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Cooking with Herbs: The Most Common Culinary Herbs You can Use to Add Flavor in Your Daily Meals

By Edited May 27, 2016 5 0
Roasted chicken with herbs and spices
Credit: Photo courtesy of amenic181 - freedigitalphotos.net (public domain image)

Cooking has greatly evolved over the years. As of today, recipes all over the world are continuously diversified to match everyone's palate. One effective method you can use to diversify traditional recipes and turn it into your own specialties is to add some herbs in it. You can even transform ordinary ingredients into lavishing meals through this.

With that said, the main topic of this article is about the most common culinary herbs used in today's recipes. Along with that, you will also read a few tips on how one can properly use, store and blend this specific type of food additives. 

What are Culinary Herbs?

The term “herbs” can denote to various meanings in different industries. In the field of botany, they are best portrayed as small fleshy plants that are extremely valued for their medicinal and health benefits. However, since the culinary industry uses various plants as ingredients, they have a different perception of this term.

Potted herbs

In the culinary industry, the term “herbs” pertains to any leafy plant part that is usually used as a seasoning to enhance the flavor and fragrance of your recipes. Take note, these products are only used as additives and not as a main ingredient per se. This is actually the main difference between a green leafy vegetable and herb.

In addition to that, when cooking, we also meet the term “herbs and spices.” So, what is the difference between these two culinary seasonings? Basically, products labeled as “spices” are also plant parts. But, they are the non-leafy parts of a plant like seeds (anise), a flower's stigma (saffron) or a twig (cinnamon).

Why add Herbs and Spices to Your Food?

In one of my articles entitled “The Effects of Too Much Salt in Your Diet,” I’ve presented some of the negative effects of adding high amounts of salt in your daily meals. Aside from that; refined sugar, syrups and other sweeteners are also causing alarm when it comes to the health department. One way to lower your use of salt and refined sweeteners is by using spices or natural herbs for cooking. Furthermore, almost all of these natural products contain loads of antioxidants and other nutrients that can provide a long list of health benefits for you.

These natural products also contain low to zero calories compared to sugar and other artificial flavorings. By adding it to your recipes, you can enhance its flavor without vividly increasing its calorie contents.

Culinary herbs

One classic example of this scenario is the use of cinnamon, nutmeg or mint for baking and other dessert recipes. As I have observed, a lot of people skip dessert, because it is high in calories and sugar. But, if one can find a way to substitute high calorie ingredients to low-calorie sweet-flavored spices and herbs, desserts will be healthier and more enjoyable for everyone. In addition to that, some spices such as cayenne, chilies and curry can slow down your eating, which is ideal if you’re trying to curb your food consumption. 

One of today's culinary trends is the use of natural herbs for cooking. This promotes diversification of recipes in a healthy way. As I've mentioned earlier, cooking is all about experimenting and having fun transforming traditional or classic recipes to a new flavor suitable for the modern era. Adding fresh or dried herbs can actually make a difference in your dishes. A sprinkle of these leaves can transform a simple ingredient like chicken, pork or fish into something enticing, lavish and sumptuous.

The best part is, most of these seasonings are economical. It can even be free if you have your very own organic herb garden. Lastly, your food's overall appearance should also be included when cooking. After all, cooking is a form of art. Using these edible leaves as garnish can definitely add aesthetic effect to your dishes.  

List of Most Common Culinary Herbs

Now that we know the important role of herbs and spices in our kitchen, let's find out what are the most common culinary herbs used in today's recipes. 

Basil and Bay Leaves

1. Basil 

Tagged as “the world's most popular herb,” basil is commonly used in Mediterranean, specifically Italian cuisine. It is also popular in South East Asian recipes.

Although there are numerous varieties of basil, there are only few varieties use as seasonings. Sweet and purple basil are the two most popular types of this plant. Compared to the purple version, the sweet variety is highly preferred by most chefs. Mainly because it has a sweeter flavor and it complements all tomato-based recipes and sauces. If you're searching for a licorice flavored basil, you can also use Thai basil. This Asian variety has a great affinity for curry pastes, soups and stews.

This article entitled “Basil: An Herb with Numerous Health Benefits and Medicinal Uses” may shed more information about the several health benefits and uses of this specific foliage. 

2.Bay Leaf 

Considered as the wallflower of culinary herbs,” bay leaves play a vital role in bringing forth a tasteful dish. Some of you may disagree with this statement. Mainly because, you may find sweet laurel as flavorless especially when combined with strong ingredients. This might be true, especially if you're using an old stock of dried bay leaves. But, in reality, this seasoning is a team player to the point that it's barely noticed. But, that doesn't mean that you can disregard this herb. A recipe that calls for this seasoning will have an incomplete flavor and aroma without it.

