How can I start cooking with herbs?

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Answered by: Tuula, An Expert in the Whole Foods Cooking - General Category
Quick! Name your five favorite herbs to cook with. If you can, you already know that cooking with herbs provides a flavor boost to your favorite dishes without fat or sodium. If you have never expanded your horizons beyond the store-bought parsley and basil in your spice rack, you're in for an experience.

Cooking with herbs has been a tradition ever since humans began supplementing their hunting and gathering by producing their own food. Herbs are easy to grow, and in the days before refrigeration, they often masked rancid tastes. Certain herbs are said to have healing properties, or at least calming effects owing to their fragrant aroma. They can be made into tea, added to oils and butters, rubbed on meats, cooked into soups and used a hundred more ways. Garnish special dishes with a sprig of parsley, chopped chives or a leaf of basil, or bundle herbs for a scented table accent.

There's only one rule when it comes to cooking with herbs: The fresher, the better. At the grocery store, herbs can be expensive, over-packaged and less than fresh. The good news is, herbs are easy to grow at home. Many, like rosemary, oregano, thyme and chives, are perennial plants, meaning one small shrub will grow larger and produce more leaves year after year. Others are easy to grow in pots indoors. Try starting your own basil, parsley or cilantro from seed. The plants will produce for a year or longer before flowering, and you’ll be cooking with herbs on a daily basis before you know it.

If you do buy herbs from the store, keep them fresh at home by either placing them in a jar of water in a cool place or wrapping them in a wet paper towel and storing them in the refrigerator. They will last a week or longer either way.

Once you have properly stored them, cooking with herbs is just a matter of matching flavors. Get to know an herb by rubbing a leaf between your fingers, smelling it, and tasting a bit. As you absorb the flavor, try to think of foods that would taste good with it – most vegetables and meats have natural herb compliments. For example, tomatoes taste wonderful with basil and oregano. Chop up some fresh leaves and add them to jarred pasta sauce or tomato soup for a gourmet touch.

Herbs play an important role in Asian cuisine as well. Basil is a key ingredient in many Thai curries, and chopped cilantro can be thrown into everything from fried rice to chutney. Try adding some to teriyaki sauce before marinating tofu or meats for the grill.

As your home herb garden grows or you get more experimental with store-bought herbs, you’ll develop your own favorite way of cooking with herbs. If you find you have too many, dry some herbs by laying the leaves out on paper towels until they can be easily crushed. Store your homemade dried herbs in airtight bags or jars, and enjoy their flavor any time of year.

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