Getting to Know: Fresh Herbs

From Cook's Country | April​/May 2007

Many supermarkets stock a half-dozen or more fresh herbs, and there are dozens more options for gardeners. Here are our tasters’ notes on 12 popular fresh herbs, along with test kitchen tips for using each.

Basil

Basil

Sometimes labeled Genoa basil, this “slightly acidic” herb balances “licorice” and “citrus” notes. Basil bruises and discolors easily, so shred or chop leaves just before using. Basil’s delicate flavor is greatly muted when cooked; therefore, it’s best as a finishing herb.

Cilantro

Cilantro

Also called Chinese parsley, cilantro’s flavor is “soapy” and “aromatic,” with a “refreshing, peppery finish.” Cooking deadens its pungency, so it’s best as a finishing herb. The stems can be minced along with the leaves. When dried, the seeds are known as coriander.

Curly-Leaf Parsley

Curly-Leaf Parsley

Curly-leaf parsley is “milder” than its flat-leafed cousin, with a “peppery, earthy,” and “straightforward vegetal” taste. Uncooked, its texture is “plasticky,” so curly-leaf parsley should be allowed time to cook when added to soups and sauces.

Dill

Dill

Dill’s feathery fronds are “slightly bitter,” with a “refreshing, lemony” quality and an aroma akin to “caraway seeds.” Dill matches perfectly with cucumbers (both pickled and raw); its “summery freshness” also works well with seafood, potatoes, and eggs. Best used as a finishing herb.

Flat-Leaf Parsley

Flat-Leaf Parsley

This popular herb possesses a “palate-cleansing astringency” that’s balanced by a “hint of lemon pepper.” Add whole leaves to salads or chop and use as a finishing herb in a variety of cooked dishes. Parsley stems have a lot of flavor and can be used to flavor soups and stocks.

Marjoram

Marjoram

A member of the mint family, fresh marjoram is often mistaken for oregano. Its flavor is “sweet, like juniper berries,” with a “delicate, fleeting spiciness.” Marjoram is often paired with poultry, lamb, or vegetables and is best used as a finishing herb.

Mint

Mint

Although there are over 2,000 varieties of mint, spearmint is the most common. The flavor of mint can be described as “smooth and bright,” with a “eucalyptus quality.” Mint is often bruised or muddled to release its flavor. Best used as a finishing herb.

Oregano

Oregano

This hearty perennial shrub has fuzzy, spade-shaped leaves and tough, viny stems. Another member of the mint family, its potent flavor can be described as “earthy” and “musty,” with a “spicy-hot” bite. Discard the stems and add the chopped leaves at the outset of cooking.

Rosemary

Rosemary

This evergreen-like herb has an “obvious pine aroma.” In moderation, its taste is “clean, sweet, and floral,” but if overused it can be “like Vicks VapoRub.” Strip leaves off stems and mince or add whole sprigs during the last 30 minutes of cooking and remove before serving.

Sage

Sage

Perhaps best known as the main herb in poultry seasoning, sage flavors a range of foods from breakfast sausages to Thanksgiving stuffing. Its taste is “earthy and floral,” with a “musky” bite. Because of its “cottony texture” when raw, sage should be cooked.

Tarragon

Tarragon

In France, this slender-leafed herb is called “little dragon” because of its fiery quality. Its flavor is very assertive, with a “mouth-numbing, anesthetic quality” and a sweet “orange-anise” aroma. Tarragon can be used sparingly in fish, egg, and chicken dishes.

Thyme

Thyme

This low-lying bushy herb has woody stems and tiny greenish-gray leaves. Thyme has a distinct “menthol aroma” and a “deep, grassy” taste with a slight hint of “Lemon Pledge.” It is usually added early in cooking. Strip the leaves off the stems or add whole sprigs to soups and stocks.

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