. The leaves are furry, so they need to be chopped finely.
  • Sorrel can be treated as a herb, vegetable or salad leaf. It has a lemony taste and pointed leaves. It's a pretty addition to mixed salads and works particularly well with baby spinach.

[edit] Buying Herbs

  • Herbs can be differentiated by the levels and effervescence of their volatile oils.
  • The more volatile the oil, the less effective the herb when dried. A case in point is basil which has a disappointing flavour when dried.
  • The level of the oil also determines which stage of the cooking process they should be addded. Those that are woody and have strong oils can be stewed with the food, example rosemary. Those herbs whose oil is lighter must be added at the end of the cooking process eg corriander leaves, basil leaves, mint leaves and so on.
  • There are some herbs whose flavour alters with drying and they are often used both fresh and dry in the same food preparation. Notable amongst this group are oregano, bay leaves and the herbes de Provence mixture.

Those who make a lot of Middle Eastern food, dried thyme and mint can also be bought and stocked. But again, the best flavours come when these herbs are fresh. However, those who stock these hrbs, must make sure that they renew the jars and packets each year, as chopped dried herbs stale quickly. Pots of herbs can last longer, but need to be cared for as houseplants.

[edit] How to Grow Cooking Herbs

Grow your own cooking herbs to add fresh zest and flavor to your menus year-round!

Is It a Cooking Herb or a Spice?
The first thing to know in selecting which herbs to grow is the difference between cooking (culinary) herbs and spices. The cinnamon stick you put in your hot chocolate or apple cider is a spice while the parsley on the edge of your plate is an herb.

  • Cooking herbs are usually the fresh or dried leaves of plants while spices are the ground seeds, roots, fruits, flowers, and/or bark.
  • Herbs grow very well in temperate zones, while spices generally come from tropical areas.
  • Herbs add subtle flavor, whereas spices are generally more pungent and add more robust flavor.

Herbs run the gamut of about 70 cultivars, broken into categories of medicinal, ornamental, and aromatic as well as culinary or cooking herbs. To start growing cooking herbs, it's best first to select where and how you want to grow them.

[edit] Site Selection

Most cooking herbs thrive in just about any location that gives them plenty of light, good drainage and nutrition. In addition to outdoor garden spots, culinary herbs can be grown in patio containers, as indoor herb gardens, or in greenhouses using soil-less growing techniques like hydroponics or aquaponics.

[edit] Outdoor Cooking Herb Gardens

For easy access, plant your herb garden as close to your kitchen as possible. Herbs grown in full sun have denser foliage, darker color, and higher levels of the essential oils that add flavor to your recipes. Good air circulation and drainage are also important to the success of your cooking herb garden. The size of your cooking herb garden, of course, depends on the space you have available for growing. Generally, an area 20 by 4 feet accommodates a satisfactory variety of cultivars.

Many herbs overlap in category. Border your cooking herb garden with some cultivars that have ornamental or aromatic qualities as well as the culinary. However, remember that the main purpose of this garden is for use in your kitchen. Place cooking herbs that you use frequently in less conspicuous areas so that you won't leave big holes in your garden when you harvest them for cooking!

Most culinary herbs thrive under the same growth conditions as the vegetables they enhance and as such are a natural addition to your vegetable garden. Some cooking herbs even have properties that repel common insect pests and garden diseases, which is an added benefit to your vegetables.

The best time to amend soil with nutrient rich compost is when you till your garden plot. Herbs have coarse roots that benefit from chunky organic matter, which helps excess water drain away and also helps provide good air circulation. After planting your cooking herbs, skirting them with a two to three-inch layer of mulch helps soil retain moisture. In addition, composting and mulching helps you maintain the neutral to slightly alkaline soil that most herbs prefer.

[edit] Growing Cooking Herbs in Containers

Although container-grown plants usually need more frequent watering and fertilization, pests and disease problems are virtually eliminated. Growing cooking herbs in containers is ripe with advantages.

