Feature Articles: Eating Well
Janet Hackert, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist, University of Missouri Extension
Think of seasonings, and salt and pepper often are the first ones that come to mind. But there are many other seasonings, including herbs, that can be homegrown. Peppers and onions are not uncommon in home gardens. Herbs and other seasonings, like horseradish, are also options.
According to “The Visual Food Encyclopedia,” herbs are “green-leafed plants indigenous to temperate zones,” as opposed to spices, which are “aromatic substances derived from plants native to tropical regions and are generally characterized by their pungent flavor.” Herbs include basil, marjoram, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, dill, aniseed, caraway, coriander, cumin, fennel and parsley, to name just a few.
An MU Extension publication, “Growing Herbs At Home” (G6470), explains how to propagate, grow and harvest herbs. Herbs can be refrigerated, frozen or dried to prolong their use. A tablespoon of fresh herbs has about the same flavoring ability as a teaspoon of dried herbs. In general, the older the herb, the less fragrance or flavor it will impart to food.
Here are some tips for using herbs effectively:
- Chopping fresh herbs helps to release their flavor.
Use clean kitchen scissors or a sharp knife to chop them without
crushing the leaves.
- The heat involved in cooking helps free the essential oils that
give herbs their wonderful fragrances.
- To trap these flavors, keep the pot covered when you’re
cooking liquids with herbs in them, such as spaghetti sauce or soups.
- Do not add fresh herbs and spices during the hottest part
of the cooking process. If you’ll be using high heat, wait to add
your seasonings until the dish is simmering or closer to the end
of the process.
- If you’re using dried herbs, add them to slow-cooked dishes like
pastas, stews, soups and casseroles. Incorporate them early on, so they have
time to rehydrate and infuse their flavor throughout
- To trap these flavors, keep the pot covered when you’re cooking liquids with herbs in them, such as spaghetti sauce or soups.
- Add herbs early when you are preparing cold dishes to allow enough time for flavors to penetrate throughout the food.
Storing herbs well can prolong their shelf life and keep them flavorful:
- You can store fresh herbs for up to a week by snipping the
ends of their stems, wrapping them in wet paper towels, placing
them in a plastic bag and keeping them in the produce bin of the
- If you have more fresh herbs than you can use, you can dry or freeze
the rest for later use. Start by washing the plants in cool water and gently
patting them dry.
- To freeze herbs, there are a couple options.
You can strip the leaves off the stems and place them in the freezer
in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Or you can crush the leaves and freeze
them in ice cube trays, with the
option of adding water or oil to each cube, depending on their intended use.
Once they’re frozen, move the herb leaves or cubes
to a freezer container. Be sure to label and date them.
- To dry herbs, spread the leaves out in a single layer and
put them in a dark, dry place with good air circulation for three to
four days. The ideal drying temperature is between 70 and 90 degrees F. Keep
herbs with small leaves, like rosemary and oregano, on the stem and strip the
leaves after drying.
- To freeze herbs, there are a couple options. You can strip the leaves off the stems and place them in the freezer in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Or you can crush the leaves and freeze them in ice cube trays, with the option of adding water or oil to each cube, depending on their intended use. Once they’re frozen, move the herb leaves or cubes to a freezer container. Be sure to label and date them.
- Dried herbs will last up to one year if stored in airtight containers, out of direct light and away from strong heat. Keeping them dry is also key to retaining their flavor.
Be creative as you experiment with herbs and food preparation. Try tossing a few fresh, chopped basil leaves into a salad of spinach or other dark greens — the basil gives enough flavor that little if any salad dressing is needed. Adding aniseed or dill to spring vegetables creates a new taste sensation. Put dried tarragon or sage in a shaker to sprinkle on chicken or turkey instead of salt. For more ideas, download a free copy of MU Extension publication, “Herbs and Spices” (N362), which has lists of common herbs and spices and the best foods or dishes in which to use them.
Use herbs to season food and find new and enjoyable flavors, while avoiding or reducing your use of such unhealthy flavoring options as salt or salad dressings.
Last update: Thursday, August 10, 2017