This is by no mean a comprehensive list. I’ve only put in herbs that I use fairly regularly. I feel there is no meaning in putting down a large list of meats and dishes for each herb so my comments are somewhat concise, zeroing in on things to remember each herb by. In the ideal world everything should be fesh. But this is the real world. If you want to have a full range of herbs at your disposal, its more practical to use freeze dried herbs. In general, just use more of the dried variety and you will get close to the effect of the fresh herb. Unless otherwise stated, all my recipes assume dried herbs.
One distinction to keep in mind is the difference between grassy and woody herbs. Grassy herbs can be sprinkled on directly and will just ‘disappear’. Woody herbs (like rosemary and thyme) have to be cooked for a very long time or at very high temperatures to become edible, otherwise you have to use a muslin bag or boil the herbs seperately to get an infusion.
- Basil. When I smell Basil, I think Italian cuisine. There are many varieties of basil, including Genovese (think pesto) Basil, Thai Basil, but Sweet Basil is the variety normally found in the kitchen. Basil is one of the few herbs that retains its flavour with cooking so it is sometimes used in stews or slow cooked sauces. When basil is mentioned to me, raw tomatoes will always come to my mind as its perfect partner, in Insalata Caprese (a salad of tomatoes and mozzarella), in Tomato Bruschetta or in some other similar dish.
- Bay Leaves are one of those strange herbs that have better flavour when they are dried. Consequently that is the way the are mostly sold. Long cooking releases the full bittersweet flavour of bay leaves and most braised and stewed dishes could do with a few bay leaves. When I think of bay leaves, I think of bolognese sauce and other ragu sauces using cooked tomatoes. Remember to remove the leaves prior to serving.
- Bouquet Garni is a bundle of woody herbs usually tied together with butcher twine that is thrown into long cooking dishes such as stews. After the flavour of the herbs is infused into the food, it is discarded. The bouquet is a legacy practice from the days before bottled freeze-dried herbs became widely available and is not all that common nowadays.
- Cilantro refers to the leaves of the coriander plant and tends to be associated most with Asian and Latin American cuisine. It is also used in Portuguese dishes, probably because of influences from Macau. Its very strong and permeating aroma does not get assimilated and it is very useful for masking the intensity of an overwhelming primary smell. Cilantro is often used in steamed or poached fish, and in seafood stock, to “freshen up” the seafood. If your Gorgonzola sauce is too cheezy or your goose too gamey, cilantro is one of your options.
- Dill Weed refers to the thread-like leaves, as opposed to the seeds, of dill. i.e. dill weed is the herb and dill seed is the spice. Freeze-dried (i.e. still green) dill weed retains its flavor relatively well, and should be stocked as a standard herb in every kitchen. When I think of Dill weed, seafood immediately comes to mind. It is used in the marination of raw salmon into gravlax or in dill butter served with crustaceans. It also goes well in cream and cream cheeses, leading to its wide use in dips.
- Fines Herbes is a combination of herbs popular in the Northern Mediterranian countries, comprising usually parsley, chives, tarragon and chervil although other herbs may be used as well. In general, fines herbes are intended to be added only towards the end of the cooking process, and this dictates which herbs can or cannot be included. If you don’t have an exact herb in mind when cooking something, such as an omelet you just made from leftovers, fines herbes will work well as an all-purpose herb.
- Herbes de Provence is another combination of herbs. The main components are thyme, basil, fennel and lavender although a few additional herbs are always added depending on the blend. This herb set is the mainstay of Provencal Cuisine, which is the cooking style of that part of Southern France around Marseilles and Toulon. One of the popular ways to use Herbes de Provence is with garlic and butter, such as in the case of baked escargots.
- Lemon Grass is a herb used in marinating chicken, pork and seafood to give it an exotic oriental taste. It gets its name from the beautiful citrus rind flavour and aroma that it imparts, without the bitterness. Curries and salads from Indochina and Southeast Asia very often contain lemon grass.
- Oregano is often paired with basil or tomato sauce and is naturally used in pizzas. I would also consider Oregano when making egg and cheese dishes. Since world war two, when GIs discovered pizza and oregano while liberating Italy, the two have become immutably linked. Because oregano retains its flavour and aroma when dried, it was readily adopted by the US pizza chains. Ironically, I don’t use oregano much, because it reminds me and my guests of pizza.
- Parsley is defended by many ‘experts’ as a useful tasty herb but I stand firmly in the underwhelming camp. Sometimes I sprinkle some chopped parsely on red or yellow cream soups, on new potatoes, for aesthetic purposes. I also mix chopped parsley with garlic and butter for garlic bread to give the spread more body and a better appearance. Sometimes parsley is used in larger quantities in stuffings, again to give body. To sum up, parsley is good as a garnish and little else.
- Rosemary to me is an English herb that I always associate with roast chicken, and well basically anything that is roasted. It is woody but has a taste that reminds me of flowers. Rosemary is surprisingly versatile in spite of its distinctive character. It can be used, in lesser amounts, in a large variety of soups, stuffing and meat marinades.
- Sage is a bitter peppery herb used mostly with meat, popular in the Medditerranean and sometimes English cooking. It is most commonly found in stuffing. Sage has a strong aroma and taste and will dominate other smells if too much is used. I don’t usually use sage unless it is specified by a recipe.
- Tarragon is cultivated mainly in France and naturally appears often in French recipes. It is probably most known for the flavour it imparts to tartare sauce and bearnaise sauce. When I think of tarragon, I think of desiccated coconut, some people say licorice but maybe it is because they don’t have much contact with coconut. This herb has a strong sweet aroma and is one of my favourites. I often use it in baked casserole dishes.
- Thyme is a herb in the ‘warm’ category that is usually added early in the cooking process as it releases its flavour slowly. Like bay leaves, thyme retains its flavour on drying better than most other herbs and doesn’t disintegrate easily. Unlike bay leaves however, it comes in very small pieces and cannot be fished out after cooking. I usually only use thyme if I am going to strain after cooking as in the case of bullion, or if I am using a muslin bag.