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The Cook's Illustrated Guide to Fresh Herbs

By Elizabeth Bomze Published

Fragrant, distinct, and abundant during warm months, these verdant sprigs have much more to offer than just a pop of freshness and color.

One of the fastest, most economical ways to boost the flavor of food is to add fresh herbs. That’s long been the philosophy in cuisines around the world, particularly in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, where fresh herbs are an essential component at meals (often, whole sprigs are heaped onto platters and eaten like vegetables alongside richer dishes). Happily, there are more varieties than ever available at farmers’ markets and grocery stores. All the more reason to work them into your daily cooking repertoire.

Two Basic Categories: Hearty and Delicate

We classify most herbs as either hearty or delicate. These adjectives refer not only to their textural qualities (leaves that are sturdy and tough versus delicate and tender) but also to the strength or volatility of their flavor compounds and how they behave when cooked; in general, volatile flavor compounds in hearty herbs are somewhat more heat-stable than those in delicate varieties. These categories also help clarify the best ways to prep, store, and cook most herbs.

Hearty: Add early in cooking Delicate: Add at the last minute

Rosemary, Thyme, Oregano, Sage, Marjoram

Basil, Parsley, Cilantro, Dill, Mint, Chives, Tarragon

Eight Herbs You Should be Cooking With

We love the classic Simon and Garfunkel quartet of parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme—not to mention other common favorites like basil (and Thai basil), chives, cilantro, and tarragon—but the herbs below are just as versatile and are worth snapping up if you come across them at the market or nursery.

How to Wash and Dry Herbs

After rinsing delicate herbs, thoroughly dry them by spinning them in a paper towel–lined salad spinner. (Hearty herbs don’t harbor much grit, but if they are dusty, you can give them a quick rinse.)

How to Measure Herbs

Press down slightly on herbs in the measuring cup to remove air pockets; do not pack them down firmly.

How to Chop and Mince Herbs Like a Pro

Running your knife over a loose pile is inefficient. Here’s a better way.

  • To Chop

    Gather leaves into tight pile and hold with your nonknife hand. Use rocking motion to slice thin. Turn sliced leaves 90 degrees and repeat.

  • To Mince

    Chop, then go over pile again by placing fingertips of your nonknife hand flat on top of knife spine and moving blade up and down with your knife hand while using knife tip as pivot.

The Best Ways to Store Herbs

Proper herb storage is all about controlling the leaves’ exposure to moisture. Hearty herbs are adapted to survive in dry weather by taking in moisture through their leaves, so it’s important to keep them dry. Delicate herbs take in and release a lot of water and therefore must be kept moist lest they wilt (but they should not touch liquid, which encourages rot).

 

DIY Dried Herbs

The microwave, which quickly drives off water, is the fastest way to dry herbs.

  • Method: Place hearty herbs in a single layer between two paper towels on the microwave turntable and microwave on high power for 1 to 3 minutes. When the leaves turn brittle and fall easily from the stems (a sure sign of dryness), they’re done.

Modern Recipes for Fresh Herbs

Recipe Herb Salad

Fragrant, distinct, and abundant during warm months, these verdant sprigs have much more to offer than just a pop of freshness and color.

Recipe Fresh Herb Finishing Salts

Got leftover fresh herbs? Make these finishing salts.

Recipe Parsley-Cucumber Salad with Feta, Pomegranate, and Walnuts

This crisp, refreshing salad makes a tasty stand-alone side dish and a worthy accompaniment to rich grilled meats.

Recipe Tabbouleh

To fix this sadly degraded dish, we stopped pouring a key ingredient down the drain.

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.