Herbs are one of my favorite pantry items, primarily because they are easy to have on hand fresh and/or dried. I keep a year-round herb garden in pots for all those times I want fresh herbs while the dried herbs come in handy during the seasons when I might have to refresh my herb crop. During the fall, I trim back the herbs and dry them out for my own collection of dried herbs.
I’ve also made notes about how to store each herb but there’s a general rule of thumb: soft herbs are best in a jar of water in the refrigerator (except basil) while hard herbs should be wrapped in a light, damp towel and sealed in an airtight container. Soft herbs include basil, cilantro, parsley, mint, and tarragon while the hard herbs are rosemary, thyme, and oregano.
When I can, I have a couple basil plants growing on my patio. I like to keep sweet basil on hand for homemade tomato sauces and I like to occasionally have Thai basil to balance the spice in Thai recipes. Fresh is really the way to go but during the winter months, when it’s too cold, I’ll keep a small container of dried so that I can still make homemade tomato sauces for pizza and pasta.
If you buy basil from the store, place it in a jar of water on the counter when you get home. Basil will not only stay fresh but can also regrow it’s roots with water and sunlight. If you have a surplus of basil, make homemade pesto and freeze in ice cube trays to pull out and use throughout the winter.
For almost every savory recipe I make, I use a variety of allium (onions, garlic, leeks and shallots). Growing chives in my garden ensures that I can have this flavor, even if I run out of onions or garlic. Chives have a stronger flavor which means you don’t need a lot in any meal and it’s easy to overpower.
You can use both the green scape of the chive and the flowers. Chives are also sold dried but I prefer the fresh flavor. Chives are great when used in dressing, paired with eggs, or used in sauces. Once picked, fresh chives will last in the refrigerator for about a week. Roll the chives in a dry paper towel, roll, and place in a loosely sealed container or plastic bag.
Of all the herbs, cilantro causes the most division because most people either love it or can’t stand it (but there’s science behind this). If you’re in the later camp, feel free to skip this section but be warned, I am a cilantro lover. In the States, we call the green shoots cilantro and the seeds of the plant, coriander. Both can be used in recipes but for the purpose of this section, I’m referring to the green shoots.
Cilantro is used in many different cooking styles and one I always use fresh. I typically use it in my latin cooking and as a wonderful pair to curry recipes. Once picked, cilantro will stay fresh for about a week. Place the cilantro in a jar of water in the refrigerator and loosely cover with plastic. Use up cilantro in sauces, like chimichuri or paired in salads with parsley.
While dill is part of the celery family, it’s used similar to coriander/cilantro. The greens are used fresh as herbs while the seeds are used dried as a spice. Dill has a unique flavor that can be a bit sweet but works well in yogurt sauces, with citrus, and potatoes. Dill seeds have a stronger flavor that I prefer to use in spice blends.
Dill can be used either fresh or dried. Dill makes a wonderful addition to dressings, as companion to vegetables, or a key ingredients in making homemade pickles. Dill doesn’t hold up well in storage so use within a couple days of cutting or buying. Fresh dill can be dried or to preserve the color and flavor, dill can be frozen for up to a year.
Marjoram, a type of oregano, may look slightly similar to oregano but the flavor has a more floral/citrus flavor profile to it. I don’t use it as often as I should but it’s typically used in Mediterranean dishes. I usually cycle growing marjoram with basil because it’s a bit sensitive to cold.
I’ve found it’s best to pick and dry marjoram before the cooler months hit. This herb is nice in spice blends, paired with the savory citrus flavors during winter, and works well with Mediterranean flavors. To store in the refrigerator, wrap the marjoram in a light, damp tea towel and place in an airtight container.
If you’re looking for an easy to grow herb that covers the ground quickly, any variety of mint will do. While mint flavoring is in quite a few products, I prefer to grow fresh mint for use in drinks, desserts, and many different cuisines. Mint’s slightly sweet flavor pairs well with fruit, other herbs such as basil and cilantro, and one of my favorite combinations, chocolate.
Within the mint family, there are quite a few different varieties. Most ‘garden mint’ is actually spearmint but other varieties include peppermint or lemon mint. If buying in a store, look for mint that still has green leaves and does not look wilted. To store fresh mint in the refrigerator, roll in a light damp towel and store in an airtight container.
In my garden, I grow two types of oregano: Mediterranean and Mexican. While both labeled oregano and have an overall similar taste, they belong to different species. The subtle differences are important when pairing the different types. I keep Mexican oregano on hand for adding to my favorite adobo mix, taco seasoning and anything with chili peppers. For the Mediterranean oregano, it’s the main flavor in my favorite pasta sauce and is nice when paired with basil.
When in the grocery store, most of the fresh and dried herbs labeled oregano are of the Mediterranean variety. I primarily use dried oregano but using fresh works just as well. To store fresh oregano in the refrigerator, roll in a light damp towel and store in an airtight container.
For a huge chunk of my life, I only knew parsley in terms of the curly garnish restaurants would throw on top of almost any dish. It left a poor taste in my mouth (pun intended) for using parsley. However, over the years, I’ve turned to it quite frequently, especially the flat-leaf variety. The flavor can be a lovely fresh addition either added into a recipe or used as a garnish. I also keep dried parsley on hand for use in savory dishes like chili and the occasional tomato sauce.
Look for the flat-leaf variety (pictured) over the curly variety when in the stores. Parsley will stay fresh for about one week and older parsley can be used in sauces or in place of cilantro in some dishes. Parsley is also a great herb to grow at home! Store parsley in a jar of water in the refrigerator, cover loosely with a plastic bag, and change out the water when it becomes cloudy.
I have a weak spot for fresh rosemary. The strong flavor imparts childhood memories of cooking with my grandparents. It’s often a companion for fall and winter vegetables and finds itself paired quite often with squash and potatoes. Older, strong sprigs of rosemary can be used as skewers, imparting a wonderful flavor on grilled vegetables.
Rosemary can be used fresh and dried. I like to grow rosemary at home year-round so that I can clip fresh as needed. I use rosemary in savory stews, casseroles, and egg bakes and also the occasional sweet treat, like a rosemary shortbread cookie. Fresh rosemary will keep for up for a week with good flavor after being picked. To store fresh rosemary in the refrigerator, roll in a light damp towel and store in an airtight container.
For me, of all the herbs, sage is most synonymous with fall. Any dish with butternut squash and sage automatically puts me in the mood of cozy, cold nights and hot meals. This herb often has a warm, semi-strong flavor that pairs well with many of the other stronger herbs. My favorite combination is rosemary, thyme, and sage together. Sage comes in a few varieties but the common variety has long, semi-pointed green leaves.
Sage can be purchased fresh or dried. The dried sage often comes crumbled so any recipe asking for sage leaves should be fresh. I love frying sage for a crispy topping to soups and stews as well. Sage will begin to lose it’s flavor after picking so use as soon as possible. To store fresh sage in the refrigerator, roll in a light damp towel and store in an airtight container.
Thyme is an herb that if I don’t have it growing in the backyard, I prefer to use the dried form in recipes. The flavor of fresh thyme diminishes quite quickly after harvested which means the longer it sits at the store, the less flavor it will provide. Thyme is part of the mint family which is why, at least to me, taste like a more savory mint. There are hundreds of varieties, each one with different flavor profiles (like lemon!)
I traditionally pair thyme with fall and winter recipes but thyme works well in everything from cocktails to dessert. During the fall months, I will clip sprigs of thyme and dry the herb out for use throughout the winter months (especially helpful if you live in a colder climate). Use fresh and dried thyme in soups, stews, infused vinegars, or sauces.