Since the beginning of recorded history, people have added herbs and spices to their meals. Whether used to preserve food, to mask the taste of spoiled meats before the days of refrigeration, or simply to enhance the flavor of a dish, herbs and spices have always played an important role in cuisine. Although spices are technically herbs, the two terms are applied separately in cooking, according to their usage. In culinary terms, an herb generally is the leaf of a plant, and it is often used fresh. Spices, on the other hand — the seeds, roots, bark, buds, or fruits of a plant — are usually used in their dried forms.
For most of the Middle Ages, Arab traders brought exotic spices such as peppercorns, cloves, and nutmeg from Asia to Europe. Spices were so valued in medieval times that they were often used as currency. In fact, the demand for spices and the search for a shorter trade route to Asia for spices took Christopher Columbus and others across the Atlantic and led to the discovery of the New World — and its own rich array of herbs and spices. Today, it is nearly impossible to imagine certain dishes without the flavors of the herbs and spices introduced so many years ago.
Selecting, Storing and Preserving Herbs and Spices
At one time, because they came from so far away, were often carried at risk of life and limb, or were very hard to grow or collect, many spices and herbs were too expensive and precious to use on a daily basis. Today they are affordable and are an integral element of contemporary cooking. Incorporating these flavors into marinades, main dishes, desserts, and even beverages allows the cook to utilize some of the finest tastes that the world has to offer and to create meals that allow us to travel around the globe simply by opening a kitchen cupboard or stepping into a garden.
As with any culinary ingredient, knowing a few basics will allow you to make the best use of herbs and spices. Here’s how to select, store, and preserve them.
Selecting Herbs and Spices
Herbs and spices get their aromas and flavors from essential oils and oleoresins, present in the plant’s fresh and dried states. These oils are fragile and dissipate over time, making it critical to purchase the freshest herbs and spices available from grocers whose herbs and spices sell quickly and are replaced often. You can test the properties of essential oils by leaving a teaspoon of cinnamon out on a plate for a week and then comparing its aroma and flavor to that of the spice still in the bottle it came from.
When purchasing fresh herbs, look for healthy, unblemished leaves that are vibrant in color and not bruised, yellowed, or browning. They should be fragrant, especially when rubbed between your fingers. If you are purchasing dried herbs from a bulk bin, evaluate them for both color and aroma before buying. Their perfume should be deep and heady, not musty.
When purchasing dried spices, check for an aroma that is vivid and rich. To test whole spices, break off a piece of the stick or scrape off some of the nut and examine its color and fragrance. For ground spices, check the packaging date on the bottle or jar. It is generally best to buy dried herbs and spices in tightly sealed bottles. Self-serve bulk bins or packaging made of cardboard and cellophane allow oxygen to reach the herb, causing its fragrance and flavorful essential oils to deteriorate.
Storing Herbs and Spices
Fresh herbs have a limited shelf life — some last only a few days before wilting and losing their potency. To maintain their flavor and fragrance for as long as possible, store them in a plastic bag in the crisper section of your refrigerator. Tender leafy herbs such as basil, chervil, and cilantro can be wrapped in a damp — but not wet — paper towel and then placed in a plastic bag to prevent wilting. Keep them in a moderately cool area of your refrigerator, such as in the door or on a top shelf. Herbs that have been packaged with their roots, such as basil, can be kept in a glass on the kitchen counter. Add just enough water to cover the roots and be sure to change the water every day or two to keep the herbs as fresh as possible.
Store dried herbs in a cool, dark, dry place such as a pantry or cupboard rather than in a kitchen spice rack, where they could be exposed to heat or sunlight. Check dried herbs and spices every 6 months, and discard any that are dull in color and fragrance or that do not release essential oils when they’re crushed between your fingers, grated, or broken in half.
Preserving Herbs and Spices
Modern cooks can incorporate some of the world’s finest flavors when preparing marinades, main dishes, desserts, and even beverages to create delicious and healthful meals. Simply by opening a kitchen cabinet or stepping into your garden you can gather the flavors of far-away places to prepare authentic dishes from around the globe.
Drying is one of the easiest ways to preserve herbs for future use in cooking. Several techniques can be used, see Drying Herbs: How to Dry Herbs.
One of the simplest and quickest ways to retain the flavors of herbs and spices for culinary use is to freeze them. The herbs best suited for freezing are tender-leaved plants with fleeting flavors: basil, chervil, chives, cilantro, dill, lemon balm, lovage, marjoram, most mints, parsley, savory, sorrel, sweet cicely, sweet fennel, tarragon, and some thymes.
Add frozen herb cubes made with fresh herbs such as parsley, chives, or basil to winter sauces and soups for fresh summertime flavor.
