Do you want to learn how to add freshness and flavor to any dish? The addition of fresh herbs will allow you to do just that. Understanding how to cook with fresh herbs is an essential skill that will add an exciting new dimension to your meals. Each type of herb has a unique flavor profile that makes it suitable for certain dishes, and out of place in others.
This guide will explain what each herb variety tastes like, as well as how to use it in your dishes. No ultimate guide is complete without useful advice on storage, preparation, and a quick-reference infographic. By the end of this page, you’ll be an herbal hotshot. Let’s dive in.
12 must-have fresh herbs for cooking
Every herb has its soul mate. Rosemary and thyme are one of the best-known combinations in cooking; basil and pine nuts combine to create mouth-watering pesto. It’s time to shine the spotlight on some of the most popular fresh herbs and how to use them to your best advantage.
1. Bay leaf
Compared to other herbs on this list, bay leaves look and smell unimpressive. But don’t be fooled. This unassuming leaf brings a sweet, floral, minty flavor to sauces, stews, and soups. The French learned back in the 1600s that combining it with parsley and thyme created flavor perfection. This combination was named bouquet garni and it is still commonly used in kitchens today.
As the bay leaf cooks, it releases a subtly bitter flavor that is useful in heavy, slow-cooked dishes. The bitterness helps balance out the fatty, richness of the meat. Although you won’t detect the addition of bay leaf in a meal, it would be sorely missed if left out. While chopped parsley and vibrant chili get all the attention at the dinner table, it’s the bay leaf that’s doing the “heavy lifting” behind the scenes.
Hint: If you’re using fresh bay leaves remember they’re less pungent than the dried stuff so you’ll need to throw in a couple extra to get the best out of them.
Sage adds sweet, bitter, and pine-like flavors to a dish. It packs a strong taste that cuts through heavy foods. Pork, duck, or any fatty meat is delicious with the addition of sage. Vegetables that combine well with sage are Brussel sprouts, potatoes, broccoli, and carrots.
Italians love to make a soffritto at the start of a dish which consists of onions, carrots, and celery. Sage is another ingredient frequently added to help build depth of flavor in the meal. You can also make a fancy sauce by heating butter in a pan until foaming, then adding sage. Cook until the aromas fill the kitchen, then pour over a juicy steak or stir through pasta.
If you are interested in learning more about creating flavorful food, check out our awesome guide to aromatics. It includes a free downloadable cheat sheet of all the best aromatic combinations.
Fresh marjoram is the less-intense cousin of oregano. It is at its happiest incorporated into food that includes tomatoes. As a general rule, use this herb anywhere that you'd use basil. To appreciate its sweet, woody flavor, this ingredient should be added early in the cooking process.
Use marjoram in Bolognese, risotto, soup, dressings, or stuffing. Italians appreciate this herb for bringing something extra to meatballs, sausages, and as a topping on pizza. The French use marjoram as a component of herbs de Provence.
Got no marjoram in the kitchen? Check out these replacements.
Oregano is peppery and pungent with leaves that are occasionally confused like mint. The fresh version is much less intense in flavor than the dried option. Like marjoram, it is at its best used in Italian cookery. Flavorsome tomato sauce, dressings, casseroles, and pizzas gain new heights with the subtle addition of oregano.
Mediterranean foods (like lamb kebabs) are perfect with oregano added. If you’re trying to decide what protein will tolerate oregano, we’d recommend lamb, pork, or poultry. Cauliflower, artichokes, bell peppers, and eggplants also go well with this herb.
Tip: Leave the leaves on the stem when adding fresh oregano to food at the start of cooking.
When paired with rosemary, thyme always gets mentioned second. But that doesn’t make it any less of a herb. Its delicate leaves offer a minty, sweet taste that don’t overpower surrounding ingredients. French cuisine thrives on thyme, and it plays a key role in the bouquet garni and herbs de Provence.
