By Chef Morgan Shupe
Buying fresh herbs from a farmers’ market or growing your own will guarantee the freshest, and best tasting dishes—especially compared to the dried or even fresh herbs at the grocery store. But fresh herbs can feel much more temperate than dried herbs which are easily measured into teaspoons and tablespoons. Here’s how I select, store, prepare, and cook with fresh herbs:
Selecting the Freshest Herbs
Select herbs that are have no wilting or discoloration. Choose vibrant-colored bunches with a deep green color that are aromatic. When selecting bunches of herbs, take a look at where the elastic or twist tie is holding the bunch together for any herbs that are rotten. Buying herbs in plastic containers is not ideal as they are often less fresh than bunches of herbs, but if you do buy them, first open them up to take a good look at the herbs.
Storing Fresh Herbs
Before storing any herbs, always remove them from the packaging they come in, give them a good wash and dry them thoroughly. This will ensure all the residual dirt is washed away and excess water is removed to prevent premature rotting.
For Tender Herbs (cilantro, parsley, chervil, mint and similar):
Trim stem ends and place them in about an inch of water. Cover container and herbs with a plastic bag and secure it with an elastic band. Keep herbs in the refrigerator and change the water every other day.
For Hardy Herbs (rosemary, thyme, bay leaves, sage and similar):
Lay a dry paper towel down on the counter, arrange herbs in a single layer on the paper towel and roll the paper towel. Store the rolled paper towel in a re-sealable bag with most of the air pushed out.
Trim basil stem ends and place them in a container with about an inch of water, like you would a nice bouquet of flowers. To keep basil fresh longer, cover it with a plastic bag. Store on your counter at room temperature (storing in the refrigerator will cause the basil leaves to turn black). Store out of direct sunlight and change water every other day.
Preserving Fresh Herbs
To save Summer’s bounty, either freeze or dry your fresh herbs for months to come.
Freezing herbs is the best way to keep them tasting fresh when preserving them.
1. In a food processor, pulse herbs with a small amount of neutral oil (grapeseed, light olive oil) until the herbs are at your desired consistency.
2. Put a spoonful of herbs into each compartment of an ice cube tray and freeze until solid.
3. Store the herb cubes in a resealable freezer bag or container until needed.
Alternatively, you can pour the herb mixture directly into a resealable bag and freeze it flat onto cookie sheet until it is solid. Then when you need herbs, just cut off what you need and return the remaining back to the freezer.
While dry herbs have a different taste than fresh herbs, this preservation method will keep herbs fresh for up to six months.
- Wash and thoroughly dry a small bunch of herbs.
- Tie the herbs back into a bunch with a paper bag around them, stem-side up in the bag.
- Tie the end of the bag closed with string and it hang the bag in a dry area of your home.
- Poke a few holes in the bag for air circulation.
- Check herbs in about a week. Store in an airtight container for up to 6 months.
Preparing Fresh Herbs
When preparing fresh herbs, cut them fresh to ensure the most vibrant taste and aroma. Pre-cut herbs wilt quickly and lose a lot of freshness. There are usually 3 types of cuts for herbs: finely chopped, coarsely chopped and chiffonade. Finely chopped herbs are used in sauces to evenly distribute the herbs throughout. Coarsely chopped herbs keep their individual flavor well and are for when you want a more of a pop of flavor than an evenly distributed flavor. Chiffonade or “little ribbons” is a cut for large leaves such as basil, it is usually used for garnishing or presentation reasons. For more instructions on cutting herbs, check out my knife skills 101 article.
Note: Always use a sharp knife or scissors when cutting herbs. A dull knife will bruise the delicate leaves of the herbs.
Preparing Thyme, Rosemary and Similar:
Hold the stem of the herb at the top and using your pinched fingers pull the stem through your fingers. This will quickly remove all the leaves.
Parsley, Cilantro and Similar:
Cut the bottom woody portion of the stems off but keep the edible thin stems to chop up with the leaves. If not using the stems freeze them and throw them in when you are making stocks.
Preparing Mint, Basil and Similar:
Pick the leaves off the woody stems and prepare as desired.
How to Chiffonade Basil:
The thickness of these ribbons is up to you depending on your dish and preference.
- Layer a few leaves of basil on top of each other
- Roll the leaves into a tight tube, cut across the tube to produce little ribbons.
When should I add herbs to cooking?
The general rule of thumb is to add hardy herbs at the beginning of cooking and tender herbs at the end.
Adding hardy herbs at the beginning of cooking allows the flavors to gently release and mellow during the cooking process. If you add them in a full sprig, you can easy remove them at the end of the cooking process to avoid any unwanted woody texture of the herbs. This method is best used for slow cooked items such as stews, soups and stocks.
Adding tender herbs is usually at the end of cooking to keep them vibrant and fresh, but you can also add them in layers to get different levels of flavor out of them. Adding herbs at the beginning of cooking adds a more overall rounded background flavor. Adding herbs at the end of cooking adds a more forthright flavor.
Try adding in fresh basil at the beginning of making a tomato sauce and then at the end of cooking, stir in more chopped basil. When making a soup base, try adding a few sprigs of cilantro or parsley into the broth, at the end of cooking discard the herb and stir in some more freshly chopped.
Chef Morgan’s Favorite Flavor Combinations
- Sage + Grapefruit
- Mint + Watermelon
- Basil + Watermelon
- Cilantro + Mango
- Cilantro + Basil + Garlic
- Thyme + Orange
- Rosemary + Lemon
- Dill + Beets
- Rosemary + Nettles + Mint
- Basil + Tulsi
- Mint + Rosemary
- Sage + Apple
What do you do with fresh herbs?