Nutrition Column – Cooking with Herbs

"A pinch of this and a dash of that." Herbs have long been used in cuisines around the world. In today’s health-conscious society, cooking with herbs is a great way to add flavor and aroma to food without adding calories or fat.

The distinct flavor of herbs comes from oils in the cell walls of plants. When leaves or seeds of plants are chopped or ground, the cell walls break, releasing the herbs’ flavors. When used to complement, not disguise, flavor, herbs can make many food dishes unique.

Here are a few suggestions on how to successfully cook with and store herbs.

Cooking with herbs:

Herb leaves can be used fresh, or they can be dried or frozen for later use. Seeds, however, are usually dried before use. Before using fresh herbs, always wash and pat them dry with a paper towel. Avoid overwhelming a dish with herbs and other seasonings. Generally, ¼ teaspoon of dried herbs per four servings is adequate. When doubling a recipe, start off with 50 percent more of the herb, then add more as needed to achieve the desired flavor. When substituting one form of herb for another, consider these equivalents: ¼ teaspoon powdered herb = 1 teaspoon dried herb = 1 tablespoon chopped, fresh herb.

Cooked foods are usually best if herbs are added during the final stages of cooking. For uncooked foods, such as salad dressings and dips, add herbs several hours in advance so the flavors have time to blend. When using whole herbs in cooked dishes, wrap them in a cheesecloth bag before adding them to the dish for easy removal before serving. When adding dry, leafy herbs to a dish, crumble them between your fingers as you add them to the dish to help release more flavor and aroma.

Storing herbs:

Dried herbs generally store well for up to a year. While dried herbs can be stored whole or crushed, whole herbs tend to retain their flavor longer. Before storing herbs, make sure the leaves are completely dry to help protect against mold growth during storage. To ensure optimum quality, store dried herbs in rigid containers with airtight seals. Choose ceramic jars or darkened glass containers to help protect herbs against light deterioration. Label storage containers with the herb’s name and the date. When ready to use, rub some of the herb between your fingers and smell the aroma as a check for freshness.

When freezing herbs, seal in airtight plastic bags and label with the herb’s name and date. Quick-frozen herbs will usually keep in the freezer for up to two years if they are well packaged.