Can I share a secret with you?
If you only learn one thing from me learn this: fresh is best.
The difference between fresh and dried herbs is as profound as the difference between summer and winter. One is full of sparkle, warmth and life. The other is dull, cold and lifeless.
When you cook with fresh herbs, you expose your cooking to the full spectrum of flavours and aromas. Just as nature intended. When you use dried herbs, the flavours and aromas are often so faded and weak, that they add about as much excitement to your dish as dried lawn grass!
Does this mean that you can never make use of dried herbs?
Of course not.
In fact, most of the spices we use are in a dried form. The drying process concentrates certain, but not all, volatile oils in the plant. (The word ‘volatile’ means that the oils evaporate rapidly). These oils are largely responsible for the flavour and aroma of the herb or spice. And as the name denotes, these oils are flighty and evaporate quickly, so one loses them easily.
Spices are derived from seeds, roots and bark. These ‘hard’ parts of the plant have the advantage that they tend to capture and preserve the volatile oils. Some plants have become so adept at this that we need to use special steps to ‘release’ these oils.
How Do Herbs and Spices Release Their Properties?
In the cooking process, we release the flavours and aromas of spices by grounding or crushing them, or by adding them at the start of the cooking period.
Medicinally, we make a decoction (brew or simmer the plant) to ‘unlock’ its medicinal properties.
The softer parts of the plant or herb, i.e. the leaves and flowers, are not as skilled as the hard parts at capturing their volatile oils. The moment they are bruised, their oils escape into the air.
When making herbal remedies this can be an advantage, as we can simply make a tea or infusion, which will be full of all the plant’s medicinal properties.
However, when we want to use herbs for seasoning delicious meals for the enjoyment of ourselves and those we cook for, we run into a few problems.
Problems with Dried Herbs
The first problem is that herbs like sweet basil, mint, and parsley, lose most of their flavour once they are dried. In this case you could do better by using dried grass!
Secondly, the drying process can also ‘sharpen’ some flavours, while the aromas fade. This means that the dried herb don’t have the balance and subtlety of the fresh version. Putting it another way: dried herbs tend to be one dimensional, and one can easily use too much of a dried herb and ultimately ruin the dish.
Drying Can Be a Good Thing
In other cases, the drying process is actually a good thing. A good example is dried oregano which is much more powerful than fresh oregano. Its stronger and sharper flavour stands up well to a pizza oven, marinades and roasts.
The biggest advantage of using fresh herbs is that you are able to make use of the full spectrum of flavours and aromas to create tasty dishes. You will also discover that as your confidence grows, you eventually find it almost impossible to cook without fresh herbs.
With dried herbs one loses the fine nuances of the herb and it is easy to spoil a dish.
Most novice herbal cooks tend to use far too heavy a hand with dried herbs, and much too little of the fresh equivalent. The dish is either overwhelmed by the herbs or even worse, has little flavour!
You can safely use a generous amount of fresh herbs in your cooking, but rather restrain yourself when adding the dried form to your dishes.
To Convert from Fresh to Dried Herbs
Use the rule of thirds: 3 parts fresh herb = 1 part dried herb
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh herb =
1 teaspoon crushed dried herb =
1/3 teaspoon powdered dried herb
What’s your opinion? Do you prefer fresh or dried herbs?
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