One great way to make the flavor of recipes really shine is to use fresh herbs for cooking. Using them adds tons of flavor and freshness to any recipe. This visual Guide to Fresh Herbs gives information on buying, storing and using the most common herbs for today’s recipes.
I grow herbs year round. Most of them go dormant outdoors when the temperatures drop (although my rosemary bush keeps on trucking all year long). During the winter, I just grow containers of them inside on sunny window sills.
Guide to Fresh Herbs
The various herbs may look quite similar, but their taste can vary a great deal. Herbs are suited to different styles of cooking and this guide to fresh herbs will show you my favorite ways to use them in recipes. I’ve included images of the herbs as well as how to use them with best results.
For help with learning how to use fresh herbs for cooking, in each section below there is also a link to a recipe that features that herb prominently.
Buying Fresh Herbs
Most grocery stores have bubble packs of fresh herbs for cooking in the produce department for sale. These are a great way to get herbs that you don’t use often in recipes and don’t want to grow. Fresh parsley and cilantro is sold in the produce section of supermarkets in larger bunches, since these herbs are commonly used.
It’s a good idea to figure out which herbs you use all the time and purchase small pots of them from garden centers or big box stores like Lowe’s hardware. It is easy to grow herbs indoors. Outside they can be grown in pots and right in the garden during the summer.
For a greater variety than the supermarket carries, be sure to check out your local Farmer’s Market. They sell many types of fresh herbs for cooking in large bunches.
Tips for Storing Fresh Herbs.
I’ve written a guide for storing dried herbs but fresh herbs give you a challenge. Some tips for storing fresh herbs:
- Snip off the ends and store them in a jar of water on the counter. Place a plastic bag over the top and secure with an elastic.
- Wrap in slightly damp paper towels, wrap in plastic, and store in the fridge.
If you have a lot of fresh herbs, you can chop them and freeze in olive oil to use later. See more tips for preserving herbs here.
Fresh Herbs for Cooking
The list of fresh herbs for cooking is long and their flavors are used in so many ways in recipes. (See my herb identification chart here.) This guide to fresh herbs gives information on each of the herbs and how to best use the fresh herbs for cooking and recipes. Fresh herbs can take a good recipe and make it great, so it’s worth knowing how to use some of your favorites.
Tools for cooking with fresh herbs
I like to use herb scissors to cut fresh herbs. They are a no fuss tool that is a real time savers. A mortar and pestle and herb grinder are also helpful tools for herbs. If you purchase more herbs than you can use without them going bad, herb driers can be useful, as well.
This is one of the fresh herbs for cooking that I use all the time in my recipes. Oregano is used extensively in Mediterranean recipes. It dries well and is very easy to find as a fresh herbs in most stores.
Oregano has a hint of sweetness and adds warmth to any dish. The flavor is earthy and slightly acidic. It is commonly used on pizzas and is also great with chicken, lamb, beef, beans and egg dishes. It’s closely related to marjoram but is more pungent.
The herb is native to the Mediterranean and grows in dry, warm locations. Use oregano to make these French Bread Pizzas.
This herb is also known for its use in Mediterranean dishes but is actually native to India. Basil is related to mint and has a strong anise and clove like flavor. Both Sweet (Genovese) Basil and Asian basil are used in cooking. It is one of the most often used fresh herbs for cooking in the US.
The herb is found in many pesto and tomato sauce recipes. It pairs well with chicken and tomatoes and can be used with most seafood and meat dishes. Asian basil has a stronger flavor and is used in soups, stir fries and curries.
Add basil at the end of cooking times to preserve the color and flavor. It is also commonly used as a garnish. I love using basil to make this Basil Garlic Chicken in a Buttery Tomato Sauce.
This commonly used herb is native the Mediterranean but is now found growing worldwide. Both flat leaf parsley and curly leaf parsley are commonly found in supermarkets in the USA. The leaves are often used as a garnish and have high amounts of vitamin A, C and E, as well as both iron and calcium.
