OK, first off, here’s the scoop on what we consider essential fresh herbs, the stuff you really ought to have on hand whenever you need or want them. When it comes to this list, they really do need to be fresh, and that does not mean out of a nasty little plastic pack from the grocery. A basic herb garden is something every serious home cook aught to have – It’s a cinch to start and maintain, indoors or out, doesn’t take up much room, and provides you with a gorgeous, year-round palette of flavor. This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, it’s just what we grow – You can and should tailor yours as you like.
• Basil – Over 100 varieties of this strongly flavored and scented herb can be found and grown these days. Basil goes beautifully with many dishes, from eggs to pasta. We favor Genovese as our go to for general use and pesto, with Lime, Dwarf, and Thai essential varieties as well. The Thai variety is essential to several South Asian cuisines. Dries well for over-winter use.
• Cilantro – Also known as Chinese Parsley, Dhania, and Coriander in its seed form, Cilantro adds an unmistakable light, bright, citrusy punch to many, many dishes. Essential in Mexican, Tex-Mex and Southeast Asian cooking, cilantro works great in salsas, stews, soup, relishes, chutneys and as a basil replacement in pesto. dries well, but loses it flavor and potency fairly quickly, especially if improperly stored.
• Chervil – This annual relative of parsley sports a mild, anise-like flavor profile and works well in salads and as a flavor note for lamb or pork. It’s a must have for the classic French blend, fines herbes.
• Dill – The sole Anethum representative in the herb ranks, Dill has a potent flavor and scent that marries perfectly with fish, potatoes and egg dishes. Use sparingly, as it is indeed potent. Dill is essential for pickling, in our opinion, and dries well for over-winter use.
• Marjoram – This is another fave of ours that comes from the Mint family. Oft confused with Oregano by appearance, the smell and taste of the two are distinct. Where Oregano is potent and spicy, Marjoram is delicate and subtle. It’s great in marinades for meat or poultry, and fantastic in an omelet or quiche. Dries well for over-winter use.
• Mint – Mint is, of course, not just one herb; Spear, Pepper, Pineapple, Orange, and Apple mint varieties can be found, grown and used. Spearmint is the ‘Mint’ 90% of folks think of when they use the generic term, and this is appropriate, as it is the root source of all those variants. Spearmint pairs perfectly with lamb, and adds a great note in marinades for other meat, poultry or fish; oh, and you can use it for deserts, too… Take care when you grow it, as it will take over everything, including your house, (Ask me how I know).
• Oregano – Named by Linnaeus, here’s yet another essential mint family relative. There are at least a dozen variants to be found, grown and cooked with, and they all have their own distinct notes. Strong and earthy, it’s essential to Mexican and Italian cooking. Our favorite varieties are Mexican and Turkish. Dries well for over-winter use.
• Parsley. Flat and curly leaf varieties abound. My dear friend Christy, who’s Greek and a fine chef, says flat leaf is for wimps, but I disagree. While it’s milder and less complex than curly, it does nicely in many things, from a bouquet garni to alternative pestos. It has a basically bitter taste profile, but acts to brighten other flavors as well, much as a pinch of salt or a squeeze of lemon will do.
• Rosemary – Woody and resinous, this herb is essential for Mediterranean cookery. Perfect for marinating meats and poultry, it adds a perfect flavor note to roasted root veggies. Dries well for over-winter use, super easy to grow and very hearty.
• Sage – Used for centuries as a healing herb, Sage is a wonderful herb with a wide variety of cooking uses. Sage’s savory, peppery flavor is great as a rub or marinade constituent for meat and poultry, goes great in stuffing, and shines in quiches. Widely used in northern Italian cuisine, it dries well for over-winter use.
• Savory – Also known as Satureja and Yerba Buena, this herb has numerous members all called ‘Savory,’ with Summer, (Satureja hortensis), and Winter, (Satureja montana), the primary members. These Rosemary and Thyme relatives have a peppery flavor profile that’s similar to thyme. Wonderful as a constituent herb for roasted meats, root vegetables, and stuffing, and it’s great in soups and stews.
• Tarragon – This strongly flavored annual is relates to Wormwood, the long-banned secret weapon powering Absinthe. One of the four essential constituents of the French fines herbes blend, Tarragon goes great with chicken, fish and egg dishes.
