The F.N. Sharp Guide to Cooking With Fresh Herbs
If you’re used to basic dried seasonings, cooking with fresh herbs can be a revelation – especially when you can use the leftovers to create your own dried seasonings! While browsing the stalls at your local farmers market, you can find dozens, if not hundreds, of different kinds of herbs: basil and oregano, parsley and thyme, rosemary, lemongrass, and so many more.
When you pick up a bundle of fragrant green leaves, sure it smells great, but what exactly do you do with it? How do you store them? Which herbs go in which kinds of recipes? And how do you prepare them? With this guide, you’ll be whipping up flavorful meals full of fresh herbs in no time.
How to Choose, Store, and Prepare Fresh Herbs
Before we get to the list of herbs most commonly used in cooking, let’s go over the differences between herbs vs. spices and fresh vs. dried herbs.
Herbs vs. Spices: What’s the Difference?
Did you know that, when used in cooking, the term “herbs” actually refers to the leafy parts of the plant that can be used fresh or dried, while the term “spices” refers to the parts that come from the roots, stems, seeds, fruits, flowers or bark (like cinnamon) and are almost always used dried?
Some herbs and spices even come from the same plant but have different names. For example, cilantro comes from the leafy parts of the coriandrum sativum plant, while coriander comes from its seeds. When it comes to using herbs vs. spices in cooking, it all really depends on the recipe (and your taste buds).
Fresh vs. Dried Herbs: When to Use Which
While cooking with fresh herbs can add a dash of colorful flavor to any dish, dried herbs also have their place in spicing up those meals – but what’s the difference and when do you use which?
Aside from the obvious difference in appearance, fresh versus dried herbs can also give off different flavor profiles. When added as a topping to salads, sauces and dips, the flavor of fresh herbs can’t be beat – think a sprinkle of fresh chives or parsley on a baked potato, or a little cilantro to top off your guacamole or black beans and yellow rice. Delicate, leafy herbs like parsley and chives also tend to lose some of their flavor when dried, so they’re really best served raw or added to a dish during the last few minutes of cooking.
For recipes that call for bubbling over the stove or baking in the oven for longer than a few minutes, you’ll want to opt for dried herbs. When cooked for more than 10 or 15 minutes, fresh herbs lose all of the volatile oils and esters that make them taste fresh – plus, some herbs like oregano, rosemary and thyme, actually give off a better flavor when dried and stay good for about a year before losing their potency.
So, when it comes to using fresh vs. dried herbs, it all depends on the recipe and cook time. You can also swap out fresh for dried herbs and vice versa when needed – the general rule of thumb is to use about a third of the amount given in the recipe.
Check out our meat seasoning guide to learn more about dry rubs and which herbs and spices pair best with poultry, pork, beef, lamb and seafood, and thiis article from Taste of Home to learn how to dry your own fresh herbs!
How to Choose Fresh Herbs
When it comes to herbs, fresher is almost always better. Many herbs can be grown at home in small windowsill pots, which is why creating a kitchen herb garden is a great idea for home cooks.
If you don’t have the space (or a green thumb) your next best bet will be to check your local farmers market or produce stand for fresh cut herbs. Look for rich green leaves that are firm rather than wilted – just as with cut flowers, this means they’ve been cut recently and well cared for in transit.
Depending on the cuisines you favor, you may be familiar with some types of herbs and spices already. Oregano and basil are common ingredients in both Greek and Italian recipes, cilantro is a must in many Mexican dishes, and it’s hard to imagine Thai food without lemongrass.
But beyond these regional cuisines is a whole world of herbs and spices that can perk up everything from scrambled eggs to desserts! By learning to select, prepare, and store fresh herbs and spices, you can feel free to experiment with different flavor profiles that jars of dried herbs just can’t match – and if you become familiar with the basic elements of cooking, you’ll be cooking like the pros in no time!
How to Store Fresh Herbs
When cooking with fresh herbs, it’s important to know how to store them properly so you’re not constantly tossing out the leftovers. The best way to keep herbs fresh is to store them upright in a jar or glass of water in the refrigerator.
Before storing your herbs, cut about half an inch off the bottom of the stems and remove any lower leaves that would sit in the water. Add enough water to the jar to cover the bottom inch or so of the stems, then loosely cover the leaves with a plastic bag to keep them from absorbing other odors in the fridge.
