Herbs have a wide variety of uses in cooking. When they are used correctly, herbs have the power to make even the most boring recipes taste sophisticated and exciting. In addition to that, you may be surprised to know that the large majority of herbs commonly used in cooking also boast an array of health benefits. Herbs are powerhouses that can bring flavor, health, and longevity to the table alongside the foods that you’re eating.
The History of Using Herbs in Cooking
The use of plants and herbs in cooking is nothing new. Ancient paintings of herbs can be found in caves throughout France that are estimated to date all of the way back to the year 2500 B.C. Cultures all across the globe have had strong relationships with herbs and have been taking advantage of their many uses in cooking for thousands of years.
In centuries past, it was not as easy to experiment with different herbs and spices as it is today. There were trade routes that allowed cultures to exchange various ingredients, but often at a hefty price tag. Ancient cultures recognized the value of herbs, and they were priced accordingly. The “exotic” herbs and spices from other countries were often reserved for the wealthy, and working class people had to get creative with the herbs and plants that grew locally.
It would have been nice if everyone had the privilege of experimenting with a wide variety of herbs and spices back in the day, but some people may argue that it is good that this wasn’t the case. Being limited in terms of which herbs were available to cook with allowed people to form deep bonds with their local plants.
These strong, deep bonds that formed between humans and the plants that grew locally allowed people to have a greater understanding of how to best work with the plants available to them. The “limitations” in ingredients to work with pushed people to experiment, and as a result, discover uses for herbs in cooking that may have otherwise gone undiscovered.
The information that people learned from herbs was largely passed on verbally. This was to keep the information accessible during times when the majority of people could not read. The earliest documented written information about herbs and their uses was found on Babylonian clay tablets that are estimated to be from around the year 2,000 B.C. These clay tablets were followed by written texts from Egypt, China, and India.
Medicinal Herbs That can be Used in Cooking
As mentioned above in the previous section, many of the herbs out there host a number of health benefits alongside their powerful flavor profiles. Cooking with these herbs is a great way to introduce yourself to the world of herbal medicine in a way that is fun and less intimidating than some of the other ways of using medicinal herbs. In this section, you will be introduced to a few of the medicinal herbs out there that are also commonly used in cooking, so that you can familiarize yourself with their uses and begin to integrate them into your life through the food that you eat.
If you were to travel back in time, you would find Angelica growing in many of the medieval herb gardens. Legend has it that Angelica earned its name as a result of a dream that a monk had during the times of the Great Plague, where an angel revealed the plants protective and healing properties to the monk.
Angelica is an herb that has a very distinct, licorice-like taste. It is slightly sweet with small hints of celery and juniper. When used in the right amounts, Angelica is gentle and refreshing. All parts of the angelica plant can be used. The leaves of the Angelica plant can be used to make a tea that not only tastes great but can also settle the stomach after a large meal.
If you stumble across a fresh Angelica plant, the large, mature leaves can be used as a tortilla replacement to wrap up foods. Their flavor is delicate enough to pair well with a variety of other ingredients, but they pair best with foods that go well with slightly sweet, anisette like flavors. When using Angelica leaves as a wrap, there is a lot of room to get creative.
Angelica seeds and roots can be used to make homemade herbal liquors by allowing them to steep in the alcohol of your choice. Lighter spirits like vodka and gin tend to work really well with the Angelica plant. The finished product can be used to create refreshing summer cocktails that have an herbal twist, or as a digestive tonic that can give relief from heartburn and nausea.
Angelica stems can be candied to make a sweet treat that is both healthy and satisfying. Candied Angelica can be eaten on its own or used to garnish other desserts. It also adds a sweet and intense flavor to sauces and glazes.
The Health Benefits of Angelica
Angelica is commonly used by herbalist to assist with stomach cramping, gastric issues, and for combating coughs associated with colds. In Ayurvedic medicine, it is sometimes used to assist people that suffer from anorexia nervosa.
Important Warnings and Precautions to Take
Angelica has the potential to act as a calcium channel blocker, especially when taken in large doses. Calcium channel blockers lower blood pressure and widen blood vessels. Always be sure to check with your doctor or qualified healthcare professional before introducing a new herb to your diet, especially if you plan on consuming the plant in large medicinal doses or are on any medications that could have a negative interaction.
