The flavor of a dish can really be enhanced by the addition of the right herbs, and not only will the dish taste so much better, but herbs are also well known for their medicinal properties. In fact, herbs have been referred to since ancient times as ‘nature’s medicine chest’.
Here’s what’s covered in this article:
- The History Of Cooking With Herbs
- Cooking With Herbs In Modern Times
- Identifying Herbs
- Storing Dried Herbs
- Storing Fresh Herbs
- Top Healthy Herbs
- Health Benefits Of Herbs
Herbs From ancient times…
Herbs have been used since ancient times both in food preparation and in home remedies for a variety of health ailments. The study of medicinal herbs began in antiquity and in Greece people soon linked eating green leaves as eating food with medicinal benefits – either to prevent a health problem or to ease the symptoms of an illness.
Aesculapius, the god of Medicine, cured many people using nutrition. Hippocrates is well known as the ‘father of medicine’ and it was he who said that food should not only be tasty, it should be healthy too. He also advised that because of their many health benefits, that plenty of herbs should be used in cooking.
Evidence has been found that in Ancient Egypt not only were local herbs used but many were also imported – particularly from the Greek island of Crete which also exported herbs to the Middle East. Many archaeological excavations have uncovered large jars that had contained the remains of herbs and there are ancient drawings and wall frescoes depicting the use of herbs (and spices).
One of the well-known murals is the Roman one in Pompeii that depicts the wounds of the warrior Aeneas being treated with herbs from Crete.
Ever since then, in Greece and many other countries, people have grown and used a variety of herbs, not just in cooking but also in a range of herbal teas to ease the symptoms of many minor ailments. One of the most popular is Spaja – sage tea – which many people drink regularly as it is known to ease any stomach problems
Now To modern times…
In the last ten years, the health benefits of herbal teas have become better known and supermarkets and health shops now stock a range of different teas with various health properties. Therapists at spas are well versed in the healing properties of many herbs and regularly incorporate them in treatments.
There are trends too in the popularity of herbs and today such lovely herbs as fresh coriander and basil are found in most food shops in the United States and Europe. While most herbs are known to have health benefits there isn’t one that has become the ‘super herb’ like the yellow spice turmeric which in recent years has become incredibly popular as it contains strong cancer-fighting compounds and can also main flexibility in joints, help prevent heart attacks and Alzheimer’s Disease.
It could be suggested that the ‘super herb;’ with so many great health properties is surely garlic, but while some consider garlic a herb, it is, in fact, a member of the onion family so essentially a vegetable. But having said that, it is one of the world’s best-known health tonics and can definitely be added to your cooking along with some tasty herbs too.
When is a herb not a herb?
A herb is defined as any aromatic green leaved plant when its leaves are used in a small quantity to flavor a dish. This may well be the easiest explanation, but as with most things, there are exceptions! The classic example of an exception is basil, which is often used in small amounts to flavor dishes, but in pesto becomes the key ingredient.
Herbs are available both fresh in bunches on fruit and vegetable counters and also dried either in sacks in your local market/souk or in small airtight jars in supermarkets. Dried herbs are softly colored in greens and grays but it is their lovely aromas and known health benefits that are key.
The differences between herbs and spices is that spices are usually made from other parts of a plant such as its berries, seeds and even its bark and they are usually sold dried – either by weight in markets/souks where they are displayed in sacks or in the same small airtight bottles as herbs in the supermarkets.
Spices come in a wide range of lovely colors and it is both their color and flavor that is used to enhance dishes.
Herbs can be divided roughly into two groups; woody herbs like rosemary and thyme and soft herbs like basil and coriander. The ‘rule of thumb’ is that woody herbs have a stronger flavor and should be used more sparingly than the soft herbs.
How to store dried herbs
Having a range of dried herbs is certainly essential to most cooks and having them ready to use will definitely encourage you to add them to various dishes if you haven’t cooked with herbs before. The small bottles of herbs available in supermarkets are ideal; as they are cheap to buy and are ready for storage. They are sold in small bottles of a standard size containing 10-40g of your chosen herb.
Although these bottles may seem small, don’t forget that only a modest amount of one-two teaspoons of dried herbs is needed in most recipes and that dried herbs do have a shelf life and can lose the flavor if they are stored for too long (ideally no more than six months).
While dried herbs are included in the recipe during its preparation so that they enhance the flavor, others such as fresh parsley are used to add color to the dish so are added at the final stages. Delicately flavored herbs like dill can also be affected by high oven temperatures so are best added at a later stage
Storing fresh herbs
Fresh herbs are sold in bunches and these need to be carefully stored as you may well not need the whole bunch of parsley to decorate one dish!
Wash your fresh herbs as soon as you can and then dry them with kitchen paper. The portion that you do not need straight away should be carefully wrapped in another piece of kitchen paper and then popped in a plastic food bag and stored in the refrigerator where it will keep perfectly for three-five days.
If you are substituting a fresh, chopped herb for a dried one the equivalence is one tablespoon of fresh herb is the same as one teaspoon of dried herb.
Which herbs are best to have in your cupboard?