Flat leaf parsley is more fine and has a more aromatic and spicy taste than curly parsley does. If used in recipes, parsley should be heated gently to retain it’s flavor. Dried parsley has a much milder flavor than fresh. Use flat leaf parsley in recipes and curly parsley more as a garnish.
Parsley is often used in pasta and egg recipes. It has a clean light flavor. This bacon frittata recipe is a great way to use parsley.
Do you like loaded baked potatoes? If you do then you’ll find yourself using chives all the time! Chives should be used fresh, since they lose almost all of their flavor when dried. They are best harvested before they flower to give the best flavor.
Chives have a flavor similar to onions but without the tart bite that onions have. Add them at the very end of cooking time to maximize color and flavor. The herb has a grass-like look to them and the blades are hollow.
Use chives in dips, on fish and as a garnish. Snip them with scissors to use. This chicken and corn soup uses chives as a garnish with lovely color and flavor.
Most herbs have the leaves chopped to use in recipes, but the leaves of thyme are used whole. This perennial herb is native to Southeast Europe but is cultivated all over Europe and North America. There are many types of thyme, which vary in appearance and flavor.
The leaves of thyme grow on partly woody stems and are easily stripped off through fork tines or a small sifter to use in recipes.
The flavor of thyme has mint and citrus notes. It is great in Mediterranean dishes, with poultry and in stews and egg dishes. Thyme is very versatile and can be paired with any meat or veggie. Try these roasted carrots and mushrooms with thyme for a great tasting side dish.
I love to use whole sprigs of rosemary with lemon slices under the skin of a chicken to give the bird a great flavor. Rosemary grows wild in Mediterranean countries and is very cold hardy here in the US. I live in North Carolina and it grows for me all year long, even taking a round of snow in stride. Because I always have it growing, I use it all the time in recipes.
The leaves of a rosemary plant look like pine needles and are very aromatic. It is often infused in oils and vinegars. Rosemary adds great flavors to soups and stews and is a perfect herb to use to flavor meat. The flavor is strong so use it sparingly.
Try this grilled rosemary and balsamic steak recipe for a great tasting grill night.
Most grocery stores now sell bunches of cilantro. This is great because cilantro is best used fresh. Heat affects it greatly so it’s not a great candidate for drying. Add it right before the end of cooking time for best flavor.
Cilantro is one of the most popular fresh herbs for cooking in Latin American (particularly Mexican) dishes and is also widely used in Asian cooking. It is used like parsley in Asian countries and is sometimes referred to as Asian parsley.
This herb has a “like it or leave it” flavor. (Many people refer to its flavor as soapy and don’t like it at all!) Nevertheless, it is a very popular herb. The leaves look somewhat like flat leaf parsley (and take it from me…it’s easy to come back from the store with cilantro when you went out to get parsley!)
The seeds of cilantro are called coriander and are used by themselves in other types of recipes. Try this recipe for cilantro and lime kebabs.
More Fresh Herbs for Cooking
The leaves of mint plants are often used whole as a garnish for desserts and cocktails. Mint leaves have a high menthol content. There are almost two dozen different varieties available. All types have a strong aromatic or spicy flavor.
In addition to using the leaves in desserts and drinks, they are incorporated into Thai and Middle Eastern recipes like tabbouleh. The leaves are also widely used in teas and jellies.
When used in savory dishes, mint adds a cooling, peppery bite to the recipe. It also makes a nice addition to salads. Try this cucumber mint and melon salad for a light summer taste.
What is not to like about the mild licorice-fennel flavor that comes from tarragon? It is widely used in French cooking and is one of my favorite herbs. Tarragon originated in Russia and was reportedly brought to Europe by Asian traders.