Just make sure to remove dried laurels before serving. This is because bay leaf is a resilient one. It can cause harm to your gastrointestinal (GI) tract if swallowed. 

Cilantro and Chives

3. Cilantro 

Known as the parsley of the east,” cilantro or fresh coriander is the kind of  herb that your taste buds would either love or hate. Some people would characterize its flavor as a bright citrus zest while others describe it as soap-like. Nonetheless, it is very popular in Latin America, Caribbean and Asian recipes.

Keep in mind that cilantro and parsley are identical in terms of appearance. You can distinguish one from the other through the strong aroma cilantro produces.

Another important note is the difference between the fresh and the seed coriander. Since both came from the same plant, they are both labelled as coriander. However, you cannot substitute the leaf for the seed or the other way around. Primarily because each has a distinct flavor. 

4. Chives 

Considered not only as the smallest, but as the most delicate variety of the onion family as well, chives are very popular in European recipes especially those involving eggs and cheese. It has a meek grassy flavor similar to young leeks. This specific characteristic allows it to lighten the heaviness of strong flavored foods such as blue cheese.

Keep in mind that this herb is very delicate. Hence, it is best to use it raw. Drying is also not recommended since it will destroy its flavor and vibrant hue. If a recipe requires cooking chives, it is best to add it during the last few minutes of the cooking process.

Lastly, to give your salads a more dramatic effect in an aesthetical point of view, you can use purple chives (flower). It will not only revamp your salad recipes. It will also bring forth an enticing flavor and aroma since its flower is more pungent compared to its leaves.  

Dill and Lemon grass

5. Dill 

Described as feather-like because of its fine hairlike leaves, dill is traditionally used for medicinal purposes like soothing one's stomach after eating.

Today, this herb is still known for its medicinal value. But, its fame is now spreading in the culinary industry. You can find this seasoning in popular fish and other seafood recipes from Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Middle East, India and Greece. It  has a special affinity with cucumbers and tomatoes. Hence, it's a good additive in your salad recipes.

As for its flavor, most people describe it as a bit grassy while others find it earthy. Either way, this mild and distinct taste of dill can enhance the flavor of recipes involving delicate ingredients without dominating the entire dish. 

6. Lemon Grass 

Commonly found in South East Asian recipes specifically Thai cuisine, lemon grass has sharp-bladed leaves and a lemon-like aroma. Its flavor is best described as lemony with a tinge of ginger. It complements coconut milk, which makes it ideal for curry-based recipes. But, you can also use it for marinades and to season poultry and seafood products.

Being a healthy herb, it is now globally marketed in various forms such as powder and oil. However, it is highly recommended to use fresh lemon grass when cooking. 

Marjoram, Mint and Oregano

7. Marjoram

Tagged as the meat herb,” you can use marjoram as a seasoning for almost all recipes except for desserts. It is typically used in British, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines.

Its taste is delicate with a hint of sweetness comparable to its mint cousin, namely oregano. But, compared to oregano, marjoram is sweeter yet milder in flavor.

When using this seasoning for cooking, you can use either fresh or dried herbs. However, dried leaves are more potent. Thus, it is advisable to use it sparingly. Furthermore, heat destroys its distinct features. So, you have to add it when your food is nearly cooked. 

8.Mint 

Known for its rough, fuzzy and jagged leaves; mint is widely used for dessert recipes and refreshing beverages. Nonetheless, there are also several spicy-curry recipes that call for mint as an ingredient. Mainly because it can balance the spiciness of curries.

As of today, there are two commonly used varieties of mint in cooking. First, is spearmint, the most flexible variety of the mint family. Having a sweet flavor, it has an innate affinity with fruits, vegetables, other herbs namely cilantro and spices like ginger. The second popular mint variety is peppermint. Unlike spearmint, this variety of mint has menthol. This component allows this healthy herb to produce a strong cooling sensation on your palate. It also allows peppermint to stand-up for strong and bold flavors like chocolate and curries. 

9.Oregano 

Infamous for its tag-line “the pizza herb,” oregano and basil are the two most common culinary herbs that fully defines and characterize Italian dishes. This is because both natural products have a great affinity with tomato-based dishes, especially pasta sauces and pizzas. But, this seasoning is not only infamous in the Italian cuisine. It is also widely used in Spanish, Mexican, French and Greek recipes.

As for its flavor, it has a warm and slightly bitter-sweet taste that oftentimes numbs the tongue. Like marjoram, dried oregano has a very strong flavor and aroma. Hence, it is strongly advised to use it moderately.  

