A guide to herbs
November 30, 2018 4:16 AM   Subscribe

I've bought and started using way more herbs in my cooking, to salubrious results. Yay! Unlike spices, where I have a sort of instinct for which spice flavors go together and with which foods, I cannot keep parsley sage rosemary and thyme (etc) straight in my head. I have no concept of which ones are appropriate where and how to combine. Is there something that can teach me/give me a run down?

Some examples of the kinds of questions I can experiment my way through with spices but am lost at with herbs:

Today I looked up pea soup recipes and several called for thyme. Why thyme? Would other herbs be inappropriate?

Making my newly discovered and amazing roasted zucchini recipe, which again calls for thyme. I never remember that this is the herb in question and always have to look up the recipe again. Also there's some herb that goes great with potato but what?

Making chicken with lemon slices, want an herb to sprinkle on. Which?

Our chicken soup has dill and parsley. We added coriander. Amazing. Can we try other herb combos? Which?

I made "herbed omelette" and just threw a little bit of everything in. It came out awful. Would like to not make that mistake again.
posted by Cozybee to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
Rosemary goes great with potato.

For the chicken and lemon, I'd use tarragon or sage.
posted by lollusc at 4:20 AM on November 30


Dill also goes great with potato, actually.

I think of dill as more of a fresh summery flavour and rosemary as the warm winter option. Rosemary with baked potatoes or in stews. Dill with new potatoes, or with a yoghurt-based sauce over them.
posted by lollusc at 4:23 AM on November 30 [2 favorites]


I have no concept of which ones are appropriate where and how to combine. Is there something that can teach me/give me a run down?

Yes. Your own palate can do it.

Omelette is actually a really good place to start getting used to herbs with, because its own un-herbed flavour is fairly subtle and it's quick and easy to make. So make omelettes with one herb added and find out how they come out. Once your palate understands what each herb does on its own, you'll be more likely to find pleasing combinations than not.

Pan-roasted potato pieces are another good base for experimenting with herbal flavours. Use plenty of oil, a little salt, a little pepper and whatever herb you're trying out.

One tip ahead of time: basil is a monster and will dominate practically everything else. Which is fine if what you're going for needs to taste like basil, but if you're going to mix basil with other things, use only tiny amounts.
posted by flabdablet at 4:28 AM on November 30 [12 favorites]


Another thing: like spices to some extent, your nose will tell you a lot of what you need to know about any given herb. Crush a little of the fresh herb between your fingertips and smell it.

Dried herbs are their own whole thing. They tend to miss a lot of the sharper notes that make fresh herbs taste fresh, and they won't give you anywhere near as much to go on with a fingertip smell test.

Also worth finding out about is adding herbs at various stages of the cooking process. If you want the sharp fresh notes, add them late. If you want the flavours that fresh and dried versions of the same herb keep in common, add them earlier.

Incidentally, the reason your bit-of-everything omelette probably came out bad is that a little bit of everything adds up to quite a lot of herb; I'm guessing the result was just kind of bitter?

Celery leaves are the forgotten herb. If you're making a recipe that calls for parsley and you don't have any to hand, celery leaves cut up in the parsley muncher can often give you something quite acceptably close.
posted by flabdablet at 4:35 AM on November 30 [2 favorites]


As a general reference (far beyond herbs), I really like The Flavor Bible as a way to explore different pairing options. It gave me a nice framework for expanding beyond recipes, and one way I use it often is to figure what herbs to put on something.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 4:59 AM on November 30 [12 favorites]


As a generalisation, soft herbs like dill, basil and coriander/cilantro don’t really survive the cooking process, so you tend to add them at the end, or to cold dishes. Woodier herbs like thyme, rosemary and sage can be added earlier in the process, even in stews and things that will cook for hours.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 5:16 AM on November 30 [4 favorites]


As a scientist who studies flavor and flavor perception, I can confidently tell you that having a palate is mostly about paying attention and tasting a lot of things way more than it is about innate sensitivity, and that you, too, can definitely develop an intuition around herbs.

The Flavor Bible and the similarly-named (but different) book The Flavor Thesaurus both take the approach of cataloging different pairings of ingredients (in mostly Western cuisine) and discussing why they are delicious. Very helpful.

As a home cook, I mentally split herbs into a couple of categories based on common flavors/ behavior to make improvising easier-
mint, basil, lemon balm/lemon verbena, tarragon, chervil, and shiso are delicate and fragrant- they wilt easily and have a heady, strong but not resinous flavor.

