Reader question… “I’m just starting to use herbs more in my cooking and I’m realizing that I don’t know very much about this subject. Are herbs something I should buy in bulk, how should I store them, how do I know how much to use? Any hints or information you could share would be very appreciated. Thank you.” –Sheryl
Probably the most important thing to remember is that dried herbs are much stronger than fresh herbs because the chemicals responsible for the flavor have been concentrated by the drying process. As a rough estimate, one teaspoon of dried, crushed herbs… or 1/4 teaspoon of an herb that has been dried and powdered… are about equivalent to two to three teaspoons of fresh herbs.
For the most flavor when using fresh herbs, chop the leaves very finely. Since every cut in the leaf releases the flavor chemicals, more cuts mean more flavor. I usually use a sharp knife to chop the herbs, but when I am in a hurry I reach for the kitchen shears, hold the herb leaves in a bunch, and cut off tiny pieces. Both methods work well, so use whichever one you are most comfortable with.
One of our old stone walls on a cloudy, misty day
The decorative spice rack or the cabinet above the kitchen stove are NOT the best places to store your herbs. Heat, light, and exposure to the air will make the aromatic oils in the herbs evaporate, which will cause their flavors to fade. Herbs will last much longer if they are stored in a cool, dry, dark place in airtight containers (NOT in cardboard boxes)… and even longer if they are stored in the freezer. The refrigerator is not a good storage choice, though, because the humidity in a refrigerator is too high.
It’s easy to freeze fresh herbs. Most just need a thorough rinsing to make sure they are clean… then blot the sprigs dry with a paper towel and freeze them in an airtight container or a plastic freezer bag. Basil will turn black when it is frozen, but if you use a food processor and pulse the basil with olive oil, the resulting mixture will freeze without losing its bright green color. (See instructions here for freezing basil.)
Drying herbs is even easier. A dehydrator works well, but I usually just put the washed and dried herb (stems and all) in a lunch-type small paper bag. The herbs will dry without further attention in an upper cabinet or other dry place. Once the leaves have dried completely (check if they will crumble easily), I strip them off the stem and store the dried leaves in airtight containers. (I use commercial herb containers I have washed and saved for this purpose.) I do not crush the leaves any more than I have to to get them into the container because the flavor will be stronger if I wait to crush the leaves just before I use them.
Not all commercially-sold herbs and spices are equally flavorful. Sometimes herbs sold in bulk may not be as good a choice as smaller quantities because of the freshness factor, or for anyone with an allergy concerned about cross contamination. Stored properly, whole herbs and spices can last for three to five years, ground herbs and spices for up to a year. If you are in doubt about the herb’s freshness, take a pinch and crush it between your fingers. The aroma should be strong.
I am currently moving away from the brand of spices and herbs that I have cooked and baked with for years because whatever is now in some of them is suddenly causing me to have severe soy allergic reactions. As I have mentioned before, although some manufacturers reluctantly admit to using binders (obviously the soy source)… the binders are not stated on their ingredient lists. Luckily, none of the herbs and spices I have purchased recently have caused me to have any allergic reactions at all. What a relief, because I was getting rather desperate thinking we were in for some bland food! An additional pleasant surprise is that the new products have been far superior in flavor and strength to the more famous brand I was buying previously. I prefer the small metal containers that many herbs and spices come in, and I’m finding the prices of the small containers are low enough to be competitive with the larger containers I used to buy.