• Thyme – Another broadly cultivated and derived herb; there are at least a dozen varieties to grow and use. This pungent but subtle herb is a go-to all-purpose seasoning. Lemon, Orange Balsam, and Italian Oregano thymes are all worthy in your pantry and garden.
When it comes to dried herbs and spices, trust me when I tell you that you probably don’t want anything from the plain ol’ grocery store, (although they are getting better at this in recent years, the prices there are often prohibitive for the good stuff). Job Number One is getting yours from the right place. For most of you, I’d be willing to bet that if you Google ‘Spice store, your town’, you’re going to find that there is one. Go forth, sniff around, ask questions, and load up. If you’re not graced with a local purveyor, hit the internet. There are a wealth of reputable, high quality purveyors these days, so you can dig right in with confidence – Whether you choose World Spice, Pendrey’s, Penzey’s, or Butcher & Packer, you’re gonna get top quality, fresh stuff.
General rules for purchasing and storing dried herbs and spices are as follows.
1. Do not buy huge quantities of anything, fresh is the key, (And yes, even though they’re dried, there are huge differences in quality).
2. Store herbs and spices in clean glass, airtight jars, and keep them out of direct sun and wide temperature swings, (AKA in a spice cabinet).
3. Smell, feel and look at what you’ve bought. You’ll be surprised how different high quality spice and herbs smell or look compared to supermarket stuff.
4. Whenever possible, buy whole spice, not ground. This is why you have a spice grinder, (and you do have one, right)? Freshness is much easier to maintain and deliver to your dishes when you buy whole.
5. Speaking of grinders, the versions that are, for all practical purposes, a coffee bean grinder, do not do a satisfactory job. Dedicated powered spice grinders are out there, and they do a reasonable job, but still struggle with getting everything in a blend to a uniform consistency. I strongly recommend a good mortar and pestle, or a molcajete and tejolote, the traditional Mexican version of same. For small batches of fine ground things, the newer two piece ceramic hand grinders are amazing.
The following is not an exhaustive list, rather a recitation of what we have in our cabinets, their primary properties, and what they’re often used for. You probably don’t need nearly all these, but they’re here for reference when you do.
Annatto Seed. Annatto is the dried, processed pulp from around the achiote seed. It comes from the Achiote bush, and so it’s sometimes known by that name as well. It imparts a very distinct red color to food, and is often used solely for that quality. It also has a wonderful taste profile – earthy, faintly sweet and peppery, with almost a hint of nutmeg or allspice. Annatto is found fairly commonly in Yucatan and Oaxacan dishes. I like to use a little in rubs and sauces where the color and subtle taste lend a real sparkle to a dish.
Avocado Leaf. Used in Mexican and Central American cooking, fresh or dried leaves are added to tamales, soups, stews, and sauces, where they add a nutty, almost anise-like flavor profile. Available in Mexican grocers and online.
Basil. There are so many varieties available to grow these days, it’s stunning. Most sellers will have several variants, and they all deserve a try in your kitchen.
Bay Leaf. A must for adding a subtle bass note to soups and stews, there are two common culinary varieties, California and Turkish. Of the two, I favor the latter, which is milder and less medicinal than the Cali stuff.
Caraway. Seeds, that is. These add a deep, licorice flavor, and are used in bread, sauerkraut, soups, stews, and pickles.
Cardamom. There’s green, white (bleached green, actually), and black, as well as False (or Ethiopian) out there. Green has a potent, resinous, herby flavor that’s complex to say the least. Black has a smoky profile, much milder than green. Widely used in Middle Eastern cuisines, the first two are from the ginger family, while the Ethiopian is, to my taste, more floral and often stronger than green – It’s used widely in North African spice mixes.
Celery. Yes, celery – Grow your own, and come mid summer you’ll wonder what that crap you’ve been buying in the store all these years really is, anyway. There’s a reason that celery is included in so many famous aromatic base mixes. The real stuff has pungent depth of flavor, and a delightful crunch. Dried leaves assure a year round supply for your spice cabinet.
Chervil. Sometimes called French parsley, probably because, well – It’s related to parsley. That said, its milder than even curly leaf parsely, and goes great with fish and delicate veggie dishes. It’s also a main constituent of the legendary French herb blend, Fines Herbes. Easy to grow, and dries wonderfully.
Chiles. See our separate page for these.