Freezing Herb Cubes
Frozen herb ice cubes are easy to make and useful to have on hand in your kitchen. They work well as flavorings in soups, stews, sauces, and braised dishes. To make herb cubes, chop fresh herb leaves to the desired texture, and then divide them among the sections of an ice cube tray. Add just enough water to cover the chopped leaves, then place the tray in the freezer. When the cubes are frozen solid, remove them from the tray and store them in the freezer in zipper-lock bags labeled with the herb type and date. Use them within 3 months for the freshest flavor.
You can use the same method to freeze edible herb flowers (from plants such as anise hyssop, basil, borage, lavender, mint, scented geraniums, and violets). These herbal ice cubes make spectacular additions to drinks.
Freezing Herbs in Oil
Herbs and spices are commonly used in dishes that also contain oils: dressings, marinades, dips, and spreads. An excellent way to retain the powerful flavors of fresh herbs is to mix them with oil and freeze them, creating a sort of frozen pesto. In a blender or food processor, puree 1 cup of loosely packed clean herb leaves (basil, dill, lovage, marjoram, oregano, or tarragon, for example) with ¼ cup of olive oil or another mild oil, such as canola. Freeze the puree in labeled containers or zipper-lock bags.
Herb Salts and Herb Sugars
Both salt and sugar are age-old herbal preservatives, as they inhibit the growth of bacteria. A traditional method of preserving herbs for cooking is to salt cure them. In a container, place alternating layers of chopped or whole herbs and noniodized coarse-grade or regular table salt. Make sure each herb layer is completely covered with salt. Seal the mixture in an airtight container such as a glass jar or plastic tub. After a week or so, sift out the herbs.
The salt will have drawn the moisture from the leaves and absorbed some of their essential oils, creating both a seasoning salt and crisp, dried herb leaves for cooking. Thin-leaved herbs such as dill, marjoram, rosemary, savory, tarragon, and thyme dry well with salt.
Herb-flavored sugars make a perfect addition to teas, icings, or other sweet foods that will showcase but not overwhelm their subtle fragrance and flavor. Herbs that combine well with sugar include lavender, lemon or bee balm, lemon verbena, mint, orange or lemon zest, and rose- or lemon-scented geraniums. Tightly wrap 3 tablespoons of chopped fresh herbs in a piece of cheesecloth. Bury this bundle in a jar filled with ¾ pound of granulated sugar. Or, you can simply layer herb leaves in a jar of sugar, covering each layer completely with sugar. Leave the mixture for 2 weeks to let the flavor permeate the sugar. Stir occasionally to prevent clumping and distribute the flavor. Remove the cheesecloth bundle or sift out the loose herbs. Seal the jar tightly to retain the herbs’ fragrance and flavor.
The process that captures the beauty and flavor of fresh herb flowers and leaves, creating ethereal additions to cakes and other sweets, is referred to as candying. Be sure to candy only organically grown edible flowers and leaves. Good choices for candying include lemon verbena, mint, and scented geranium leaves, as well as borage, violet, and rose blooms.
To make these garnishes, select and then set aside several unblemished blossoms or leaves. Lightly whisk an egg white and strain it through a sieve. Hold one blossom or leaf with a pair of tweezers, and use a fine-bristled watercolor paintbrush to apply a coating of egg white. Next, dip the blossom or leaf into superfine (not confectioners’) sugar. Lightly sprinkle more sugar on top. Gently shake off the excess sugar and let the herb dry for 4 to 8 hours on a tray lined with parchment paper. Candied herbs will last around 3 months if they’re stored in an airtight container at room temperature.
Using Herbs and Spices in Cooking
From pastes to rubs, herbs contribute fresh flavors and aromas to a wide variety of dishes, including grilled meats and seafood, soups, salads, and baked goods.
Cooking with Fresh Herbs
Herbs can be used fresh or dried, chopped, whole, pureed, or ground. Using whole herbs is perhaps the easiest way to put them to work. By simply adding a sprig or whole leaf to a sauce, soup, or pan of meat or vegetables, you can impart a delicate flavor into the dish. This method of using fresh herbs in cooking is called “infusion.” Whole herbs are generally removed prior to serving.
If more intensity is needed from herbs, they can be torn, chopped, minced, or ground into a paste. Of these forms, a paste contributes the most powerful flavor to a dish. Torn, leafy, tender herbs, such as fresh basil or cilantro, will supply a soft, nuanced flavor that is more intense than an infusion (since the herbs are being consumed) yet less concentrated than chopped herbs. Torn herbs can be tossed in salads or sprinkled on vegetables and meats as an edible garnish. Chopping and mincing herbs completely integrates them into a dish, imparting a fuller, richer flavor with each bite. Chopped herbs can also add color and texture to food.
