Fresh vs. Dried Herbs

by Michele Pesula Kuegler | February 7th, 2012 | Ask the Chef

I know that fresh herbs impart better flavor than dried.  However, I have a limited amount of window space for growing herbs.  Are there certain herbs that are better when used fresh, or oppositely are there herbs that are more acceptable in dried form?

Fresh herbs aren’t always preferable to their dried counterparts. Some, like oregano, are often better dried. (There are many different varieties of oregano. The one I planted years ago I didn’t realize is virtually tasteless, but the flowers are pretty and the bees love it, so it maintains a place in my garden.) Bay leaves are equally good fresh or dried. The other consideration when choosing fresh or dried herbs is how they’re to be used.

Herbs are divided into two types, fine and resinous. Tender fine herbs like basil, chervil, chives, cilantro, dill, parsley, and tarragon, are good eaten raw. They will quickly give up their essence to a dish and become washed out with long cooking. Resinous herbs include bay leaves, rosemary, sage, and thyme. Resinous herbs are tougher and contain stronger oils that need to be extracted through long cooking. Generally, resinous herbs dry much more satisfactorily than fine herbs.

For quick cooking dishes, for use in salads (not necessarily salad dressings), and for adding toward the end of cooking and/or garnishing, fresh herbs are the way to go. For dishes like stocks, stews, stocks, spaghetti sauce, some soups, and even breads, dried herbs will hold up better to the long cooking.

It’s relatively easy to grow certain herbs like basil, mint, parsley, and rosemary indoors, although in my experience they’re subject to spider mites. This is insidious; you’ll see the leaves yellowing and think either under- or over-watering is the problem. Too late you realize it’s not, and by then the plant is weak and unhealthy.

Furthermore, herbs grown indoors rarely have the same depth of flavor and strength of those grown in direct sun. However, I live in New England, with dry forced hot air heating; folks who live in warmer climates may have better luck growing herbs indoors in the winter.

I keep almost all dried herbs on hand with the exception of chervil, chives, cilantro, and parsley (in all cases, I find the dried variety vastly inferior to fresh.) Dried herbs like tarragon need to revived in a small amount of vinegar or boiling water before being used in salad dressings or sauces. If you have the option, using the dried herb for the sauce, and a bit of chopped or minced raw herb to finish a dish gives a wonderful flavor and liveliness.

Do keep in mind that dried herbs are more concentrated than fresh. The general rule of thumb is to use one-third the amount of dried herbs as fresh. And check your dried herbs regularly. Crush a bit between your fingers, and if they’ve lost their pungency, replace them.

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