Chive. An Allium genus member, related to garlic, shallot, leek, and whatnot. There are many varieties, garlic chive probably the most popular. Giant Siberian is, well, really big, very pretty, and for my mind, the chiviest of the bunch. Dries beautifully, great in soups, stews, or fresh on salads and proteins.
Cilantro. Comes in bunches and looks a lot like parsley, so be careful, (Not that I’ve ever made that mistake, mind you…) Once you get your bunch home, remove the rubber band or twist tie, cut about an inch or so off the stem ends, and stick the bunch into a glass of fresh water like you were arranging flowers. Store it in the fridge just like that. Dries well, but loses potency rather quickly.
Cinnamon. There’s far more than one variety of cinnamon out there – Check the good online sources and you’ll find Ceylon, Madagascar, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Indonesian. The Ceylon variety is also called True Cinnamon – This comes from a small evergreen tree that’s native to Sri Lanka. Whatever you choose, get it whole and grind your own.
Cumin, (Cumino). Cumin is the seed of the Cuminum Cyminum plant, a member of the parsley family. It has a strong, bitter flavor so should be used sparingly. You can find the seed in brown, white and black forms, brown being the most popular. Although it’s unique, be cautious with the black, as it is really quite strong. Buy the seeds whole, of course.
Dill. We list this as a fresh herb, but the seeds are a great way to use the flavor profile throughout the year. While not as potent as fresh leaves, seeds have the same citrusy/sweet/bitter notes.
Epazote. In Texas, epazote is often called ‘Mexican Tea’ or ‘Wormseed.’ It’s huge in regional Mexican cooking. That said, as you expand your repertoire, you’ll probably want to give it a try. Grows wild all over the place, but can be hard to find in stores.
Fennel. This veggie/herb hails from the carrot family, which makes sense when you see the frilly leaves. It’s got what’s oft described as a licorice taste, but good fennel is much deeper than that. This too is delightful fresh, yet extremely versatile when dried. It adds a nice base note to herb blends, and is great on proteins and other veggies as well.
Fenugreek. This herb is wonderful when used as a fresh, whole vegetable or leaves, as well as dried leaves and seeds. Fenugreek has a distinct, bitter flavor profile, and is used widely in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines.
Filé. Dried and powdered leaves of young sassafras trees, these are used as a thicker, traditionally in Cajun cooking. It has a flavor profile that hints of thyme, but a bit greener and funkier, which seems quite apropos to me.
Garlic. Not really an herb, but should be in your pantry in some form. You can get powdered, granulated, and dried chopped readily – I prefer the granulated, which does a good job of delivering the goods while retaining its power in soups, sauces and stews better than powdered does.
Ginger. Again, not an herb, but a must in the kitchen. Fresh root is readily available and stores well for a few weeks. It’s cheap, so a little 3” piece, which will do quite a lot of cooking, is worth having handy. Dried, granulated ginger is widely available, as is ginger juice.
Grains of Paradise. Sometimes called melegueta or alligator pepper, this member of the ginger family is related to cardamom. It certainly can be used as pepper is, and if you’re around here at all, you’ve seen it in a bunch of our recipes. It’s far more complex than black pepper, with a pungent, buttery profile that hints of cardamom, coriander, with minor floral and citrus notes.
Horseradish. Readily available dried and powdered, this is an easy way to add zing to sauces, soups, and stews. Varies widely in potency, and tends to lose it quickly in dried form, (as in, not so great after 6 months or so).
Juniper Berry. Not just for gin, these berries offer a potent, piney major note, with a lot of depth, and citrusy minor notes. Great in a pickling mix, and surprisingly delightful ground and used sparingly to flavor rubs for meat and poultry.
Kaffir Lime Leaves. While the name is a bit of a slur, (it means infidel), the leaves impart a citrusy, flowery note to southwest Asian cuisines. They’re a great thing to add that certain je ne sais quoi to a sauce or dish where those dominant notes wouldn’t be out of place.
Lavender. There’s nothing subtle about this herb. Overuse it, and whatever you’re making will taste like soap, no joke. It’s a potent, floral, earthy herb used in Herbs de Provence, and again, seriously, a little goes a long way.
Lemongrass. Pretty much as it sounds, this is another southeast Asian herb that has a citrusy top note with an earthy, grassy minor one. It can be found fresh far more often than it used to, as well as dried and powdered. This is another great substitute for straight citrus that’ll add greater depth and complexity.