When using fresh herbs as an ingredient, be sure to add hardy, slower-cooking herbs, such as ginger, thyme, rosemary, and bay leaves, at the beginning of the cooking process. This allows time for their flavors to be released. More tender herbs, such as basil, tarragon, and parsley, should be added at the end of cooking to preserve their delicate flavors. To prepare tender herbs for cooking, pluck the leaves from the stems and chop them. (Basil leaves can be stacked and rolled lengthwise and then sliced into thin ribbons). The easiest way to remove hardy herbs, such as lavender, thyme, or rosemary, from their woody stems is to pull the needles or buds in the opposite direction of their growth.
To chiffonade fresh basil or other fresh, leafy herbs, rinse the leaves and pat them dry. Stack six to eight of the leaves, then gently roll them into a tight cylinder. Hold them firmly and, using a sharp knife, cut the cylinder into thin strips, each about ½ inch wide. When the leaves are sliced and separated, you can keep them fresh for 30 minutes by placing them in a bowl of ice water.
Cooking with Dried Herbs and Spices
Dried herbs and spices can be convenient for cooking with because they can be stored for up to 12 months in a cool, dark, dry place. When dried, fresh herbs lose water (this loss can constitute as much as 90 percent of their weight), which evaporates during the drying process. The herb’s essential oils become more concentrated, which means that a more intense (but not as fresh) flavor is imparted. When substituting dried herbs for fresh, use about half the amount required for fresh herbs. If the dried herbs are finely ground or pulverized, further reduce the substitution to one-third as much as fresh.
Hardy herbs such as rosemary, lavender, thyme, and oregano are fine to use dried. It is best to add them to a dish during the early stages of cooking or during initial preparation; for example, sprinkle lamb with dried oregano prior to roasting, or add dried thyme to onions as they cook in a skillet. With the exception of dried sage, most leafy, tender herbs are best used in their fresh state, rather than dried. Tender herbs, such as basil, tarragon, and parsley, lose much of their distinctive flavor when dried.
Dried herbs and spices can be used whole or ground. As with whole fresh herbs, whole spices infuse flavor into a dish. They can be placed in a tea ball, wrapped in cheesecloth, or added whole to a dish. Saltwater brines (salt dissolved in a large quantity of water), used to tenderize pork or poultry prior to cooking, can benefit from the addition of whole spices such as allspice, clove, and peppercorn. Whole spices can also be sautéed with butter or oil to add flavor and crunch to puddings, pilafs, and stir-fried vegetables.
To store fresh herbs that will be used within a day or two, such as sage or mint, stand them up in a glass of cool water on your kitchen counter or windowsill, or in your refrigerator.
Ground spices are used to add an extra layer of intensity to a food’s flavor. To grind spices, a coffee mill comes in handy. (Many cooks have one mill specifically for grinding spices, in addition to one for grinding coffee.) Other options for grinding large, whole spices, such as nutmeg and cinnamon, are a mortar and pestle, spice mill, or a microplane grater.
To coax more flavor from herbs and spices, toast them prior to grinding them. Dry-toast herbs and spices such as cumin seeds, mustard seeds, chiles, peppercorns, poppy seeds, and sesame seeds by placing them in a dry skillet (do not add fat) over low to medium heat. Shake the skillet occasionally until the spices become fragrant. In some instances, they may even crackle and pop. Immediately remove the spices from the skillet once they are toasted. Toasted spices can be used whole or, after cooling for 5 to 10 minutes, ground and used as a powder.
When it is desirable to have more flavor than whole spices can provide but less intensity than ground spices, crushed spices are an option. They can be used in infusions or to coat food prior to cooking, as in the classic French dish steak au poivre. To smash spices, place whole spices in a heavy-duty plastic bag. Use a heavy-bottomed skillet or rolling pin to crush the spices inside the bag.
Creating Herb and Spice Blends
Many types of cuisine use traditional herb or spice blends, which are generally prepared ahead of time and stored for future use. Curry powder, used in many of India’s stews and braises, can contain more than 20 different spices. The French-inspired blend herbes de Provence, which can contain basil, fennel seed, marjoram, thyme, summer savory, sage, rosemary, and lavender, is used to flavor roasted meats, soups, and sauces. Italian food so frequently uses a combination of basil, marjoram, oregano, and thyme that creating a ready-to-use custom blend can be a real time-saver.
To create your own ready-to-use herb and spice blends, simply mix together the selected crushed spices and dried herbs. Experiment with different proportions to suit your taste. Store your blends in labeled, dated spice jars or resealable plastic bags. Here are eight classic combinations to get you started.
