In her bi-weekly column, Kitchen Basics, Susan Pachikara of Cardamom Kitchen demystifies essential cooking skills with step-by-step instructions and her own handsome photos. Whether she's showing us how much brown sugar we're meant to "pack"(or is it cram?) into measuring cups or how to detect when our onions are properly caramelized, Susan is the nonna we never had -- until now. Now, go on and get cozy under her wing.
This week, Susan demonstrates that when it comes to fresh herbs, one size does not fit all.
Fragile herbs like cilantro and parsley (at top) have tender stems, while hardy herbs like thyme, rosemary, and oregano have woody stems (below).
Herbs offer home cooks the complexity of fine wine. Low in calories and immensely flavorful, they transform scrambled eggs, green salads, and mashed potatoes from the ordinary to "oh my gawd" exceptional. With the power of a pied piper, they draw us to pesto, tabbouleh, and even mint chocolate chip ice cream.
Types of Herbs
Basil, parsley, love-it-or-hate-it cilantro, and other fragile herbs have delicate leaves and tender stems. Sensitive to heat, they are best eaten raw or added at the end of the cooking process.
By contrast, rosemary, thyme, and other hardy herbs have thick leaves and woody stems that can withstand prolonged heat. Their raw leaves are rubbery, but become palatable with cooking. Hardy herbs should be chopped before they are cooked or added with their stem intact and removed before serving.
Fresh vs. Dried Herbs
Fresh herbs have greater complexity than their dried counterparts. Fresh rosemary, for example, has notes of cloves, lavender, nutmeg, and pine, but when dried often loses all but its pine flavor. Opt for fresh herbs whenever possible. If dried herbs are your only option, purchase them in small quantities as they quickly degrade.
Rosemary, fresh (at left) and dried.
Guidelines for Prepping Fresh Herbs
Grab a sharp knife (to avoid bruising and crushing your herbs), a cutting board, and a few sheets of paper towel, and follow these simple steps:
Wash herbs and pat them dry with a paper towel.
To chop fragile herbs, like parsley and cilantro:
Remove the leaves from the stem (this step is optional when prepping cilantro). Pinch the base of your knife. With your other hand, wad up the loose leaves. Slice through the leaves.
Hold the knife over the sliced leaves. Place your other hand on the back of the knife and rock it back and forth over the leaves.
To chop hardy herbs, like rosemary, thyme, oregano, and marjoram:
Remove the leaves from the woody stem. With one hand, hold the knife pinching the base. Place the other hand on the back of the knife and rock the knife back and forth over the leaves.
To shred or finely cut (chiffonade) basil or mint:
Remove the leaves from the stems and stack five or six leaves in a pile. Roll the leaves lengthwise into a tight cylinder, then hold the tip of the cylinder with one hand and slice it into thin strips with the knife.
All photos by Susan Pachikara.
I’d love to hear about your adventures with herbs! Do you have tips or interesting techniques? Share them with your fellow cooks in the comments section below.
Are you new to cooking? Tell me what skills you'd like to learn and your idea could be featured in an upcoming post!
Want more basic tips from Susan? Check out her previous post: Kitchen Basics: Garlic.
Susan writes the blog Cardamom Kitchen to share her culinary experiences as an Indian-American rooted in the Midwest.