There are so many different herbs to try and enjoy and as you increase their use in your cooking, you will find which ones you are particularly fond of. It is good to have a basic selection of 6-10 dried herbs on hand for when you need them. Recipes always list which herbs to include and the quantity and like all good chefs, you should taste your cooking along the way to ensure you are happy with it.
Most recipes are slightly conservative with the quantities that they suggest so it is fine to increase them by a half teaspoon, but it is important to remember that the flavor of the herbs develops during cooking. If you have adjusted the quantity and it is successful, don’t forget to write a comment in pencil in your recipe book for next time.
It is good to check that your jar of herbs is dated too when you pop it in the cupboards as dried herbs do lose their fragrance and ideally should be used within six months of purchase.
What Is The Best Herbs List For Cooking Video
The common health benefits of herbs used in cooking
While different herbs are known for various health benefits they are all rich in antioxidants and phytonutrients which are chemical compounds that are known to beneficial to health in the long term. The other great bonus of using herbs to enhance the flavor of your cooking is that the levels of sugar, fats, and salts can all be reduced.
Nutritionists suggest that for good health this trio is used sparingly, as too often they are used just to boost flavor whereas the use of herbs is a far healthier option.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
There are more than sixty different types of basil with a variety of different sized leaves and slightly different scents. This herb’s name comes from the Greek word basileus – meaning king.
Since ancient times, this herb has been linked with the heart and is also known to have anti-inflammatory properties. Basil also has anti-viral properties, aids digestion and is said to be anti-cancerous.
Fresh basil can be easily bought and can be used in cooking by simply chopping the leaves finely and mixing into the beaten eggs for omelets, adding to vegetable soup or leaving the leaves complete and tossing into a salad as the taste of basil goes particularly well with tomatoes.
On that note, a perfect ‘combo’ is slices of tomato, Mozzarella and basil leaves. If you are feeling adventurous you can look online for a recipe for pesto made with olive oil, basil and pine nuts which is quick to make and really tasty when mixed into some cooked spaghetti or other pasta. It is not surprising, that basil is a very popular herb with Italian cooks.
Thyme (Coridothymus capitatus)
Thyme is a member of the mint family and can be found growing wild in many parts of Greece. It is known by many as ‘Spanish oregano’ and in fact, many people use it instead of oregano which is a tip well worth remembering. Thyme has certainly been popular for its health properties since earliest times as a bunch of thyme was found buried alongside Tutankhamun.
On the health front, thyme contains the powerful antioxidant thymol and also has strong antiseptic qualities. Thyme can be mixed with water and used to clean a wound or used as a mouth gargle if you have a gum infection or a painful tooth.
Thyme can help ease the symptoms of colds, sore throats, and any respiratory infections and in fact is used to help those who have asthma. Because of its strong antiseptic qualities, thyme can ease fungal infections in any part of the body – even athlete’s foot.
Thyme is one of the herbs regularly used to flavor olive oil and artisan loaves of bread as it has quite a strong distinctive taste. Thyme is often found in stuffing mixes and can be added to a variety of meat and fish dishes. It goes particularly well with white meats such as chicken and turkey. Thyme is much loved by French cooks as it is one of the herbs in the variety of mixed herbs Herbes de Provence or bouquet garni.
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
This was one of the most popular herbs in ancient times and in the Minoan civilization in Crete, it was commercially cultivated for export. Coriander is known by a variety of names and these include cilantro and Chinese Parsley.
Certainly attributed with many health properties including easing pains in the joints, jaundice, skin inflammations and being good for the brain.
In cookery, both its leaves and seeds are widely used. If you enjoy the Egyptian dish falafel – balls made with pulses – coriander is used as a flavoring. The leaves from coriander make a great addition to salads and contrast with the taste of lettuce and other leaves well.
The little berries can be added to soups for flavor – and is especially good with chilled guacamole.
You can add it to homemade bread and can cook it with orange as a great accompanying sauce to roast pork. The essential oil extracted from coriander is a popular addition to craft gins too.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
Well, there is no need to introduce parsley as it is one of the most popular and common herbs in the world – in fact, the Greek saying ‘just like parsley’ refers to the fact that a person can be the same as parsley, found everywhere but not of any great importance! Having said that, parsley is important on the medicinal front as it contains high levels of Vitamin A and C – in fact, it contains 110 times more Vitamin A weight for weight than cabbage.
Parsley is a natural diuretic and has anti-bacterial and antifungal properties prevents that bloated feeling and is generally good for the digestive system as well as helping to prevent kidney stones, gallbladder problems, and urinary tract infections. Parsley is also high in antioxidant flavonoids and can help prevent cancer.
Parsley is widely used to ease respiratory diseases and skin and eye infections.
Parsley can be easily added to cooking and whilst having some dried parsley in the cupboard can be useful, a bunch of fresh parsley is much better. Parsley can be used to flavor and color so many dishes. It can be added to soups and salads, sprinkled into an omelet mixture, sprinkled over a lasagna before popping in the oven and making into a classic parsley sauce to accompany some roast lamb.
Parsley, could and should be added to many dishes and can really make even a humble macaroni cheese or bubble & Squeak look special when it is finely chopped and sprinkled on the top!