Parsley, cilantro, dill, celery leaves and fennel tops are grassy and fresh and green, a little wilty but usually a little tougher than mint etc, and they can have a pervasive flavor but it’s more of a green-y middle note.

Rosemary, thyme, sage, marjoram, oregano, and lavender are resinous herbs; they break down much slower and they have a deeper, more pine-adjacent flavor than the fragarant herbs.

VERY generally I usually would use fragrant herbs raw and as a post-cooking accent (like finely shredded basil or mint over a salad, or a pesto), and sometimes add them early in cooking to really infuse in (like basil in tomato sauce). Grassy/fresh herbs you can use fresh in much larger quantities, kind of straddling the line between a seasoning and a vegetable. In brothy situation, parseley or dill or cilantro added early, cooked until wilted, and pulled out can infuse the whole thing with a really pleasant green-herbal middle note. Parseley will give you a more French-Italian-middle eastern vibe, cilantro Mexican-Indian-Vietnamese, Dill eastern/Northern Europe. Resinous herbs I use more for infusing flavor longer-term, like in a stew, roasted vegetable or meat, marinade, or stuffing. Thyme is kind of a little leaf and the most wilty (compared to e.g. rosemary) and can work well for omelettes and other quickly-cooked things. Rosemary, thyme, and sage give me more of a British, pork pie-roast meat vibe, oregano /oregano+rosemary has more of a Greek energy.

Taste and experiment first and foremost, and I find *generally* that herbs within the same genre as I’ve listed can be substituted for each other in recipes to give a different-but-pleasant-in-a-similar-way flavor effect.
posted by zingiberene at 5:38 AM on November 30 [28 favorites]


I'm like you - not too sophisticated on my herb use. But I like to think of things thus: the firmer/harder/woodier the herb, the more of a wintery flavor it has. The pineyness of rosemary is a great example - it goes well on potatoes and chicken, heavier things that are cooked harder. On the other end of the spectrum is sage - how ridiculous, it's fluffy! - goes well in butter to give things a sweet herbiness. Between the two, fresh parsley - just your standard leafiness here - can be put on top of everything as a garnish to give it a nice brightness that's got a little bit of bite.

I also like to associate herbs with specific foods - dill reminds me of pickles and so I consider anything cooked with dill to be pickle-adjacent even if I don't taste anything fermented. That helps me make some decisions about what to use when.
posted by entropone at 5:49 AM on November 30 [1 favorite]


Our chicken soup has dill and parsley. We added coriander. Amazing. Can we try other herb combos? Which?”

YES.

Grow them and use them. That’s the best way to learn.

Want a secret?

You’ve discovered how amazing Corriander can be instead of the regular choices, and for the record 99% of recipes that benefit from a green herb are amazing with only Oregano, or just Oregano and Parsley.

That Zucchini you mentioned? Use only Oregano. Pork and Beef and Chicken? Dry rub a mixture of Salt, Paprika, Oregano + fresh or dried Garlic you whiz in a spice grinder or powder in a mortar & pestle. Shrimp? A dash of Oregano.

Any flavor profile that needs an herbaceous green note gets a little hit of dried Oregano. It’s perfect.
posted by jbenben at 6:11 AM on November 30 [1 favorite]


Here's what I do, although sometimes I break these rules:
Dill goes on eastern European food, seafood with lemon
Parsley: eastern European, European, mashed potatoes
Rosemary: potatoes, pot roast/beef, stews, also amazing to make a simple syrup and mix with gin drinks
Cilantro: Latin American, Asian food
Scallions and chives: everything
Basil: Italian, and with eggs. Omg basil is so good in scrambled eggs or as whole leaves on a breakfast sandwich with eggs. You'll want to keep cooking to a minimum with basil. Also try thai basil!
Thyme: similar to rosemary, also try lemon thyme!
Sage: mostly winter foods, Thanksgiving dishes, great with butternut squash and savory pumpkin recipes
posted by never.was.and.never.will.be. at 6:58 AM on November 30 [3 favorites]


Great question and great answers, thanks!

(someone who recently discovered the omelette-y joy of adding fresh thyme to the melted butter then waiting 20 seconds before I pour in the eggs. So, so good. I'm gonna make some right now.)
posted by mediareport at 7:12 AM on November 30 [2 favorites]


I think sometimes herbs are starring ingredients, and sometimes they're secret ingredients, and how I approach them is different depending on which way I'm using them.

The rosemary in roasted potatoes is a starring ingredient: first thing that you taste when you put it in your mouth, with the potato flavor bringing up the rear. The rosemary you stuff into the cavity of a chicken before you roast it is a secret ingredient: it just makes the chicken taste more savory and more chicken-y; non-cooks won't notice it's there.

