Herb Buying Guide

Herbs are essential to flavourful cooking and can turn any dish into a mealtime favourite. This herbs buying guide outlines some popular options and offers helpful buying and storage tips.

Herbs 101

Food is always more delicious when it's seasoned just right. By using herbs in your cooking, you can infuse your dishes with mouth-watering aromas and tastes. Herbs are similar to spices as both add flavour to food, but herbs are the leaves of the plant, while spices come from the roots, bark and seeds. For some dishes, a pinch of herbs will do. Other dishes require handfuls. The first step in seasoning with herbs is deciding whether to go fresh or dried. As a rule of thumb, use dried herbs at the beginning of the cooking process, so they'll have time to dissolve fully and blend into the dish. Add fresh herbs at the end for maximum flavour or as a garnish on the plate. 

Types of Herbs

Bay%20Leaf

Bay Leaf

Bay leaf has a slightly spicy flavour that benefits stews and soups. It's greyish-green in colour and usually sold dry. When cooking, add the bay leaf at the beginning to allow its flavour to release. Remember to remove the leaf before serving. 
Basil

Basil

Basil is often used in Italian, Mediterranean and Thai cooking. You can easily find both dry and fresh basil year round in the grocery store. When preparing meals with fresh basil, remove the leaves from the stem, then wash and dry them with a paper towel. The best way to cut fresh basil is to stack leaves and cut them vertically into thin strips. Fresh basil works well as a pizza topping or served with mozzarella cheese and sliced tomatoes, while dry basil complements soups, stews and tomato sauces.
Chives

Chives

Chives are long, green and grassy in appearance. They provide a mild onion flavour to creamy dips, salads and chilled soups. Chives are sold fresh, frozen and freeze-dried, but they're most flavourful when fresh.
Cilantro

Cilantro

A popular ingredient in Mexican, Indian and Asian cooking, cilantro is the leafy part of the coriander plant. Also known as fresh coriander or Chinese parsley, it has strong citrus overtones that people tend to love or hate. When shopping, choose leaves that are green and fragrant. Beware that fresh cilantro spoils quickly, and the flavor of the dried variety pales in comparison.
Dill

Dill

Dill has a sharp, lemony flavour that blends well with beets, potato soups, cream cheese spreads, rice salads and stuffed grape leaves. It's also good for pickling veggies such as cucumbers. The fresh and dry varieties of dill have a similar flavour profile. Fresh dill stands out in the produce section due its distinctive green sprigs.
Marjoram

Marjoram

Marjoram has a minty bitter taste similar to oregano and is popular in Greek, Italian and Mexican cooking. Marjoram is sold fresh or dried. Fresh marjoram has small greyish-green leaves. 
Mint

Mint

During those hot summer days, mint adds a refreshing, lively flavour to lemonade and other fruit drinks. Mint also imparts a cool, fresh taste to fruit salads, fish and lamb. You can find mint fresh and ground. Fresh mint leaves, which are dark green in colour, are often used to garnish desserts. 
Oregano

Oregano

Common in Greek, Italian and Mexican cooking, oregano has a minty, bitter taste similar to marjoram. It's great for enhancing the flavour of dishes containing cabbage, tomato and meats, including beef, veal and lamb. Oregano is sold fresh and ground.
Parsley

Parsley

Both curly-leaf and flat-leaf parsley have a fresh flavour that complements long-simmering rich dishes such as stews and pot roasts, as well as individual food items such as potatoes, grains and meat. It can also be mixed with garlic and olive oil to make sauce for pastas. Parsley is sold in its dried form, but it is best used fresh. 
Rosemary

Rosemary

For your next backyard BBQ, try adding rosemary to your marinades, especially if you're cooking lamb. Rosemary also complements mushrooms, peas, zucchini, squash, beans and bread. Use only a small amount as its strong, earthy flavour could overwhelm your dish. Rosemary is available fresh or dry. When using fresh rosemary, which has an evergreen colour, pull the needle-like leaves off the stem before cutting.

Types of Herbs Continued

Sage

Sage

Often used in Italian cooking, sage has a woody flavour that blends well with garlic, tomatoes, onions and veggies. It also complements pork sausages, chicken and onion stuffing. Sage is available fresh and ground. Fresh sage has grey-green leaves that maintain flavour much longer than the ground variety.
Tarragon

Tarragon

Popular in French cooking, tarragon has a licorice taste and pleasant aroma that goes well with chicken, seafood, egg dishes, carrots and greens. It's also used to flavour vinegar. Tarragon is available both fresh and dry. Fresh tarragon is easily spotted at the grocery store due to its spiky, slender, dark-green leaves. 
Thyme

Thyme

Thyme has a spicy taste and lively aroma that complements salads, carrots, mushrooms and even bread pudding. It also goes well with a variety of meats, including pork, chicken and lamb. Thyme is available fresh or dry. The fresh variety consists of tiny twigs with dark green leaves.

Herb Buying Tips:

  • Pick moist, fresh-looking herbs that don’t have withering leaves or black spots
  • The aroma of fresh herbs should be distinct and stimulating
  • Check expiry dates and stay away from old, dusty containers
  • Ground herbs should not appear clumped
  • Avoid buying ground herbs in bulk in case you don’t use them before their expiry dates
  • Choose fresh herbs if the dried variety doesn't have enough flavor for your needs
  • Beware that ground herbs may contain small amounts of other ingredients like salt, rice or flour

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Herb Storage Tips:

  • Store dried herbs in a dark, cool area to prevent premature expiry
  • Dry fresh herbs and store them in the refrigerator
  • All herbs (except for cilantro) can be dried or frozen and used at a later date
  • To freeze herbs, remove large stems, wash, dry and place in an airtight container
  • Ensure the herbs are dry before freezing to prevent mold
  • Herbs frozen by this method should keep for up to 3 months.
  • Alternatively, place herbs in an ice-cube tray filled with water or cooking oil and put the tray in the freezer
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