|BLEND||ORIGIN||HERBS AND SPICES|
|Alino||Chile||Lemon balm, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, sage, spearmint, tarragon, and thyme|
|Berbere||Ethiopia||Ajowan, allspice, black peppercorns, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, dried chiles, fenugreek, ginger, and nutmeg|
|Chili powder||North and Central America||Cloves, coriander, cumin, dried chiles, garlic, oregano, and paprika|
|Five-spice powder||China||Cinnamon, cloves, fennel seed, Sichuan peppercorns, and star anise|
|Garam masala||India||Black pepper, caraway, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, dried chiles, fennel seed, mace, and nutmeg|
|Herbes de Provence||France||Basil, fennel seed, lavender, marjoram, rosemary, sage, summer savory, and thyme|
|Italian herb blend||Italy||Basil, marjoram, oregano, and thyme|
|Za’atar||Middle East||Marjoram, oregano, sesame seed, sumac, thyme|
Cooking with Herb-infused Oils
One of the best ways to make use of herbs in cooking is by infusing them in oil. The aromatic compounds (essential oils) of herbs are fat soluble, so oil is an excellent medium for holding their intense essences. Herb-flavored oils have many uses in cooking: in salad dressings, as marinades, as dips for bread, to stir-fry or sauté meats and vegetables, or to drizzle on fresh tomatoes, meats, seafood, and vegetables headed for the grill.
There are three basic methods for infusing oils with herbs. In the traditional method, whole herbs are submerged in oil to flavor the oil over time. In a warm infusion, herbs are heated with oil so they rapidly release their essential oils. In a cold infusion, herbs are blanched, and then pureed with oil and later strained out.
Making herb-infused oils is not an exact science, and the quality of the infusion depends on the strength and freshness of the herbs used. Start by making small batches. When making oils for cooking, experiment to see which method and which combination of oil and herbs results in the best flavor.
If not stored properly, herb-flavored oils can become dangerous to consume because of the potential growth of food-poisoning bacteria — particularly the type that cause botulism. Be sure to label these infusions with the date they were made, store them in your refrigerator, and use them within 1 week of preparation. Refrigerated oils will thicken, but they’ll liquefy again at room temperature. (You can speed the process by running the jar under hot water.)
When making herb-flavored oil, use either a high-quality olive oil that does not have an assertive, fruity taste that can overwhelm the flavor of the herbs, or use a mild-flavored oil such as grape-seed, canola, or sunflower. Herbs can also be paired with more flavorful oils, such as nut oils.
Traditional oil infusion: To use the traditional method of herb infusion to make a cooking oil, combine the desired herbs and oil in a one-to-one proportion: 1 cup (1½ ounces) of fresh herbs to 1 cup of oil. If the flavor is too weak or too strong, it can be adjusted later with the addition of oil to dilute the infusion or more herbs to strengthen the flavor of the final product.
To begin, wash a glass jar with hot, soapy water, then fill it with boiling water and set it aside for 10 minutes. Discard the water and thoroughly dry the jar, then fill it with the herb and oil mixture. To discourage the growth of bacteria, avoid overpacking the jar with herbs; be sure the herbs are submerged in the oil and that there are no air pockets. Cover the jar with plastic wrap, seal it tightly, and place it in your refrigerator. Taste the oil daily for up to 2 weeks. When the flavor is to your liking, strain out and discard the herbs. The resulting oil will be flavorful, but it will lack the more vibrant color achieved through warm infusion.
Herbs for Oil Infusions
Add fresh herbal flavor to veggies and meats by stir-frying them in herb-infused oil. Or drizzle the oil over salads, breads, risotto, or other grain dishes for a delicious finishing touch. Store your prepared oils in your refrigerator for up to 1 week. Caution: Do not use garlic in herb-oil infusions; cases of botulism (caused by the neurotoxin Clostridium bot-ulinum) have been linked to garlic oil. These herbs make flavorful cooking oils:
- Anise seed
- Basils, especially sweet, lemon, and ‘Dark Opal’
- Bay leaf
- Dill (leaves and seeds)
- Fennel (leaves and seeds)
- Lemon balm
COMBINATIONS INCLUDE: Bay, peppercorn, rosemary, and thyme; bay, dill, and peppercorn; and tarragon and chiles
Warm oil infusion: This method works particularly well with strong-flavored, resinous herbs such as thyme, sage, marjoram, rosemary, and savory. Prepare a jar as directed for the traditional infusion, and then heat a one-to-one mixture of herbs and oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Stir constantly until the oil starts to bubble. Lower the heat and cook for another minute, or until the oil is very aromatic. Remove the pan from the heat and let the oil and flavorings cool. Taste the oil to make sure the herb flavor has reached the desired strength. If it’s too weak, add more herbs and reheat the mixture. If it’s too strong, dilute the mixture with additional oil. Strain the infused oil through cheesecloth, pour it into the prepared jar, and seal it tightly. Store the oil in your refrigerator.
Cold oil infusion: The cold-infusion method results in intensely colored and flavored oils. Quickly blanch leafy herbs by dunking them in boiling water for 5 seconds, or pour boiling water over herbs in a sieve, then immediately submerge the herbs in icy water to halt the cooking process. Blanching helps preserve the color of the herbs and gives the finished oil a lovely hue.