Be sure to change the water daily, cutting off another half inch of stem each time you do so, and remove any wilted or browning leaves or stems.
How to Cut Fresh Herbs
Learning how to slice, chop and mince fresh herbs may seem intimidating, but it’s an easy skill to master – especially when you’ve got the right knife for the job.
The Best Knives for Cutting Fresh Herbs
When it comes to preparing fresh herbs, you definitely need a set of sharp knives on hand since dull knives can easily destroy them. Blunt blades bruise the tender leaves, taking away the vibrant green color and fresh flavor – not to mention you’ll end up with very inconsistent cuts, turning what should be a nice garnish into a pile of mush.
You should never use a serrated blade either – the serrations will tear the herbs and cause just as much damage as a dull, straight-edged blade. If you’re not sure if your knives are sharp enough to handle these delicate ingredients, then check out these top signs of a dull kitchen knife.
The Chef's Knife
Often referred to as the most important tool in the kitchen, the Western-style chef’s knife is perfect for chopping large bunches of herbs.
The edge of the chef's knife blade features a curved “belly” that allows for smooth chopping without lifting the tip of the blade off of the cutting board, otherwise known as the “rock-chop” method.
Knife Knowledge 101: Top Uses for a Chef's Knife
The Santoku Knife
The Japanese-style Santoku knife is also great for working with big bunches of herbs since its Granton edge prevents ingredients from sticking to the blade.
Although chopping with a Santoku knife typically involves lifting the blade off of the cutting board in an up-and-down motion, some are also designed with a slight belly, like th this beauty from F.N. Sharp.
Knife Knowledge 101: Top Uses for a Santoku Knife
The Utility Knife
The utility knife is another go-to knife used for a variety of tasks in the kitchen.
Smaller than a chef’s knife and bigger than the paring knife, this handy kitchen knife is a great choice for slicing, chopping and mincing small to medium bunches of herbs, as long as it has a straight edge like the F.N. Sharp Utility Knife!
Knife Knowledge 101: Top Uses for a Utility Knife
The Paring Knife
While the little paring knife is perfect for in-hand work like peeling fruits and veggies, segmenting citrus, hulling strawberries and coring tomatoes, it’s also a great tool for chopping small bunches of herbs to garnish your favorite dishes.
Use the paring knife to chop up some parsley for a baked potato or some cilantro for tacos.
Knife Knowledge 101: Top Uses for a Paring Knife
How to Slice, Chop and Mince Fresh Herbs
First, swirl your herbs through cold water to remove any dirt or debris. If they’re tied in a bundle, remove the tie so all stems can be washed. Next, lay the washed herbs on a kitchen towel and gently pat dry. Wet herbs will stick to your knife and make mincing more difficult, so be sure to dry those babies well! Also be sure to use a clean, dry cutting board (preferably a wooden one, like this beauty made of Acacia wood).
Large-leaved herbs that must be removed from the stem before cutting, such as basil, mint and sage, should be cut using the chiffonade technique. The term "chiffonade" comes from a French word meaning “in rags,” and refers to the process of cutting these leaves into thin strips.
To achieve these delicate ribbons of green, start by stacking your leaves on top of each other on your cutting board and gently rolling them into a tight bundle lengthwise. Then, use your guide hand to hold the bundle in place and begin slicing using the back-slice technique to cut thin slices from the bundle.
If you’re unfamiliar with the back-slice technique, you’ll need to place the tip of your knife against your cutting board and draw it backward, toward you, without pushing down – there’s no rocking motion at all. This is what produces the fine, narrow ribbons of herbs that are perfect for adding as a last-minute garnish.
For rough-chopping or mincing herbs that can be chopped stem and all, like parsley and cilantro, first remove the bottom portion of the stems, then pile the herbs on your board and roughly chop. Use a board scraper or the spine of your knife to gather the herbs back into piles as your chopping spreads them out.
Once the herbs are roughly chopped, you can use the “hinge” technique to refine and mince them.
To do this, place your guide hand on the spine of your knife towards the tip so it acts as a pivot point. Then, use a rocking motion to work through the piled herbs on your board until they are finely chopped.
If you only have a few herbs to chop and don’t need a particularly fine cut, you can also use a pair of kitchen shears to cut them up. This is especially handy for chives since they’re so fragile that even sharp knives can mush them up as you chop.