  • Tender herbs grown in containers are easily brought indoors during winter months.
  • Pots can be moved to more desirable locations when weather dictates: into the shade when it's too hot and into the sun as the season progresses and sunny areas become overshadowed by trees, shrubs, or walls.
  • Using containers and a plant stand gives you more space for more variety in addition to letting you garden while standing upright.
  • Containers keep invasive plants (like mint) in their place.
  • Containers can be sunk into your garden, providing your plant with a weed barrier and offering it some relief from competing with invasive plants.

When planting an herb pot, select a container with at least a one-gallon capacity. Instead of compost, one part perlite to three parts nutrient rich potting soil gives herbs the drainage they need. Plant only one variety of cooking herb per container, strawberry pots being the exception to the rule.

[edit] Indoors

The easiest way to learn how to grow cooking herbs is in an indoor culinary garden. Most annual cooking herbs and some perennials adapt well to indoor growing. Dwarf varieties and those that reach only a foot in height may be grown in pots as small as six inches in diameter. When given adequate light and proper care, they'll provide you with fresh sprigs of cooking herbs year round.

Indoor culinary herb gardens have less risk of being attacked by diseases and pests than outdoor gardens and allow you to completely control watering, light, and fertilization.

Most potted herbs thrive in any good potting mixture in a container that provides good drainage. Easily supplement light requirements with a either a grow light or a simple fluorescent fixture. Plant herbs in two parts potting soil with one part perlite or coarse sand. An inch of small gravel in the pot bottom ensures good drainage for your culinary herbs. Periodic fertilization, yearly repotting, regular watering (according to the requirements of the plant) and occasional pruning is all you need do to maintain your indoor herb garden indefinitely.

[edit] Soil-less growing

Hydroponic and aquaponic herb growing are two of the soil-less methods many environmentally conscious herb gardeners are substituting for traditional soil-based herb cultivation.

Hydroponic herbs grow up to 50% faster than soil-based plants. Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture and hydroponics where nutrient rich fish water is pumped from fish tank into herb garden bed. Plants growing in gravel extract the nutrients and the water drains back into the fish tank clean and freshly oxygenated. Growing herbs using aquaponics can be as simple as pumping water between a small goldfish aquarium and some gravel filled herb pots.

[edit] Storing herbs

Cut herbs with short stalks should be wrapped in a plastic bag (left open, not sealed) or in a damp paper towel and kept in the fridge. Bunches of herbs with longer stalks can be treated like cut flowers: sit the base of the cut stalks in a tall jar or jug with a few centimeters of water in the bottom. If you are lucky enough to get coriander with the roots still attached, do not clean them: instead, simply keep them wrapped in a damp paper towel inside an open plastic bag and store in the salad drawer of the fridge, where they should last five to six days.

Some robust herbs, such as curry leaves, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, can be stored whole in the freezer, wrapped in a freezer bag. Sage can be stored in a jar, well-covered in coarse salt.

How long potted herbs bought from the supermarket last is variable and is affected by how much is cut off for use in cooking. They are best kept on a sunny window sill, with the soil regularly moistened. Alternatively, try planting them out in a larger pot on a balcony: a good plant will then last you the rest of the season.

[edit] Preparing and using herbs

Apart from those such as bay that are used whole, herbs are best prepared by picking the leaves from the stalks then chopping them as finely as desired with a chef's knife or a two-handled rocking knife (mezzaluna). Some people find it easier to cut bunches of tender herbs, especially chives, into small pieces with kitchen scissors and this is a handy quick technique to use when your dish is rustic or informal.

It's not always necessary to strip the leaves from the stems either: the stalks of dill and coriander can be chopped or snipped right along with the leaves and added to dishes such as soups and sauces.

Some tender herbs - particularly basil, tarragon and mint - bruise easily, a problem exacerbated by blunt kitchen knives. To prevent bruising and discolouration, avoid chopping these herbs finely and make sure you use a sharp knife. Alternatively, add the whole leaves to dishes, or tear them into small pieces with your fingers.