Thoroughly dry the blanched herbs with a paper towel, then combine a one-to-one mixture of herbs and oil in a blender or food processor. Blend or process until smooth. Pour the mixture into a wide-mouth container with a tight lid and store this mixture in your refrigerator.
Taste the oil after a week or so, and if the flavor is to your liking, run the jar under hot water to liquefy the oil. Strain the oil through a very fine sieve or a funnel lined with a double layer of cheesecloth. (You can also use a paper coffee filter that has been moistened and squeezed dry.) After straining, the oil will be ready to use.
Cooking with Herb Pastes
Chopped fresh herbs and ground spices are often blended with oil to create a paste that can be served as a condiment, sauce, spread, or dip. Italian pesto (basil pulverized with olive oil, Parmesan or pecorino cheese, garlic, and pine nuts) and Argentinean chimichurri (parsley, oregano, onion, and garlic blended with olive oil, vinegar, and cayenne pepper) are two examples. Herb pastes also can be used as a seasoning rub before cooking. Try rubbing a ham roast or lamb chops with a mixture of sage, garlic, salt, and pepper prior to cooking. Other simple blends such as minced garlic with basil and hot pepper flakes will have a profound effect on the flavor of shrimp or kebab-size pieces of chicken or fish. Store herb pastes, including pesto, for up to 1 week in your refrigerator. Or store meal-size quantities in zipper-lock bags in your freezer for up to 2 months.
Pesto alla genovese, or pesto sauce, is commonly believed to have originated in Genoa in northern Italy. But pesto (a shortened form of the Italian word pestato, meaning pounded) has been known in various forms since ancient Roman times, most likely originating in North Africa. A German variety uses ramson leaves (Allium ursinum) instead of basil.
Cooking with Herb Butter
Like oil and herbs, butter marries well with herbs including basil, chervil, chives, dill, fennel, and thyme. Float disks of herb butter on soups just before serving, or use herb butter as a spread for bread, melted on fish or vegetables, or whisked into sauces. Brightly colored flecks of chopped nasturtium or calendula petals will add a splash of color and intriguing flavor to an herbal butter.
Herb butters are easy to prepare and make an elegant and flavorful addition to any table.
To make herb butter, finely chop dry, clean herbs. Depending on how intensely flavored and colored you want the butter to be, you’ll want to use between ½ cup and 4 cups of herbs per pound of unsalted butter.
Soften the butter to room temperature and thoroughly combine the herbs and butter by hand or in a food processor. If desired, add 1 teaspoon of citrus zest or juice for each ¼ pound of butter. Minced shallots and garlic can also be added to herb butter. Store herb butter in your refrigerator, sealed in an airtight container or molded into your desired shape and tightly covered in plastic wrap. For the best flavor, use within 12 weeks.
If you shape your herb butter into a log before you chill it, you’ll be able to create uniform “coins” of sliced butter. This makes for a more attractive presentation when serving. To make a ¼-pound herb butter log, place a 10-inch piece of plastic wrap or waxed paper on your kitchen counter. Beginning near the bottom center of the wrap or paper, spread the soft butter horizontally allowing several inches to remain butter-free on each end. Next, use the wrap or paper to help you roll the butter into a tight cylinder. Twist the excess on the ends in opposite directions to seal the cylinder. Refrigerate the log until it is firm. Before serving, unwrap the cold butter and use a sharp knife to slice it into coins. At the table, serve the butter garnished with an herb sprig or nasturtium blooms.
Herb Butter Pairings
Just a bit of herbal butter can heighten the flavor of an ordinary dish to make it something truly special.
|HERB BUTTER MIXTURES||COMPLEMENTS|
|Chives and garlic||Eggs, seafood, and vegetables|
|Cilantro, garlic, and lime zest||Beef, seafood|
|Mint and lemon zest||Lamb, seafood, and vegetables|
|Sage and orange zest||Pork|
|Tarragon and shallots||Beef, eggs, seafood, and vegetables|
Cooking with Herb-flavored Vinegars
Herbs preserved in vinegar make a versatile, flavor-packed addition to your condiment shelf. Flavored vinegars bring piquancy and nuance to any recipe that calls for plain vinegar. Add them to marinades for meats and fish or to dressings for salads and pastas. Drizzle them on raw tomatoes or cucumbers or on cooked greens or beans.
When preparing herbal vinegars, don’t use kitchen tools made of metal such as aluminum, stainless steel, or copper, because they could react with the vinegar’s acids and impart an unpleasant flavor. Use glass or enamel pots for heating, wooden spoons for stirring, plastic funnels for bottling, and glass containers for storage.
