Cooking With Fresh Herbs
Herbs and spices are not just for “foodies” and culinary experts. Whether you want to add additional flavor to meals or to reduce added salt, fat or sugar, herbs and spices can enhance a variety of foods. And of course, summer is a great time to experiment with the availability of fresh herbs from local growers or your own garden.
Health benefits. Herbs and spices not only enhance the flavor of foods, but may also help protect against certain chronic health conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Recent studies have found that many different herbs and spices offer such health benefits. Much of the identified health benefits are linked to cinnamon, chili peppers, turmeric, garlic, oregano, basil, thyme and rosemary. Researchers believe that the content of polyphenols, a plant compound found in herbs and spices, may help reduce inflammation in the body.
Fresh or dried. Not all herbs and spices provide the same amount of flavor in both their fresh and dried forms. For example, using fresh chives will typically provide more flavor than dried chives whereas dried rosemary provides as much flavor as when it is fresh. It’s all about aroma. If you can smell the aroma from a dried herb or spice, you will be able to taste it.
Buying fresh herbs. Look for herbs that are rich in color and aroma. Avoid fresh herbs that are wilted or discolored. Keep in mind that fresh herbs are quite perishable and need to be used within several days of purchase. Plan to use fresh herbs before they lose their peak flavor. When possible, buy herbs in small bundles or packages. If you can’t use all of them, then try drying the unused portion.
Washing fresh herbs. Always wash fresh herbs before using them in food preparation. Rinse small portions under cool, running water. Once all the dirt has been removed, gently shake the herbs or use a salad spinner to dry them. Remove excess water by lightly patting with a dry paper towel.
For large herb bundles, fill a clean sink with cool water. Place herbs in the water and gently move them around to loosen and remove any dirt. Remove herbs from dirty water, drain, refill with clean water, and continue the washing process. Repeat these steps until your water is clean and no dirt is left behind.
Storing fresh herbs. Make sure any ties or rubber bands are removed before storing in the refrigerator. Remove any leaves that are discolored or limp. To extend the freshness of herbs for up to one week, cut the stems diagonally in the same way flower stems are cut. Place freshly-cut herbs in a jar or tall glass filled with several inches of water. Cover herbs with a plastic bag, leaving space for air to circulate. You can also store herbs in an open or only partly-closed plastic bag or container. Be sure to store herbs in the “warmest” part of the refrigerator to avoid the possibility of freezing.
To freeze herbs for later use, follow these easy steps:
Wash, drain and pat dry with paper towels. Wrap a few sprigs or leaves in freezer wrap and place in a freezer bag. Seal and freeze.
You can also chop fresh herbs and put them in ice cube trays, cover with water and freeze. The ice around them will help preserve their flavor and aroma. Thaw as many cubes as needed for your next dish.
When freezing herbs, be sure to label freezer bags with the name and date of the herb. Fresh herbs tend to lose their color and become wilted during freezing, causing them all to look the same. Frozen herbs are ideal for using in cooked food because of their appearance.
Cooking. A general rule of thumb is to add fresh herbs at the end of the cooking time to avoid flavor loss. Generally, dried herbs are stronger than fresh herbs so when substituting fresh herbs for dried herbs, a general guideline is a 3:1 ratio (or three teaspoons of fresh herbs for one teaspoon of dried herbs). Keep in mind, this ratio does not work for all herbs. It is best to start with a small amount of herbs and gradually add more based on your flavor preference. Another helpful hint is when doubling a recipe, do not double the herbs or spices – increase by 1.5 times the amount.
Learn more. Sign up for “Cooking with Herbs”, a hands-on cooking class to prepare simple and healthy seasonal dishes that incorporate the flavors of herbs and spices. Choose from either a morning session (June 11th from 10am – 12pm) or evening session (June 17th from 6 – 8pm). Cost is $15 and pre-registration is required by contacting the Cooperative Extension office at 704.922.2110 or Susan.Bugg@gastongov.com. Classes are held at the Lucile Tatum Center, 959 Osceola St., Gastonia.
For more information about our classes, please contact Linda Minges at 704.922.2127 or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Gaston County Cooperative Extension website at gaston.ces.ncsu.edu