Cooking with fresh herbs, explained

June 26, 2019
Fresh herbs on a platter
Cooking with fresh herbs is simpler than most people think. Photo: Getty Images.

One of the more common elements in our everyday cooking is the use of herbs. Yet, questions arise. And confusion is common. Which are better: fresh or dried? When to add either, early or later in the cooking? How best to store fragile herbs? And what’s the proper exchange of dried for fresh?

I offer several tips and answers. But, overall, a good place to start is to consider all these much-favored flavoring ingredients as members of one of two families: those like oregano, rosemary and thyme that we have inherited from hot, dry climates (southern Italy and France or the Levant), and those such as basil, parsley and tarragon that have come to us from cooler, wetter lands (northern Europe and some parts of Asia).

The former reflect their harsh upbringing; their stems are woody, and their leaves potent with oils and chemicals, little of which is lost either when the plant is dried or from the heat of cooking. The latter family of herbs, on the other hand, is mostly water, even their stems possibly eaten out of hand, and their flavors are fleeting, especially if dried.

So the question of when to apply them in cooking comes from this look at their own upbringing. Rosemary, bay leaf, sage, oregano and thyme—especially dried versions—need work, heat and time to obtain their flavors; they’re best used early in cooking or during long applications of heat, such as in braises or stews.

The oils and chemical compounds in parsley, basil, chives, chervil, mint, cilantro, and dill make all of these herb flavorings “bright” or lively, but also are obliterated by long forms of heat or by being added early in cooking. They perform best when applied toward the end of cooking or, indeed, even afterward, used raw as garnishes or toppings.

  • If growing your own herbs, don’t harvest more than 10% of an herb plant at one time.
  • Pick herbs when they have the highest amount of flavorful essential oils, just before they are about to flower.
  • If possible, harvest herbs only in the morning or evening.
  • Whether store-bought or from your garden, the best way to store fresh hardy herbs such as rosemary is in a resealable plastic bag, gently wrapped in paper toweling.
  • Because any moisture easily may damage fragile herbs, don’t wash them before bagging them; wash them as needed.
  • Tender herbs such as basil and tarragon don’t dry as well as they freeze.
  • Drying fresh herbs is easy: Bundle stems with a string or rubber band and hang upside down on any kind of rack or off a hook in a cool, dark, well-ventilated, dry area.
  • A convenient exchange is one part dried green herb to 2-3 parts fresh (only leaves, not stems).

Herbed yogurt sauce

From “The Mediterranean Herb Cookbook”; makes about 1 1/2 cups.

Author Georgeanne Brennan recommends serving this as a sauce for cold vegetables, a dressing for salad or a topping for a fruit salad (especially one with melon). You may use whole or low- or non-fat yogurt.


1 cup plain yogurt

1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon

1 tablespoon minced fresh chives

1 teaspoon chopped fresh mint

1 tablespoon minced oil-packed dried tomatoes (optional)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


Combine all ingredients in a bowl and stir well. Cover and chill well before serving.

Bill Saint-John’s “Herb Bombs”

Say you’ve got a close-to-corpse bunch of parsley in the veg bin, leftover from using a few sprigs to finish a dish a week ago. Say you’ve got a knob of ginger root looking just this side of the wrinkles on the Dos Equis guy. Say that head of garlic’s been in the garlic keeper, um, like the garlic keeper’s pottery spinner put it there. Time to make and freeze some herb bombs.

These you can use to finish a pan sauce for a steak; enrich a stir-fry towards the end; lay down an exclamation point in a bowl of soup; up the ante on fried rice; coat the pasta noodles with something extra; … You get the idea.

Add a small handful of blanched parsley leaves (and some spinach if you have it)—blanching is key—with a couple cloves of peeled garlic and a 1/2-inch-square of peeled, chopped ginger to a food processor. Pulse and process, binding the pulp with an extra virgin olive oil (not water; EVOO holds all the flavors better in the freezer). You don’t want a too-aggressive oil here, just one that has great “undernotes” of flavor such as any first-class Ligurian or Provencal EVOO.

Freeze in cubes or, better, splay flat in a sturdy plastic zipper bag—and take out a smidge whenever you’re after the bomb.

Bill St. John has written and taught about restaurants, food, cooking and wine for more than 40 years, locally for Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post and KCNC-TV Channel 4, nationally for Chicago Tribune Newspapers and Wine & Spirits magazine. The Denver native lives in his hometown. Contact Bill at [email protected]


About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.