F.N. Sharp Prep School: The How-To Guide to Knife Cuts
12 Types of Fresh Herbs Commonly Used in Cooking
Now let’s get into some of the most commonly used fresh herbs. Depending on the cuisines you favor, you may be familiar with some types of herbs already. Oregano and basil are common ingredients in both Greek and Italian recipes, cilantro is a must in many Mexican dishes, and it’s hard to imagine Thai food without lemongrass.
But beyond these regional cuisines is a whole world of herbs and spices that can perk up everything from scrambled eggs to desserts! By learning to select, prepare, and store fresh herbs, you can feel free to experiment with different flavor profiles that jars of dried herbs just can’t match – and if you become familiar with the basic elements of cooking, you’ll be cooking like the pros in no time!
Here’s a list of 12 types of fresh herbs that are commonly available at most farmers markets and grocery stores. Pick up a bunch or two and start experimenting!
1. Fresh Basil
There are many different varieties of basil, ranging from the commonly available lemon basil, which mingles citrusy notes with basil’s usual minty, peppery taste, to the downright outlandish chocolate basil, which – you guessed it – tastes like a basil/chocolate combo. A standard sweet basil is usually a good variety to start with. Only the leaves are used in cooking, although an experiment conducted by Cook’s Illustrated suggests young basil stems can be used, as well.
Try Chopping Up Some Fresh Basil for These F.N. Sharp Recipes:
🔪 Asian Turkey Lettuce Wraps
🔪 Ricotta and Basil Stuffed Chicken Breasts
🔪 Tomato Rose Antipasto Crostinis Topped With Balsamic Vinegar Reduction
2. Fresh Chives
Chives are related to onions, which explains their light, oniony taste. It makes a simple and tasty garnish on baked potatoes, in creamy soups, and in other heavy dishes that might need some lightening up. Make sure your chives are very fresh as the tender stems wilt quickly if stored improperly. The entire chive plant is edible, as well.
Try Chopping Up Some Fresh Chives for This F.N. Sharp Recipe:
🔪 Caramelized Onion Dip
3. Fresh Cilantro
People tend to have strong feelings about cilantro, which has a lot to do with how they perceive the taste. While some people find it bright and citrusy, others find the taste soapy, or even dirt-like! The entire cilantro plant – stems and leaves both – can be used in recipes. Cilantro produces tiny round seed pods known as coriander, a spice frequently used in Indian and Middle Eastern dishes. Both the leaves and upper part of the stems can be used for cooking.
Try Chopping Up Some Fresh Cilantro for These F.N. Sharp Recipes:
🔪 Mahi-Mahi Fish Tacos With Mango Salsa
🔪 Chicken Tortilla Soup
🔪 MasterChef Steak & Hash with Chili-Espresso Ribeye
🔪 Smoky and Spicy Instant Pot Turkey Chili
🔪 Instant Pot Butter Chicken
🔪 Instant Pot Arroz con Pollo
4. Fresh Dill
If you’ve ever had a dill pickle, you know the distinctive taste of this feathery herb. In addition to pickles, though, it has a broad range of applications in many different dishes. For example, it’s frequently used in Scandinavian cooking to complement fish and is a common ingredient in tartar sauce.
Try pairing fresh dill with chicken or fish like cod and salmon. You can also try blending it with a soft cheese or adding to your tuna salad for a little extra flavor. Although the stems and even blossom heads of dill may be used to flavor pickles, you’ll want to use only the leafy fronds for cooking since they’re much more tender.
Try Chopping Up Some Fresh Dill for These F.N. Sharp Recipes:
🔪 Homemade Tzatziki Sauce With Herbed Pita Chips
🔪 Butter and Paprika Baked Salmon with a Citrus Cucumber Salad
Most commonly used in Asian cuisine, lemongrass may seem a bit puzzling initially as it looks nothing at all like the others on this list of fresh herbs. Instead of having skinny green stems with green leaves, lemongrass has a thick, grass-like stalk that rises from a pale bulb at the base. After removing the outer leaves and the bulb, you’re left with a tender inner stalk with a bright flavor reminiscent of lemon, though a bit more spicy and herbal. It’s a natural complement to other common Asian spices like ginger, curry and hot peppers.