A wide variety of culinary herbs can be used to flavor vinegars: For example, you could try basil, in both directions to form a 1-inch-wide band, bay, chervil, chives, dill (seeds and leaves), fennel, garlic, ginger, lavender, marjoram, mint, rosemary, savory, tarragon, and thyme. For variety, add herb flowers, including borage (which will impart a blue tint to vinegar), chives, and nasturtium (include a little of the stem and leaves as well as the flowers for a more intense flavor). Combine herb flavors or pair them with fruits, such as raspberries and orange, lemon, or lime zest, or with spicy or hot elements, such as chiles, onions, and peppercorns.
Almost any variety of cooking vinegar will work as a base. However, for reasons of safety, only commercially produced vinegars, which are free of sediment and contain at least 5 percent acetic acid, which retards spoilage almost indefinitely, should be used. Distilled white vinegar is sometimes recommended for making herb vinegars, but keep in mind that its flavor is sharp and acidic and can overpower the flavors of some herbs. Wine and champagne vinegars, on the other hand, have more delicate flavors that work well with lemony herbs such as lemon thyme, lemon verbena, and lemongrass. Red wine vinegars pair well with stronger herbs, such as rosemary. Pair hearty herbs, such as garlic and chives, with robust vinegars, such as those made from apple cider and malt. Experiment with flavors, too: Combine herbs with sherry, rice, and fruit vinegars, for instance.
Other classic vinegar and herb combinations include tarragon and white wine vinegar, with or without garlic; bay, garlic, rosemary, and thyme in red wine vinegar; raspberry and thyme in white wine vinegar; chive flowers with lemon balm in white wine vinegar; and basil, chiles, and garlic in red or white wine vinegar.
To make an herb-infused vinegar, first clean the herbs and pat them dry, then place them in a clean, wide-mouth glass jar or plastic container. Most recipes call for three or four sprigs or ½ cup (¾ ounce) of coarsely chopped fresh herbs for every 2 cups (16 ounces) of vinegar. More or less vinegar can be used according to taste. In a nonreactive saucepan set over medium heat, warm the vinegar to just below boiling. Pour it over the herbs, and then stir.
To prevent the vinegar from reacting with metal lids, cover the mouth of the jar with waxed paper or plastic wrap before sealing. Place the mixture in a cool, dark place for a week, then taste. If the flavor is too weak, allow it to infuse for another week or so. When the vinegar tastes right, prepare your storage jars: Wash with hot, soapy water and rinse well. Fill the jars with boiling water and let them stand for 10 minutes before discarding the water.
Tarragon-infused vinegar can be ready to use or give as a gift in just 1 week.
Next, strain the vinegar through a cheesecloth-lined funnel or moistened coffee filter into a decorative bottle or jar that has a tight-fitting, nonreactive lid. Add a decorative sprig of the herb to the mixture, if desired.
Remember to store the flavored vinegar in a cool, dark place. It will keep for about 6 months.
Do not store flavored vinegars in sunny or very hot areas; sunlight leaches flavor and makes the infusions more prone to spoiling. Bacterial growth is less of a concern with herb-infused vinegars than it is with herb-infused oils because vinegar’s high acidity can retard or eliminate it. However, homemade flavored vinegars can develop mold or yeast, so immediately discard any flavored vinegars that show signs of fermentation, such as bubbling, cloudiness, or sliminess.
Pairing Foods with Herbs and Spices
There are many ways to pair foods with herbs. Regional cuisines tend to feature their own unique pairings. In Greece, for example, lamb is often roasted with rosemary; in India, it may be coated with a spice blend — or a masala — that includes chiles and cinnamon; in England, lamb is roasted and served with mint sauce. The chart on this page shows some of the most common matches of herbs and spices with foods. Use these pairings as guidelines, or experiment to discover favorite new combinations.
A sage-rubbed pork loin roast surrounded by sprigs of fresh sage is the basis for a tasty and festive holiday meal.
Meat and Poultry
When meat and poultry are roasted or grilled with whole herbs, the heat of cooking transfers flavor from the herbs to the meat. You can impart flavor by stuffing whole herbs and spices into a chicken’s cavity, tucking them into small slivers made on the surface of meat or fish, or adding them to saltwater brines used for tenderizing meat or poultry. Herbs and spices can also be blended to form a rub that’s added before roasting, grilling, or broiling meat or poultry. Dry rubs often include coarse-grained sea salt, while wet rubs combine oil with herbs to make a paste.
Though seafood is often perceived as having a delicate flavor, many varieties actually have very bold flavors that are complemented by strongly flavored herbs and spices. Whole herbs can be stuffed into a deboned fish. And herbs with sturdy or woody stems — such as rosemary and lemongrass — can act as skewers when grilling or broiling shrimp or mussels. Be sure to select woody sections stiff enough to pierce the seafood, and strip the lower leaves from the stems, but leave the tops intact. And while wooden skewers need to be soaked for around 20 minutes before using them on a grill, it is not necessary to soak herb stems.