Long Pepper. This is a real pepper, albeit, it’s Piper longum, not nigrum, as most of us are used to. They look like little pine cones, and in fact, the flavor profile has a distinctly resinous top note, with fruity, gingery undertones. Long pepper is hotter than the pepper we’re used to, but it substitutes well, and adds a greater complexity than the regular stuff.
Lovage. A wonderful herb that’s used far less than it should be. It’s potent, and even more so dried than fresh. It adds a celery like top note, with hints of anise underneath. Great for adding depth to soups, stews, and stocks, it does a great job of maintaining its presence through long cooking.
Mace. This is the reddish, lacy outer shell of nutmeg, ground. It has a very similar flavor profile, but is subtler, or milder if you will. Great for sauces, baked good, and such, where you’d like the hint of nutmeg without the full roundhouse punch.
Marjoram. One of my absolute favorites, and another that doesn’t get used often enough. Related to mint and oregano, the flavor is similar to the latter, but with greater depth and complexity, and less in your face presence.
Mustard. Both seed and powdered mustard are readily available. For the latter, Coleman’s is legendary, and for good reason. Be forewarned, this is potent, sinus clearing stuff, so go easy. Seeds are usually found in yellow or brown, with the former far mellower than the latter. They’re great for pickling, adding to a marinade, or making your own mustard, which if you’ve never done, you simply must.
Mint: By which I mean mostly Spearmint and Peppermint, although there are a bunch of varieties. Spearmint is the pointer leaf of the two and smells, well, like spearmint. Peppermint has a rounded leaf and a different smell, of course. Used very sparingly with meat dishes in Tex Mex.
Nigella. Sometimes called black cumin or black caraway, nigella is neither. It comes from the huge ranunculacaea family. Used in Middle Eastern cuisines, the seeds have a potent bitter taste reminiscent of black pepper with hints of onion and oregano. Toasting deepest and concentrates the flavors, as well as mellowing out the bitterness somewhat. Substituted for pepper, they offer a much more complex flavor profile.
Nutmeg. a cornerstone of the so called warm spices, (with cinnamon, allspice, and clove), nutmeg has a potent, sweet top note, with woody, piny undertones. The nut of Myristica fragrans, this stuff is legendary for good reason. Often relegated strictly to sweets, it shouldn’t be. It finds its way into spice blends from many parts of the world, (North African comes to mind), and goes great with starches, meats, and poultry.
Oregano. Again, there are a bunch of varieties. In spice markets, Mexican and Turkish are the most common variants. The former is a bit more medicinal, astringent in taste, while the Turkish is a bit more flowery – Both worth having, they’re a must have in quite a few cuisines.
Pepper. The real deal, Piper nigrum, comes in black, white, and green. White pepper is black pepper with the outer husk removed, while green is actually black peppercorns picked before they’re fully ripened, (as such, they lose their potency much faster than black or white.) Pink pepper is not a true pepper – it’s the seed of the Peruvian Pepper tree, a whole different species, but like so many pepper analogs, worth having around.
Poppy Seed. Yes, they’re the seeds from opium poppies, and no, you can’t get ripped or fail a drug test by eating them. In addition to muffins, they top bread or veggies or main dishes when toasted, can be used to thicken soups or stews while adding a nice nutty minor note, and are used fairly commonly in Indian cuisine.
Rosemary. The leaves and stems of an evergreen shrub, this herb is often described as piny, but it’s much more than that. There’s a depth and complexity to rosemary that explains why it’s so popular in marinades, roasts, and braises. Sure, it’s got that woody, resinous top note, but there’s hints of mint, sage, pepper and almost balsamic vinegar like shades in there too.
Salt. The spice of all spices, and yes, it is a spice. Nothing wakes up flavors and highlights the overall scent of a dish like salt does – In flat, it acts to free scent molecules from the food and waft them to our schnozes, which is reason enough to love the stuff. There are many, many varieties, most of which are indeed quite distinct, depending on their mineral content and origins. That said, there is, sadly, a strong case for microplastics in most, if not all sea salts these days, so caveat emptor in that regard. Fear not, there are plenty of mined salts that have true character and won’t contain the unwanted stuff.