10.Parsley ­

Parsley and Rosemary

Oftentimes, when we hear parsley, the term “garnish” comes to mind. But, now is the time to honor this underrated herb for its true value in the culinary industry. It is a fact that parsley is a powerhouse of nutrients that features a vibrant taste. So, why do we have to exile it at the edge of a plate?

The truth is, this peppery-flavored herb has numerous culinary uses. One in particular is its harmonizing ability. Basically, it can link and tame two or more strong-flavored herbs like cilantro without causing a clash in flavors. You can also use it as an extender. A classic example for this is Pesto pasta. If you have a low supply of basil, you can use parsley with basil to complete the dish.

Just make sure to opt for the Italian or flat-leaf variety. Curly parsley is somewhat bland and mostly used to add aesthetic effect to your food. 

11.Rosemary 

If you've heard the phrase the herb of remembrance,” it is referring to rosemary. Why? This is mainly because it is widely known for its potential to strengthen one's memory.

In cooking, this evergreen foliage with pine-needle looking sprigs is typically used to season all kinds of meat from chicken to fish, thus making it a kitchen must-have. This natural product is also one of the few herbs that parch well without compromising its pine-like flavor and fragrance. In short, fresh and dried rosemary has the same effects. However, there will be instances that the dried version will be a bit stronger. So, one must use this seasoning moderately and just add a little more if necessary. 

12.Sage 

Sage and Summer Savory

Crowned as 2001's herb of the year for its health benefits, sage has a grayish green leaves with a strong woody flavor.

Unlike other herbs that are delicate, you can add it early in the cooking process. However, its flavor is very overwhelming, especially the dried ones. For this reason, regulating your use of this herb is strongly advised. 

In the ancient times, sage is highly regarded for its medicinal qualities. Nowadays, it is not as popular as before. This is because most people only use this healthy herb once a year to stuff their Thanksgiving turkey. Nonetheless, be reminded that this seasoning has a good affinity with poultry and other meat products specifically sausages. With that said, you can definitely add it in your day-to-day cooking. 

13. Savory 

One of the most common culinary herbs available today is widely known for its aphrodisiac effects, thus the term the herb of love.  In the ancient times, savory was actually associated with several mixtures of love potions.Today, this healthy herb is still widely used to bring forth sexual desires and happiness.

In the culinary industry, savory is mostly associated with the “Herbes de Provence.” Mainly because it blends well with other herbs like basil, bay leaf, thyme and rosemary. It is even said that this aphrodisiac buttresses and unify all these herbs' flavor, creating a unique taste. Savory also has a natural affinity with beans. This is probably one reason it is also known as Bohnenkraut a German word meaning the bean herb.”

Keep in mind that there are two varieties of this foliage and they both have a distinct flavor and effects. Summer savory has a sweet-peppery taste. It is actually the variety that increases one's sex drive and blends well with legumes. Winter savory, on the other hand, has a strong pine-like flavor that is suitable for game or wild animals.

14. Tarragon 

Tarragon and Thyme

A highly expensive seasoning, especially when you're not living within the Northern hemisphere area, tarragon or dragon's wort is typically used as a seasoning for classic chicken, seafood and vegetable recipes. It is also considered as one of the primary herbs of the French cuisine.

Its flavor and aroma is comparable to anise, which is sweet and licorice-like.  Keep in mind that this type of seasoning has a very strong flavor. You only need to use a little dose to avoid damaging the flavor of your dish. This is especially true for the French variety. Russian tarragon is less potent compared to its counterpart. However, this variety can easily be cultivated.

Lastly, drying this herb is not advisable since its flavor will disappear. To preserve it, you have to store it in a bottle of vinegar. 

15.Thyme 

Like savory, parsley and bay leaves; thyme is also considered as the buttress and neutralizer of flavors. Its slight minty flavor goes well with garlic, ginger, onion and other herbs. You can even add this seasoning at the beginning of the cooking process. This guarantees that the flavor and essential oils are extensively released. However, be reminded that its dried version is quite overwhelming. So, you have to use it sparingly.

As for thyme varieties, there are several types to choose from. The most common are French and English thyme. Caraway thyme is hard to find, but it blends well with wine and garlic. Lastly, lemon thyme is the perfect choice if you want to add a hint of citrus zest to your recipe. 

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Growing Your Own Organic Herb Garden

As I've mentioned above, only few of the most common culinary herbs can be efficiently used when dried. Most recipes prefer using fresh herbs. Thus, one way to make sure that you will have a steady supply of this healthy seasonings is to grow your own organic herb garden. How? This article entitled “How to Start a Window Herb Garden” may shed some insights. You can also watch the video below for more information. 

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