Another excellent use for herbs is for “smoking” fish and shellfish on a grill. To do this, loosely wrap robustly flavored herbs, such as rosemary, vanilla beans, black tea, or basil stems, in a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil, and then poke ventilation holes in the top layer of the foil to allow steam to escape. Place the herb packet on the grill rack, along with the food being prepared, and cover during cooking.
You can also transform minced herbs and ground spices into wet or dry rubs for fish that has a steaklike consistency, such as salmon, swordfish, and tuna. The flavor of the herbs and spices will permeate the fish as it cooks on the grill, in the oven, or on the stove top.
Vegetables and Grains
Herb and spice flavors — from subtle and delicate to bold and piquant — team up beautifully with vegetables, from eggplant to turnips, and grains, including amaranth, quinoa, and rice. Vegetables can be drizzled with olive oil and roasted with whole herbs or sautéed with dried herbs at the beginning of the cooking process. (Fresh herbs should be added at the end of cooking because their flavor is more delicate and can become bitter if overcooked.)
Rosemary stems, lemongrass, and other sturdy herbs can act as skewers when grilling or broiling vegetables. When choosing herbs for this purpose, select woody sections stiff enough to pierce the vegetables. Strip the lower leaves from the stems, but leave the tops intact.
Herbs such as basil, dill, garlic, oregano, and thyme blend well with rice and other grains to make a flavorful pilaf. Or toss couscous or cooked chickpeas with chopped fresh herbs such as bay, garlic, parsley, or spearmint just before serving.
To grill vegetables on a rosemary skewer, use the stem’s pointy end to pierce pieces of squash, bell peppers, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, or other vegetables. Move each piece down toward the tip of the skewer and continue adding vegetables.
Soups and Sauces
Herbs and spices are great natural additives to soups and sauces. A liquid can be infused with herbal flavor from either fresh whole herbs or dry herbs in a tea ball or wrapped in a square of cheesecloth tied into a bag with twine (also known as a bouquet garni). Leave one end of the twine long and tie it to the soup pot or saucepan handle for easy removal. Let the herbs steep for a few minutes at the end of the cooking process, and remove them before serving. Sprinkle fresh herbs over the finished soup or sauce as an accent.
Also try using herb-infused oil to enhance the flavors of soups and sauces. In a skillet over medium-low heat, gently cook herbs and spices such as basil, garlic, ginger, and dried chiles in hot olive or vegetable oil. Drizzle the oil over each bowl of soup before serving, or add the oil to a sauce for an extra hit of flavor. This method works especially well with paprika and saffron, since they add color as well as flavor to the oil.
Baked Goods and Fruit
Both sweet and savory baked goods can benefit from the addition of herbs and spices. Rye bread with caraway seeds, gingerbread, anise biscotti, and semolina pudding with saffron and cardamom are but a few examples. When you’re preparing biscuits, cakes, breads, and cookies, fresh or dried herbs (such as lavender, grated ginger, and thyme) and spices (like cinnamon, nutmeg, poppy seeds, and allspice) can be added to the dry ingredients before you mix in the wet ingredients. Spices — including cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground cloves — can also be tossed with sliced fresh fruit such as apples or peaches before you bake, roast, or grill them. Herbs and spices easily transform a simple bowl of fruit into something special. Use anise hyssop with peaches, melons, and berries; try thyme with dried fruits and pears; and accent apples and berries with rose-scented geranium.
Ice Creams and Custards
Infuse milk- or cream-based desserts, such as ice cream or custard, with fresh herbal scents and flavors. To do this, bring milk or cream just to a boil, then add herb sprigs or leaves. Use four to six herb sprigs for each 2 cups of milk or cream. Cover the pan and remove it from the heat. Steep for 30 minutes, then strain out the herbs. Cool the liquid, if necessary, before using it in your recipe. Try anise hyssop–infused cream in desserts that feature apricots, currants, or peaches. Mint complements chocolate and berry-flavored custards and ice creams. English thyme makes an interesting accent for fig, pear, and cranberry flavored milk-based desserts.
Herbal and Spiced Beverages
Teas, cocktails, fruit and vegetable juices — almost any beverage can be made even more flavorful with the addition of herbs and spices. In Spain and Mexico, cinnamon is added to rice milk to make a popular drink called horchata. Fresh mint- or sage-steeped tea is a trademark drink throughout the Middle East. Ground cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg are used in North America to spice apple cider. And in Central America, cinnamon gives a spicy kick to hot chocolate.
Fresh herbs can also be used for decorative purposes. Serve a cocktail garnished with sprigs of mint or lemongrass, or make a beautiful centerpiece with lavender, mint, and fresh bay leaves.