Saffron. The stamens of crocuses are hand harvested to produce this spice, which explains the astronomical price. It’s very much caveat emptor when buying this stuff, because there’s a lot of chicanery out there. If you’re making paella or bouillabaisse, it’s a must have. The flavor profile is hard to nail down. Overuse it, and your dish will taste metallic, and it doesn’t take much to get there. Some call it floral, others sweet, I’d just say it adds not only strong color but a certain je ne sais quoi that those signature dishes wouldn’t be right without. Not that we can afford it, but never by anything remotely close to a large quantity, as it fades quickly. What we buy comes in tiny little bottles that make you shake your head at the price.
Sage. This comes from the mint family, and adds a potent, somewhat bitter, woody top note, with peppery, almost camphor-like undertones. Great in rubs and marinades, it’s a delight when used fresh with pan roasted meats and poultry.
Savory. Here’s another radically under appreciated herb. Related to rosemary and thyme, there are two varieties, winter and summer. The former is an evergreen perennial, while the latter is an annual and as such, only available in the summer. Summer savory has a peppery flavor like thyme or cress, while winter is piny and more resinous.
Sesame Seed. While we often only see this stuff on hamburger buns, it’s so much more than that. Used for everything from candy to tahini, sesame has a potent scent, with notes of scalded cream, nuts, vanilla and honey – All of which go great with lots of things. Toast sesame seeds and the flavor depth is notably increased. Common in Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines. Don’t forget sesame oil, while we’re on the topic. Just a hint of this can do amazing things for dressings, marinades, and sauces.
Star Anise. Here in the states, this stuff is often only associated with sweets, but it’s used for far more than that. It’s a primary constituent of the Chinese Five Spice blend, and it pairs well not only with other warm spices, but with root veggies, meat, and poultry too. Also works well in rubs and marinades.
Szechuan Pepper. Not a true pepper, but who cares? Szechuan pepper has a delightful, numbing quality. Along with mild heat, there are piny, floral, and citrus notes as well. The vast majority of Szechuan pepper brought into the US is heat treated, which robs them of much of their punch. Get yours from the Mala Market, and you’ll get the real deal non-heated stuff.
Tarragon. Underused and shouldn’t be. If you like the profiles of fennel, or licorice, or anise, tarragon has those notes with some power in the scent, but fairly subtle in taste, with a unique bittersweet note. Great in soups, stews, marinades and rubs.
Thyme. Again, many options – Lemon Thyme is my favorite, but there’s lime, orange blossom, caraway, and many, many others. A spice cabinet essential, either on it’s own or in many legendary blends. Easy to grow, hearty, and dries beautifully.
Turmeric. You might not know that turmeric is a root that, from the outside, looks a lot like ginger. Get into the flesh, and there’s that bright orange color. Its flavor is subtle, an earthy blend of ginger and orange. We use it in our homemade ginger ale, and it’s a star in Vietnamese and Cambodian cooking. It’s sometimes used as a substitute for saffron, when the color is desired without the strong flavor.
Tasmanian Pepperberry. Greatly under appreciated, this is one of my favorites. The profile is peppery, woody, resinous, with cinnamon-like back notes. The stuff has depth and complexity that’s truly stunning. We’ve made an ice cream with it that was unbelievably delicious. Great as a pepper substitute, it shines in pickling blends, marinades, and rubs.
Vanilla. These vanilla, and then there’s vanilla. And frankly, if you buy extract, there’s a world of fakes out there. This is the dried fruit of certain species of orchid. Vanilla originated in Mesoamerica, and now is widely cultivated in Mexico, South and Central America, islands throughout the Indian Ocean, and the South Pacific. There are three primary varieties, Mexican, Tahitian, and Madagascar (also called Bourbon vanilla). Vanilla is second only to saffron in price, which you know if you’ve shopped top quality beans lately. To me, the best beans are Tahitian. They have a complexity and depth that surpasses its cousins, but you pay dearly for the privilege. Buying whole beans is great, but only if you’re genuinely going to use them – They lose their potency and dry out quickly, so if you’re more of a casual user, get extract or paste of good quality. They too are pricy, but last far longer. Vanilla isn’t just for baking. Added to savory dishes, it contributes a depth and mouth feel that’s unstoppable.
Wasabi. AKA Japanese horseradish, while related to horseradish and mustard, is distinct from both. Sensed more in the nose than the mouth, good wasabi has serious complexity to go with the potency. And it is potent – a little goes a long way. Great sellers like World Spice offer high quality powdered wasabi, which is shelf stable for a decent amount of time (6 months or so), and retains most of the punch of the fresh stuff. It adds a delightful kick to sauces, soups, stews, marinades, and rubs.