6. Fresh Mint
There are many types of mint and, like basil, there are designer varieties, but most people are more familiar with spearmint and peppermint. While spearmint has a light and sweet minty flavor, peppermint is a bit bolder and gives off that familiar cooling sensation caused by the menthol produced in the plants leaves. Both the leaves and stems can be used in cooking, and the mint you use is up to you – try using it as a seasoning on lamb, as a garnish or muddle in cocktails, or in minty-fresh desserts. It plays particularly well with chocolate ((hello homemade mint chocolate chip ice cream!)
Try Chopping Up Some Fresh Mint for This F.N. Sharp Recipe:
🔪 Pan-Seared Salmon With Mint Pea Risotto
7. Fresh Oregano
A common herb in both Italian and Greek cooking, oregano’s peppery, earthy flavor also plays well with egg dishes and poultry. A closely related herb, marjoram, has a similar appearance and flavor, though some people find its taste somewhat sweeter. For both these herbs, strip the small leaves from the woody stems before adding them to your dishes.
Try Chopping Some Fresh Oregano for These F.N. Sharp Recipes:
🔪 Paleo Chicken Sauce Tomat With Artichokes & Roasted Red Pepper Sauté
🔪 Greek Lemon Chicken Kebabs With Talatouri Sauce Recipe
8. Fresh Parsley
Parsley adds a powerful punch of flavor to even the most commonplace recipes. It comes in two varieties: curly and flat-leafed (or Italian). The flat-leaf variety, which is sometimes confused with cilantro, is more tender and slightly brighter in flavor than its curly-leafed cousin. As an added bonus, parsley is also known for being a breath freshener for both humans and pets. Chop both parsley varieties, stem and all, to add to pastas, soups, baked potatoes, salads and even homemade pet food.
Try Chopping Some Fresh Parsley for These F.N. Sharp Recipes:
🔪 Bone-in Pork alla Milanese With Arugula Salad
🔪 Sausage Stuffed Mushrooms
🔪 Creamy Saffron Risotto Recipe
🔪 Paprika-Spiced Vermouth Chicken With Velouté Sauce
🔪 Elk Standing Rib Roast
🔪 Bourbon and Coffee Crusted Prime Rib
9. Fresh Rosemary
Rosemary is an evergreen shrub originally native to the Mediterranean, though it’s now grown all over the world. Its leaves look like fleshy needles, and its stems are hard and woody. Rosemary has a strong and distinctive piney taste that pairs well with poultry, lamb and pork. Just keep in mind, a little tends to go a long way and it can easily overpower more delicate flavors. Only the leaves (fleshy needles) are used in cooking.
Try Chopping Some Fresh Rosemary for This F.N. Sharp Recipe:
🔪 Perfectly Crusted Petite Sirloin Steak with Compound Herb Butter
10. Fresh Sage
Commonly used to flavor sausage, poultry and dishes heavy in cream or butter, the earthy taste of sage tends to round out the fattiness of these foods and provides a subtle contrast. The pale, silvery-green leaves are slightly hairy in texture. Pluck the leaves from the woody stems before chopping them to use in cooking.
Try Chopping Some Fresh Sage for This F.N. Sharp Recipe:
🔪 Grilled Chicken & Peach Saltimbocca Kabobs
11. Fresh Tarragon
Commonly used in French cooking, tarragon has a licorice-like flavor reminiscent of anise or fennel. It plays well with egg dishes and is a traditional ingredient in béarnaise sauce, a buttery sauce thickened with egg-yolks and flavored with herbs. Only the leaves are used in cooking.
Try Chopping Up Some Fresh Tarragon for This F.N. Sharp Recipe:
🔪 Steakhouse Chopped Salad With Tarragon Vinaigrette Dressing
12. Fresh Thyme
Another herb commonly used with poultry, thyme’s tiny leaves mean there’s no chopping required. Simply strip them from the tough, woody stems using your fingers and add them to your dish. The earthy, somewhat lemony flavor of thyme plays well with savory dishes, but also adds depth to sweeter flavors such as fruit. It also adds another layer of flavor to tuna salad.
Try Taking Some Fresh Thyme for These F.N. Sharp Recipes:
🔪 Whipped Goat Cheese, Pomegranate and Honey Tartlets
🔪 Blackened Pork Tenderloin with Savory Blueberry Sauce
🔪 Lemon Garlic Shrimp Pasta
🔪 Espagnole Steak & Potato Wedges With an Herb Cutting Board Sauce
🔪 Pumpkin Ravioli With Parmesan Cream Sauce
🔪 Bison Medallions in Bourbon Cream Sauce