From Kentucky mint juleps, made with fresh mint, sugar, and bourbon, to Cuban mojitos made with rum, mint, and sugar, herb-flavored cocktails are becoming increasingly popular in restaurants and bars around the world. A Bloody Mary can be made with fresh wasabi, horseradish, or hot pepper flakes and cumin. Martinis can be flavored with herbs such as basil or lemon-grass. A spice mixture applied to the rim of a glass adds a kick to a cocktail. To do this, run a damp napkin around the rim of a glass, and then dip the rim in a mix that’s savory (such as celery salt) or sweet (such as ground anise mixed with granulated sugar).
When herb leaves, flowers, roots, or bark are immersed in alcohol, their aromatic elements are drawn out and preserved in the liquid. Vodka — a pure alcohol and water blend that has usually been filtered through charcoal to remove flavors and impurities — is the base for medicinal remedies called tinctures, as well as traditional beverages enjoyed throughout the Slavic and Nordic regions of Europe and Asia. Slavs combine flavorings such as cayenne pepper, ginger, various fruits, vanilla, unsweetened chocolate, and cinnamon with vodka. Ukrainians produce a commercial vodka using St. John’s wort. In the Nordic region, vodka is seasoned with herbs, fruits, and spices to make drinks for traditional midsummer festivities. Sweden alone makes 40 common varieties of herb-flavored vodka, which are called kryddat brännvin. Russia produces vodkas that have been flavored with herbs such as aralia, which is related to ginseng, and magnolia vine, which is more commonly known as schisandra.
To make an herb-infused vodka, use a good-quality vodka that has no added color or flavor — an alcohol content of 35 to 45 percent is optimal. Place clean, chopped herbs in a jar. Pour vodka over the herbs, and store the jar in a dark place at room temperature.
Steep for 1 to 7 days, tasting every day or so to determine when the flavor has reached its peak. If the infusion is too strong, dilute it with additional vodka. If it’s too weak, add more fresh herbs and allow the mixture to infuse for a few more days, or enhance the flavor by adding a bit of sugar syrup or honey.
Pour the finished vodka through a steel strainer, fine-mesh sieve, or steel funnel lined with cheesecloth. Store the liquid in a clean glass bottle or jar. To prevent oxidation, seal with a tight-fitting lid or screw cap. Store it in the freezer to preserve the flavor.
You can even combine several different infusions to create a tasty blend. Steep each herb individually, then mix the resulting infusions. For example, dill blends well with coriander, rosemary blends with peppermint, and lemon balm blends with tarragon.
Or make your own herbal liqueur starting with your infused vodka as a base and then adding a simple syrup solution. For 1 quart of vodka, make a simple syrup from 2 cups of sugar and 1 cup of water. In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the sugar and water. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer uncovered for 5 minutes. When the syrup has cooled, add it to the infused vodka. Cover the bottle with a nonmetallic lid and allow the liqueur to mellow for about 4 weeks. Mints, lemon verbena, and lemon balm make great liqueurs.
Vodka is an ideal base for tasty herbal cocktails.
Iced Herbal Teas and Lemonades
Iced herbal teas are refreshing summertime drinks. You can use fresh herbs, herbal tea bags, or loose dried herbs in a tea ball. Mints, chamomile, and lemon verbena are great choices. To make your tea, bring the water to a boil, then remove the pot from the heat. Add the herbs, allow them to steep until the mixture is heady and intense, and then strain out the herbs. Let the tea cool, and pour it over ice to serve. Garnish with a sprig of mint or lavender.
Lemonades can be made more complex and interesting with the addition of finely chopped ginger or mint. Sweeten both iced tea and lemonade with an herbal simple syrup. In a medium saucepan, combine 2 cups of water with 1 cup of sugar. Place the pan over high heat and bring the mixture to a boil as you stir to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and add a handful of chopped herbs, such as basil. Turn off the heat and allow the mixture to steep for 5 to 10 minutes, then strain before use.
An herb garnish in iced tea serves as a visual reminder of the natural quality of the beverage’s ingredients.
Masala Chai: Spicy Tea Blend
Derived from the Chinese chá, “chai” means tea in much of the world, including Asia, Eastern Europe, parts of Africa, and Brazil. Masala chai is an aromatic blend of green or black tea with warming spices. Sugar and milk are often included, too.
In India, Nepal, and Tibet, where masala chai originated, vendors often peddle the tasty brew on street corners and at train stations. According to Ayurvedic tradition, masala chai boosts the immune system, enhances metabolism, relieves stress, aids digestion, and sharpens the mind.
Masala chai, a soothing blend of tea and spices, often includes cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves, along with milk and honey.
There are hundreds of chai recipes associated with different locales and even families. Spices commonly used include cinnamon sticks, cardamom seeds, fresh ginger, black peppercorns, and whole cloves. Preparation methods vary, too — some boil the tea, spices, and milk together, while others briefly steep the tea leaves and spices in hot water, strain them out, and then add hot milk and sweetener last. To create your own favorite blend, experiment by adding fennel seeds, coriander seeds, nutmeg, star anise, and lemon or orange peel.