The taste is spicy and refreshing with a slightly sweet after taste. The young shoots are best used in cooking. Since tarragon wilts quickly after cutting, it is good to have a few pots of it growing at home if possible. (However, it can be a bit more difficult to find as a young plant than some other herbs.)
Use tarragon with foods that take on other flavors easily such as eggs, chicken and scallops. One of my favorite ways to use it is as a seasoning for simple grilled chicken breasts. See also my recipe for Ahi Tuna in a tarragon wine butter sauce.
:Like so many other fresh herbs, sage is native to the Mediterranean area. The leaves are heavy with a felt like appearance, and are used whole, chopped, ground and dried as a culinary spice. They are picked slightly before the plant flowers and have a spicy, aromatic taste that can be slightly bitter. The flavor of sage leaves varies greatly depending on the type.
Sage leaves a widely used in Italian cooking. They are excellent with meat, particularly fatty meats like pork lamb, mutton and goose. The flavor of sage leaves is best if it is cooked with food, instead of used as a garnish.
For a tasty recipe using sage, try these Mild Italian Drunken Noodles.
This delicate leaves of the dill plant give a fresh, sharp flavor to foods. It is often used with fish and seafood, as well as dips, soups and all kinds of cucumber recipes. It is commonly used as a pickling spice.
The leaves of the dill plant look similar to those of fennel, to which it is closely related. It has a very delicate and tangy flavor and is best used fresh, rather than being added during cooking.
A common use of dill is to combine it with chopped cucumber and yogurt to act as a cooling side dish for curries. See also my recipe for pan seared halibut with a dill butter sauce.
I use dried bay leaves all the time in stews and casseroles. Fresh bay leaves are often used in making stocks, in marinades, and for preserving meat and fish. Fresh bay leaves are green and those that have been dried take on a more brownish color.
Bay leaves have an intense flavor that benefits from longer cooking times, unlike most fresh herbs. Bay leaves come from a plant known as Bay Laurel. The leaves of the plant were used to form crowns of laurels for important people in Ancient Greece. The tree still grows wild in the Mediterranean area.
Enjoy the taste of bay leaves in this crock pot chicken corn soup.
Good quality fresh marjoram can be identified by its powerful smell the the leaves are rubbed between two fingers. It smells much better fresh than dried. In fact, dried marjoram should be rubbed when adding it to recipes to release its flavor.
Be careful of cooking marjoram for long times at high temperatures. This will cause it to lose its flavor. Oregano and marjoram look very similar but oregano has a much stronger taste. Marjoram is sweeter and more delicate.
Marjoram is the perfect fresh herb for fatty meats and is often used in hearty National dishes. See it used in this Parmesan Meat Loaf recipe.
As fresh as a lemon is a good saying to go with this herb. Lemongrass is used in soups, Thai Curries, and stews. It’s also used in home made liqueurs. The taste of lemongrass is citrusy and compliments the flavors of garlic, onion, chili and fresh cilantro.
Lemongrass is an exotic plant that flourishes in the tropics. It has a powerful lemon taste, which is due to citral, the essential oil that the plant contains. Use lemongrass whole, sliced or pounded to a paste.
When using it whole, peel off the dried out outer layers and slice of the very bottom of the stalk. The woody top end can be smashed with a meat tenderizer or rolling pin to release the aromatic oils.
Lemongrass can be a bit hard to find fresh. Look for it in Whole Foods or Asian style markets. Try this Thai Chicken Coconut Soup with Lemongrass for a great tasting way to use this herb.
Using fresh herbs for cooking can add flavor to your recipes without having to rely on lots of oil, salt, butter and cheese. They make a great garnish to pretty up a dish and pack awesome health benefits, as well.
If you are new to using fresh herbs in your recipes, start with a few of your favorite and experiment with those that you don’t often use. You may be surprised which ones will become your favorite.
I hope that you have found this Guide To Fresh Herbs helpful. Which herb is on your grocery list this week?
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a small commission, but the price will be the same for you. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."