How To Get the Best From Your Herbs
The use of herbs in our cooking has grown over the last couple of decades. Most top chefs recognise that the importance of good quality fresh herbs in their dishes can make a world of difference to the flavors of the food. So much so, that many top restaurants have their own herb gardens from which to pick and use only the freshest herbs.
Growing your own herbs in the garden or a container is an excellent way to ensure a good supply of fresh herbs or even growing them on the kitchen windowsill. But if you do not wish to grow your own, supermarkets now sell a wide range of pre-cut and potted herbs. Pots of herbs last longer than cut herbs, but need to be cared for just as houseplants do. They will need a sunny windowsill and be picked regularly to keep them growing and from going to seed. Other sources of good quality herbs might be a greengrocers, who often sell a wider range of herbs than supermarkets do. Also farmers' markets, often have more unusual varieties of herb such as angelica, lovage, pennyroyal, and uncommon varieties of thyme, mint and sage.
To get the best flavors from herbs, storage is very important. Many of us tend to store dried herbs as well as spices to well past their sell by date. This will definitely not enhance the flavors of your dishes to their best. Make sure you renew jars and packets of dried herbs frequently, as they go stale very quickly. While it's handy to keep a few dried herbs in the cupboard, most herbs taste best fresh, and some such as basil or coriander, have a very disappointing flavor when dried. Frozen herbs are a good substitute. These can now be bought from the freezer section in a supermarket or frozen from your own home grown herbs. This can be done by finely chopping herbs and placing them in ice-cube trays, top up with water and place in the freezer. This is handy to keep to put in stews and casseroles.
To protect the flavors of fresh herbs with cut stalks they 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 that have longer stalks can be kept like cut flowers in a jug or vase with a little water in the bottom. Do not fill right up as this may rot the delicate leaves. Some hardy herbs, such as curry leaves, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, can be stored whole in the freezer, wrapped in a freezer bag. If using potted herbs bought from the supermarket they are best kept on a sunny windowsill with the soil regularly moistened but not waterlogged as this will rot their roots.
Fresh herbs are usually best prepared by picking the leaves from the stalks, apart from herbs such as bay, (although this is not always necessary), then chopping them as finely as desired with a chefs' knife or two-handled rocking knife (mezzaluna). Herbs such as chives can be cut in bunches into small pieces using kitchen scissors. Some tender herbs - particularly basil, tarragon and mint - bruise easily which can adversely affect the flavor. To avoid bruising and discolouration, do not chop these herbs too finely and make sure you use a sharp knife. They can also be added as whole leaves to dishes, or torn into small pieces with your fingers.
What gives herbs their unique flavor and fragrance is their highly volatile oils which in some cases dissipates quickly after exposure to heat, so to get the best from your herbs it's best to add them to dishes towards the end of cooking, or just before serving. However, some herbs such as sage, bay, rosemary and thyme are best when given time to infuse with the other ingredients in the dish, so should be added at the beginning of cooking dishes such as stews, soups and casseroles. Tender herbs - such as basil, chives, mint, chervil, dill, coriander, parsley, tarragon - can also be used fresh and uncooked to make salad ingredients, toppings and garnishes. In this case they should be picked just before serving.
Getting the best from your herbs just involves a few simple steps in storing and preparation. Using fresh herbs wherever possible is always best.