Top: Be sure that herbs are absolutely dry
before you chop them. Photo courtesy
Williams-Sonoma. Bottom: Remove the
woody stems but keep the green portions.
Photo of cilantro courtesy Good Eggs | San
Fresh herbs are the avenue to adding a big punch of flavor with few calories to most dishes.
The emphasis is on fresh. While dried herb are a fine stand-by, they don’t deliver the same flavor—and the flavor fades as they age. First…
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HERBS & SPICES
These two terms are often used interchangeably, but that’s inaccurate. There are important differences.
Herbs are the leaves of a plant (although stems may also be used). They grow in any climate warm enough to grow vegetables.
Spices are from the seeds, roots, fruit or bark, and typically used in dried form. Most originate in tropical or semi-tropical regions.
Cilantro, an herb, is the leaf of the coriander plant; the seeds of the plant, coriander, are a spice.
Dill weed, an herb, and dill seed, a spice, come from the same plant.
It’s possible for one plant to contain both herb and spice. For example:
SWEET & SAVORY HERBS
Most herbs can be used in savory dishes. Think dill, garlic, thyme, oregano, parsley. In addition, there are the so-called sweet herbs, that can be used in both savory and sweet dishes:
There are other sweet herb not often found in the U.S., such as sweet cicely (British myrrh). Stevia, an herb, delivers sweetness in addition to licorice notes.
HOW TO CHOP FRESH HERBS
Here’s what you should know before you grab a sharp chef’s knife and the cutting board:
1. Be sure the washed herbs are fully dry.
If they’re just a bit damp, they’ll get mushy when you chop them.
While you can use paper towels to pat them dry, the best course is to wash them in advance of when you need them—even a half hour in advance—and let them dry naturally.
Don’t have time to let them dry? Gout the hair dryer! No kidding: We’ve done this more than once with big, damp bunches of parsley.
Next up: Different herbs require different chopping techniques.
2. Herbs with edible stems.
When you throw away the slender stems of herbs like cilantro, dill and parsley, you’re throwing away money. They are just as edible as the leaves.
Trim the bottom part of the stems, including any thick portion. If you don’t want to use them in the particular recipe, freeze them for later use in soups, stocks, stir-frys, pestos, minced into plate garnishes, etc. The stems freeze well; delicate leaves, less so.
Then, simply chop the stems along with the leaves. Don’t spend any time pulling the leaves off the stems!
Green stems from any herb can be cut fine or tossed into anything you’re cooking.
Use them in the same way you use bay leaf: When the food is cooked, remove and discard them. Use a spice ball if you like. They are a great addition to sauces, soups and even stir-frys.
3. Herbs with big leaves and woody stems.
You don’t need an herb keeper. To make fresh herbs last longer, use a water glass instead. Add the herbs and cover the glass with a plastic bag.
Big-leaf herbs like basil, mint and sage require a different technique.
Start by pulling the leaves from the woody stems.
Tear them into pieces, or make a chiffonade: Stack the leaves, roll them into a tight bundle and slice crosswise with a sharp knife.
Here’s more on how to chiffonade, plus a video from Le Cordon Bleu.
3. Herbs with small leaves and woody stems.
This group includes oregano, rosemary, tarragon and thyme. The leaves need to be stripped from the stems, but the stems are too woody to use.
The “hand technique” includes holding a single sprig at the top, pinching the stem with two fingers, and quickly running your fingers down the stem to remove all the leaves.
We prefer to use an herb stripping tool. It’s inexpensive and doesn’t take up much room in the gadget drawer.
Check your kitchen scissors; they may have an herb stripper built in to the center section.
These are small leaves and easy to chop or mince to desired size.
4. Chopping or mincing chives.
Chives, long and stem-free, are in their own category.
If you’re good with a knife you can simply slice them horizontally.
For us, it’s faster and neater to use our kitchen scissors.
HOW TO STORE FRESH HERBS
You don’t need an “herb keeper” to store herbs. Simply fill a tall glass with a few inches of fresh water, insert the herbs and cover with a plastic produce bag.
It’s that easy!