Sage (Salvia fruticosa)
Sage has been popular for herb for centuries and is grown in most parts of the world and is recognized by its pretty blossoms which are usually pink, white or purple in color. Sage has the generic name salvia from the Latin ‘to save’ because for centuries it has been credited with easing a wide range of health problems.
A tradition that spans the centuries is for it to be sipped as an infusion in the desert as it is said to help prevent dehydration. Centuries ago, babies were often given a few teaspoons of sage infusion mixed with honey as it was thought it would help them sleep peacefully.
For centuries, it has also been credited with helping ease sore throats, headaches and other symptoms linked to colds as well as helping to cure gynecological problems. A very different use for this lovely herb is as an aphrodisiac.
In cookery, sage is often paired with chicken and turkey, for example, with traditional sage and onion stuffing, but it also works well with fish, pulses and even pasta, but do use it sparingly as it does have a strong perfume. A teaspoon of dried sage leaves is perfect for a herbal tea but, apparently, the number of cups enjoyed each day should be limited to ten.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare, Origanum onites)
There are actually two different species. The first species (Origanum vulgare) seems to grow in every rocky nook and cranny in the eastern Mediterranean and has been used as a seasoning since earliest times. The second species, Origanum onites, grows in almost as many places. Of course, a third variety which is a hybrid of the two is commonly found where both species are growing.
The name ‘oregano’ comes from the two Latin words meaning ‘shining’ and ‘mountain’ and it is true to say that the wild oregano that covers the mountain slopes in Greece during the early summer does look magnificent.
Oregano (rigano in Greek) does contain antioxidants and it is said that it can help ease coughs, tonsillitis and mouth ulcers. It can often be used successfully to treat a cold and It was often used as a soothing balm for healing skin problems – especially psoriasis.
Oregano is a really popular herb used in cooking as it is versatile and can be cooked in a casserole, in the oven or on the grill. Oregano can be popped into omelets, added to soup, mixed with beans and is particularly good in tomato dishes and with pasta. Oregano must always be added to a homemade Moussaka to give it a truly authentic taste!
Rosemary (Rosmarinus offinalis)
If you would like to grow some herbs in your garden, rosemary is a great choice as it is a woody evergreen shrub that flourishes easily. It is distinctive to look at as it has spiky leaves that are green with almost a blue tinge and in the spring has small pale blue flowers. If you are having a barbecue, a few rosemary pieces on the charcoal will create a lovely aroma and will impart their aroma to the meat or fish being cooked.
Rosemary has a variety of health benefits, particularly when made into a gargle to ease a sore throat or mouth ulcers. It is said that a handful of rosemary leaves boiled in wine makes a soothing ointment for aching joints or sprained ankles. A few sips of this liquid can also soothe stomach pains. An important point though is that rosemary must be used in modest amounts because it can be poisonous.
No Greek cook would ever think of cooking lamb without rosemary whether it is in the oven or on the barbecue on Orthodox Easter Sunday. Rosemary is the flavoring in a savory sauce made with olive oil and vinegar and this sauce is easy to make an excellent on fish, potatoes and green vegetables. If you would like to make some olive oil taste particularly good, you can slip a couple of small twigs of rosemary into the bottle. If you
are planning a cookout, you can thread cubes of meat on to skewers made from rosemary. Not only is this novel, but the meat also tastes terrific and a scattering of rosemary leaves with potatoes as they roast really enhances the flavor.
Dill (Anethum graveolens)
This pretty herb with its feathery leaves originally came from India. It was popular with the ancient Greeks who used it to flavor wine as it was thought that this could help ease sleeping problems. Dill was also seen as the symbol of vitality and a protection against witches. Dill has been popular in Greece for centuries where it was mixed with boiled meat, breadcrumbs and cheese to make ‘kandavlos’ – a very popular dish.
The leaves and especially the seeds of dill contain an essential oil that is used as a tonic for aching muscles and is very popular amongst athletes. It used to be given to babies to soothe colic and today is still used to soothe stomach problems and as a stimulant.
In cooking, dill is used with meat but is really good with fish – especially salmon. Dill is also frequently married with cucumber and is perfect added to cucumber dips – like the Greek Tzatziki. Dill can also be used to enhance the flavor of a hollandaise sauce.
Well, these are just a handful of the herbs that you can use in your cooking to enhance the flavor of a variety of dishes, but also to add some health benefits too. Chives, tarragon, chervil, bay leaf, and marjoram can also be added to the list of herbs to try and it is fun to experiment by adding them to different dishes to decide which you like most.
It is interesting that one of the best-known herbs is chamomile which is well known for inducing a good night’s sleep, but interestingly, while it makes lovely herbal tea, it is not used in cooking.
Well, hopefully, you will not be ignoring the jars of herbs when you next go into your local supermarket; but instead will be buying a few jars plus some fresh basil, coriander, and parsley to experiment.
You will be surprised and delighted by the positive response you get from friends and family who will love the enhanced taste of your cooking….so stand back and wait for the applause, and enjoy cooking with herbs!.