The volatile oils that give flavour and fragrance to the tenderest herbs dissipate quickly after exposure to heat, so it's best to add them to dishes towards the end of cooking, or just before serving. Robust herbs such as bay, sage, rosemary and common thyme are best when given time to meld with the other ingredients in the dish, so should be added earlier during cooking.

The tender herbs - basil, chervil, chives, coriander, dill, mint, parsley, tarragon and so on - can also be used raw and make delicious salad ingredients.

[edit] Useful tips

  • When using fresh herbs in a recipe is to use 3 times as much as you would use of a dried herb. When substituting, you'll often be more successful substituting fresh herbs for dried herbs, rather than the other way around.
  • Purchase herbs close to the time you plan to use them. When growing herbs in your own garden the ideal time for picking is in the morning after the dew has dried but before the sun gets hot. This helps ensure the best flavor and storage quality.
  • Fresh herbs can be stored in an open or a perforated plastic bag in your refrigerator crisper drawer for a few days. If you don't have access to commercial perforated bags, use a sharp object to make several small holes in a regular plastic bag.
  • To extend the freshness of herbs, snip off the ends of the stems on the diagonal. Place herbs in a tall glass with an inch of water, like cut flowers. Cover them loosely with a plastic bag to allow for air circulation. Place them in the refrigerator and change the water daily. Herbs may last a week or more stored this way. NOTE: The flavor of herbs may diminish the longer they're stored.
  • If you have more herbs than you can eat, enjoy herbal bouquets throughout your house. You can use either single herbs, combinations of herbs or you can use the herbs as greenery mixed in with other flowers. To help preserve the aroma and color of your herb bouquets, place them out of direct sunlight.
  • Wash herbs when you are ready to use them. Wash smaller amounts of herbs thoroughly under running water. Shake off moisture or spin dry in a salad spinner. Pat off any remaining moisture with clean paper towels.
  • For most recipes, unless otherwise directed, mince herbs into tiny pieces.
  • Unlike dried herbs, fresh herbs are usually added toward the end in cooked dishes to preserve their flavor. Add the more delicate herbs -- basil, chives, cilantro, dill leaves, parsley, marjoram and mint -- a minute or two before the end of cooking or sprinkle them on the food before it's served.
  • The less delicate herbs, such as dill seeds, oregano, rosemary, tarragon and thyme, can be added about the last 20 minutes of cooking. Obviously, for some foods, such as breads, batters, etc., you'll need to add herbs at the beginning of the cooking process

[edit] Herb/Food Combinations

Here are some ideas to those help those who want to start combining fresh herbs with food.

  • Basil - a natural snipped in with tomatoes; terrific in fresh pesto; other possibilities include pasta sauce, peas, zucchini
  • Chives - dips, potatoes, tomatoes
  • Cilantro - Mexican, Asian and Caribbean cooking; salsas, tomatoes
  • Dill carrots, cottage cheese, fish, green beans, potatoes, tomatoes
  • Mint - carrots, fruit salads, parsley, peas, tabouli, tea
  • Oregano - peppers, tomatoes
  • Parsley - The curly leaf is the most common, but the flat-leaf or Italian parsley is more strongly flavored and often preferred for cooking. Naturals for parsley include potato salad, tabouli
  • Rosemary - chicken, fish, lamb, pork, roasted potatoes, soups, stews, tomatoes
  • Sage - poultry seasoning, stuffings
  • Tarragon - chicken, eggs, fish
  • Thyme - eggs, lima beans, potatoes, poultry, summer squash, tomatoes
  • Winter Savory - dried bean dishes, stews

[edit] References

  • How to Grow Cooking Herbs
  • Cooking With Herbs
  • BBC:Food|Cook's guide
  • Healthy Cooking with Fresh Herbs