Nutrition NotesCulinary herbs are an excellent way to add flavour to your favourite dish, without adding extra fat, salt or calories. Herbs, whether fresh, frozen or dried, contain little or no calories or fat - a fact of great importance to those on weight loss diets. Doctors and dietitians recommend the use of herbs and spices in salt-restricted diets to enhance flavor without adding sodium content.
VarietiesThere are a wide variety of herbs available to Canadians, whether they are grown locally or bought from the supermarket. Some of the most popular herbs include basil, cilantro, thyme, mint, dill and tarragon.
Ideally, you should pick or buy fresh herbs close to the time you plan on using them, since herbs can lose their flavour the longer they sit. When buying fresh herbs, look for those that have a bright colour, without any signs of wilting or browning. Fresh herbs should have a clean, fresh fragrance.
When using herbs from your garden, the ideal time for picking is in the morning after the dew has dried, but before the sun gets hot. This helps ensure the best flavour and storage quality.
When buying dried herbs, look for those that are sealed in a container, rather than those sold in bulk. Dried herbs are more pungent than fresh, but when exposed to air, will quickly lose their pungency.
Nowadays you can even purchase frozen herb cubes in the produce section of most grocery stores. These are a convenient way to incorporate herbs into your cooking. These products are usually available washed, chopped and ready to use straight from the freezer.
Fresh: Fresh herbs are best stored in the refrigerator, wrapped in a damp paper towel and sealed in a plastic bag for up to 5 days. For storage up to 10 days, place herbs stem-end down in a glass filled with water so that the ends or roots are covered by 1 inch of water. Loosely cover the top of the herb with a plastic bag to allow for air flow.
Dried: When storing dried herbs, the more airtight the container is, the longer they will last. Opt for small glass bottles or jars with secure lids. Whole dried herbs tend to last longer than crushed dried herbs. Consider buying whole dried herbs and crushing them as you need them (a clean coffee grinder works well for crushing/grinding dried whole herbs). Dried herbs are best stored in a cool, dark place for a maximum of six months. After three months, it is recommended to store the herbs in their containers in the fridge. When cooking with dried herbs, be careful not to open the container over a steaming pot - since the steam will add moisture to the dried herbs.
Frozen: Herbs can be frozen for up to 6 months. Frozen herbs will become limp and lose their colour; therefore they are best used in cooked foods.
Fresh: To prepare fresh herbs for cooking, wash thoroughly under running water. Shake off any excess water, or use a salad spinner to dry the leaves. Pat any excess moisture with a dry paper towel.
When cooking with fresh herbs, keep the following in mind: For herbs with stockier stems, such as marjoram, oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme, strip off the leaves by running your fingers down the stem from top to bottom. With small-leaved plants such as thyme, you can use both leaves and stems for cooking early in the season. Later in the season, as the stems become tougher, use just the leaves.
Frozen: There are a number of ways to freeze fresh herbs. The easiest way is to wash and dry leaves as noted above. Seal the dried leaves in a plastic bag. A second way to prepare frozen herbs is to mince washed leaves in a food processor with a small amount of water to form a paste. Pour the mixture into ice cube trays until frozen, then transfer the frozen cubes into a sealed bag and add to foods as needed.
Drying: Drying herbs is the most appropriate method for preserving herbs for long periods of time. To dry herbs, hang freshly cut bunches upside down in a warm, dry, well-ventilated area until the leaves begin to shrivel. When thoroughly dry, leaves can be finely ground and packed in dark, airtight, glass or metal containers. Store away from direct light in a cool, dark place.
A general guideline when using fresh herbs in a recipe is to use 3 times as much as you would use of a dried herb.
Unlike dried herbs, fresh herbs yield the best results if they are added toward the end in cooked dishes to preserve their flavor. The more delicate herbs, such as basil, chives, cilantro, dill leaves, parsley, marjoram and mint are best if added a minute or two before the end of cooking or sprinkled on the food before it's served. Less delicate herbs, such as dill seeds, oregano, rosemary, tarragon and thyme, can be added during the last 20 minutes of cooking.
Here are some guidelines for using herbs to complement other flavours:
Basil - tomatoes dishes; terrific in fresh pesto; other possibilities include pasta sauce, peas, and zucchini
Chives - dips, potatoes, tomatoes
Cilantro - Mexican, Asian and Caribbean cooking; salsas, tomatoes
Dill - carrots, cottage cheese, fish, green beans, potatoes, tomatoes
Mint - carrots, fruit salads, parsley, peas, tabouli, tea
Oregano - peppers, tomatoes
Parsley - potato salad, tabouli, soups
Rosemary - chicken, fish, lamb, pork, roasted potatoes, soups, stews, tomatoes
Sage - poultry seasoning, stuffings
Tarragon - chicken, eggs, fish
Thyme - eggs, lima beans, potatoes, poultry, summer squash, tomatoes
Did You Know ?
- Cilantro also goes by the name "coriander", "Chinese parsley" or "Mexican parsley". While some people love this herb, others perceive it to have an unpleasant "soapy" taste. Some believe this to be a genetic trait; however this has yet to be fully researched.
- Traditionally, fresh herbs were used not only to add flavour to dull foods, but also used to mask unpleasant household odors
- Dried herbs are more concentrated than fresh, and powdered herbs are more concentrated than crumbled. Each herb is slightly different but a starting formula is: 1/4 teaspoon powdered herbs is equaled to 3/4 to 1 teaspoon crumbled or the equivalent of 2 to 4 teaspoons fresh.
Healthy Ways to Enjoy:
- Add fresh mint to fresh fruit salad for a boost of flavour
- Add a few sprigs of mint to your favourite smoothie recipe for a refreshing treat
- Next time you make an omelet, try adding your favourite herbs alone or in combination. Try fresh basil or parsley and chives.
- Use dill to liven up a variety of "lunch" foods, including salmon or tuna salad sandwich, pasta or potato salad
- Looking for a natural way to freshen your breath after lunch? Try eating a leaf or two from any of the commonly grown mint plants, including peppermint, to freshen the breath and aid digestion
- Ripe plum tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and fresh basil are the perfect topping for warm, home-made bruschetta.
- Make your own homemade pesto with a twist. Combine cilantro with lime juice, Parmesan cheese, garlic, ginger and pepper - serve with roasted halibut.
- Enjoy homemade tabouli with cooked bulgur wheat, tomatoes, olive oil and plenty of fresh parsley and mint
- Add chopped, fresh chives to your favourite low fat dip, serve with carrot sticks and sliced red and green peppers.
- Place dried herbs, such as mint, fennel or lavender in a tea ball and enjoy homemade tea. Use different quantities of each to make your own tea blend!