Chicken, lamb, pork, beef, and duck are all suitable companions for fresh thyme. Subtle flavored fresh seafood like scallops also won’t get overpowered by a sprinkling of its leaves. Other sides where thyme can be put to work include leek, potatoes, eggs, and winter squash.
A unique feature of thyme is its aroma, which is much more subtle than most others on this list.
Unlike thyme, tarragon is easily capable of overpowering food and should be used in moderation. Its peppery, licorice flavor enhances protein such as salmon, baked white fish, chicken, rabbit, and veal.
Eggs, vinaigrettes, mustard, salads, and omelets all get taken to a better place thanks to tarragon. It is best to add tarragon at the start of cooking to give plenty of time for the flavor and aroma to release.
If you have no tarragon you can easily find a useful replacement here.
Rosemary is the long-term companion of lamb, they’re inseparable. But this herb certainly isn’t a one-trick pony. Its pungent, woody flavor and pine-like aroma can be used in moderation with red snapper, chicken, pork, sauces, and stews. It is also used in herbs de Provence and as a key ingredient in Italian porchetta and sausages.
The whole stem can be added early in the cook. Keep in mind that the leaves tend to fall off during cooking so using a bouquet garni bag is a good idea. If you decide to cut up the leaves then ensure they are finely chopped as they’re quite tough.
Tip: Sprinkle the flowers on desserts for an impressive looking garnish that packs a flavor punch. You can find out more about edible flowers here.
8. Summer Savory
Summer savory has a hot peppery flavor and is often compared to thyme. Although it has a spicy aroma and taste, it is milder than winter savory. Fresh savory has a wide range of uses including stuffing, sauce, chicken, lamb, pork, fish, and duck.
Summer savory is included in bouquet garni and fines herbes - both classic herb combinations used in French cuisine.
Basil, aka sweet basil, is sweet and peppery with a distinct herbaceous aroma. It plays a crucial role, combined with garlic and pine nuts, in making pesto. Its vibrant green color is a welcome addition to the dinner table. Basil sauce is another flavorsome, colorful condiment that is a mix of olive oil and basil, processed in a blender.
Basil is super-versatile and works in a wide range of salads, stir-fries, soups, curries, vegetables, and meat. It can even be cooked in an Anglaise custard and churned into delicious creamy ice cream.
Food always looks better with a delicate frond of dill placed on top. Its fine leaves add something special to fish, shellfish, lamb, and eggs. Although dill is a pleasant looking plant, it has a delicious anise flavor that lends itself well to sauces, dressings, and salads.
Dill is revered in Eastern and Northern Europe and is used in practically any dish that includes yogurt, sour cream, or cucumber. Potato salad, cucumber salad, and tzatziki would have to be its most popular uses.
Need dill but don’t have any? Here are your best dill replacements.
Continental parsley adds a burst of freshness and color to almost anything. Meatballs, schnitzel, salads, and sauces are all better with it added. Fresh parsley can also be chopped and added as a garnish to soup, tacos, or stews.
If you have the choice, choose flat-leaf (Continental) parsley over the curly-leaf variety. The flavor and texture are better. The stems of parsley contain the most flavor and are excellent used in slow-cooked food.
Do you know the difference between parsley and cilantro? Read our article to understand how they differ.
Cilantro, or coriander, is a controversial ingredient – people either love or loathe its bright and citrusy flavor. Although its worth in the kitchen is highly debated, everyone would have to agree it is vibrant and full of flavor. Mexican cuisine uses it to make a colorful salsa; added for freshness to chili; in tacos, and much more. It also features prominently in Thai, Indian and Middle Eastern recipes.
Some useful ways to use cilantro at home are in guacamole, curry, chutney, soup, and marinades. It can also be used with fish, chicken, and shellfish. Add this herb at the end of cooking as it quickly loses its flavor when cooked.
Should I use fresh or dried herbs?