The nutmeg in Christmas cookies is a starring ingredient: you want the overall impression to be one of warm spice. The nutmeg you add a dash of to your spinach lasagna is a secret ingredient: it just makes the spinach taste more appetizing and well-rounded.

The basil in pesto is a starring ingredient — I don't even need to explain why. If you add a tiny bit of basil to tomato sauce, it can be a secret ingredient, just making the tomatoes taste more tomato-y. (If you add a lot of basil to tomato sauce, it turns back into a starring ingredient, or at least a costar.)

With secret ingredients, when I just want the herbs to shine a flattering light on my main ingredient, I memorize classic combos that are proven to work. I know now that basil is the secret ingredient for tomatoes, nutmeg for spinach, tarragon or cumin for carrots, cumin again for beans, cinnamon or ginger for winter squash, and so on down the list. Sometimes I discover a new combo that I add to my repertoire, but mostly I keep coming back to the ones I know work.

When I want the herbs to be a starring ingredient or a costar, that's when I use the taste-and-experiment approach others are advocating. Often I'll pick two or three flavors that I'm curious about, put them together, and see what happens. With the flavor of the herbs front and center, instead of in the background, it will be real obvious real quick whether it's great or mediocre. (And it's rarely truly terrible.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:36 AM on November 30 [4 favorites]


When I'm cooking something, I will smell it and then smell different seasonings and just decide if they smell good together.

This is a reference I don't remember where I got it, but have found it useful for inspiration:

Ethnic Combinations
----------------------------
CHINESE: anise seed, chile oil, garlic, ginger, spicy pepper, sesame oil, sesame seed, soy sauce, star anise
MEXICAN: chiles, cilantro, cinnamon, cocoa, coriander, cumin seed, garlic, oregano, vanilla
ITALIAN: basil, bay leaves, fennel, garlic, marjoram, oregano, parsley, rosemary
INDIAN: chiles, cilantro, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin seed, curry, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, mint, mustard seed, red pepper, turmeric
GREEK: cinnamon, dill, garlic, lemon, mint, nutmeg, oregano
CARIBBEAN: allspice, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, curry, garlic, ginger, lime, nutmeg, oregano, spicy pepper, thyme
THAI: coconut cream, fish sauce, lime juice, chilies, garlic, cilantro, lemongrass, Thai basils, mint, ginger, galangal, tamarind, turmeric, shallots, kaffir lime
NORTH AFRICAN: cilantro, cinnamon, coriander, cumin seed, garlic, ginger, mint, red pepper, saffron, turmeric

Another source of inspiration is when I hear something interesting on a cooking show. Lately have gotten some mouth-watering ideas from the Great British Bake Off.
posted by dancing leaves at 1:15 PM on November 30 [1 favorite]


Adding on Dancing Leaves, the French fines herbes classic combo of parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon adds a great pop to otherwise bland foods, like potato salad, or can be mixed into a herb butter. It needs to be fresh or pureed herbs though.
posted by cardboard at 1:43 PM on November 30


If you're willing to spend on some reading or do some library hunting:

The Spice Companion covers every common herb & spice (plus plenty more obscure ones) and has succinct combination, blending and ingredient pairing advice on each. Plus beautiful illustrations of the plants and photos of the leaves / seeds etc. It's as lovely a coffee table book as it is useful.

If you really want to dive deep, you need Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking. Chapter 8 goes into herbs and spices, down to the level of info on the different chemical families found in them and how these account for flavour components.

A useful extract from McGee for thinking in finer detail about herb / spice flavour elements when tasting is a chart (pages 392/393) where key chemicals in them are listed under the following categories:

Fresh / Pine / Citrus / Floral
Woody / Warm "sweet" / Anise
Penetrating / Pungent / Distinctive

Some specific examples of what this can tell about how herbs could combine or subsitute:

Parsley, Sage and Rosemary all share the "warm sweet" chemical myrcene.
Rosemary, Sage and Thyme all share the "pine" chemical pinene.
Rosemary and Sage share the "fresh" chemical cineole.
Parsley has the same "woody" chemical, myristicin, as Fennel and Dill.
Thyme has a "citrus" chemical, cymene, which isn't found in any other listed herb or spice.
posted by protorp at 2:33 PM on November 30 [2 favorites]


If your local library carries it (or if you want to spring for the cost yourself), I recommend the video The Everyday Gourmet: Essential Secrets of Spices in Cooking.
posted by Rykey at 3:18 PM on November 30


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