Fresh herbs should always be used for adding vibrant color to a dish. It is usually best to use tender herbs like chives or basil when they’re fresh. Herbs that are dried tend to lose their ability to brighten a dish. Hardy herbs like bay leaf and rosemary intensify in flavor once dried, and this concentrated quality is useful for slow-cooked meals.
How to Store Fresh Herbs
No one wants to waste food, especially when it could have lasted longed if stored correctly. To get the best out of your herbs, trim the stems and place them in a half-filled jar of cold water. You should also cover the jar with a plastic bag and secure it with a rubber band to help extend its life.
A second storage option is to wrap the herbs in a damp paper towel and then put them in a small sealable plastic bag. Finally, put the bag in the fridge until needed. Most herbs will last 10-14 days before going bad.
- Snip off the root ends as they draw water from the leaves, causing the leaves to wilt prematurely.
- It is a good idea to remove bands or ties that are holding fragile herbs together as they tend to bruise the plant.
If you have too many herbs in the garden, or you bought up big-time at the store, you’ll need a better plan for storing them. You should definitely take a look at our guide to preserving herbs to get lots of great ideas for long-term storage.
How to choose the best herbs in-store
When shopping for fresh herbs, choose vibrant, fresh-looking bunches that don’t have any spots, bruising, or yellow patches. They should have a lovely aroma, so if you can’t smell them don’t buy them. Whenever possible, it is good practice to buy herbs just before cooking them.
Should I wash my herbs?
Water encourages mold growth and reduces the plant's lifespan. Only wash the herbs if they will be used immediately; otherwise, leave them until it’s time to cook. If you decide to go ahead and wash them, place the herbs in a strainer and gently rinse under cold water. Allow to drip dry and then pat with a clean dry towel. If the leaves are slightly damp they will bruise when you attempt to chop them.
4 creative uses for fresh herbs
- Got no wood chips for the grill? Use thick-stemmed rosemary or sage as a useful alternative.
- Looking for a healthy garnish? Fry or broil sage, parsley, or lovage leaves splashed in olive oil for a crunchy addition to your next meal.
- Instead of tossing out herb stems, use them as an aromatic in stock.
- Use in-season sage, borage, rosemary, or summer savory blossoms for a splash of color on desserts and salads.
How to prepare fresh herbs
A pair of herb scissors are helpful to prepare herbs for use in cooking. If you don’t have a pair, then a sharp knife is also suitable. Blunt knives will bruise the leaves causing them to blacken. To release more flavor and aroma, chop the herbs finely.
|Herb||How To Prepare|
|Chives||Hold an entire bunch and carefully snip small rounds with herb scissors.|
|Thyme||Use the whole sprig or remove leaves and chop finely with a sharp knife.|
|Rosemary||Use the whole sprig or remove leaves and chop finely with a sharp knife.|
|Oregano||Remove leaves and chop finely with a sharp knife.|
|Tarragon||Remove leaves and chop finely with a sharp knife.|
|Mint||Place picked leaves into a stack and roll up, then slice crosswise using a sharp knife.|
|Basil||Place picked leaves into a stack and roll up, then slice crosswise using a sharp knife.|
|Parsley||The leaves and stem are both edible so slice into suitably sized pieces.|
|Dill||The leaves and stem are both edible so slice into suitably sized pieces.|
|Cilantro||The leaves and stem are both edible so slice into suitably sized pieces.|
Fresh herbs are a must-have item in every kitchen; they’re excellent for adding additional flavor, color, and aroma to savory and sweet food. It is helpful to get a basic understanding of which herbs to use with different types of meat and vegetables. We recommend downloading the guide at the top of this page or the infographic below for quick reference.
Fresh herbs can be quite expensive, especially if you like to have a range of herbs on hand. Growing your own is a great option, they are easy to grow and work out much cheaper.
Many recipes call for dried herbs which have an intensified flavor. If you decide to use the fresh option instead, use two or three times more to get a similar result.
What is your favorite herb that you couldn’t live without? Please let us know in the comments below.