Basil is one of the most commonly used herbs in cooking all across the world, and with good reason. It has just the right balance of spice, sweet, and earthiness. It’s flavors perfectly compliment a wide variety of cuisines. Basil originated in India and then traveled back to Greece with Alexander the Great. After that, it spread throughout Europe where it became a key component of cooking in places like Italy.
You may be surprised to find that there are over one hundred varieties of basil, all with slightly differing leaf sizes, colors, aromas, and tastes. The two most common varieties are Holy Basil, which is used in Ayurvedic medicine in India for stress relief and mental clarity, and Genovese basil which is the variety most commonly grown in gardens for culinary purposes.
The leaves, stems, and flowers of the basil plant can all be used in cooking. Basil is a member of the mint family. It is sweet, slightly spicy, and warming while simultaneously being refreshing on the palate. Basil is one of the most versatile herbs out there. It can be eaten raw, cooked, whole, or blended. It pairs excellently with fruit in the summertime for a sweet and refreshing snack. One fruit that it works particularly well with is strawberry.
Basil also goes very well with poultry, cheeses, soups, and salads. If you’ve made a meal and find that it needs a little something extra, try reaching for basil instead of salt. A little basil goes a long way when it comes to enhancing flavor, and it can really make other flavors pop without all of the sodium that comes along with reaching for the salt shaker.
The Health Benefits of Basil
- Aids in digestion
- Regulates blood pressure
- Reduces the occurrence of headaches
- Stress reduction
Other Important Notes About Basil
Fresh Basil bruises very easily, so it is important to use a very sharp knife when you are working with it in a recipe. If you use a dull knife to chop fresh basil, you may find that your basil turns dark in color and turns slimy. Basil does not take well to freezing in its whole, unprocessed form. So, if you want to preserve your fresh basil, your best bet is to find a good pesto recipe. Once you have turned the basil into pesto, you can divide it into portions and freeze it that way.
Chives have been a staple in Chinese cuisine for thousands of years. The leaves and blossoms of the chive plant give dishes an onion like flavor that allows recipes to pop will flavor without becoming overwhelming. In modern times, chives are most often used as a garnish, but in ancient times many cultures consumed the stems and blossoms as a part of the main course, like a vegetable rather than a topping.
Chives taste the best when they are used raw, or added to recipes at the very end when everything has been taken off of the heat. They can be used to add flavor to salads, sauces, soups, among a variety of other things. The bright purple blossoms produced by the chive plant provide a pop of color that can be utilized by chefs for plating and garnishing.
The mild oniony, garlicky taste of chives goes well with a variety of foods and leaves a lot of room for chefs and home cooks to be creative. You may want to try your hand at making a chive infused vinegar. Herbal vinegars are a great way to retain the taste and flavor of fresh aromatic herbs throughout the year. Champagne vinegar works best for making herbal vinegars due to its mild taste. Apple cider vinegar can also be used as a base, but it has a stronger taste and will require more plant material to get the flavor right.
Chive infused vinegar makes a wonderful, flavor-packed salad dressing when mixed with a high-quality olive oil. It can also be sprinkled over vegetables and added to sauces or marinades to give them an extra kick of flavor without all of the additives found in the premixed “ready to use” blends found on store shelves.
The Health Benefits of Chives
Chives are similar to garlic when it comes to health benefits. They are believed to be beneficial for circulatory health, and they also boast antiseptic properties. Chives serve as a great source of iron and calcium. They contain a high level of antioxidants and are great for promoting a healthy immune system.
People tend to have mixed feelings when it comes to cilantro. It has a flavor that people seem to either love or hate without much grey area. Cilantro is also sometimes referred to as coriander when it is dried or being used in its seed form. The leaves, roots, and seeds of the cilantro are all commonly used in cooking.
Those who do like cilantro describe it as having a bright, almost citrusy flavor that is mildly spicy and earthy with notes that are similar to Sage. The seeds of the plant have a sweet taste that is a lot milder than the taste that is produced from the fresh leaves. The roots have the strongest taste of all of the plants components.
Cilantro shines the most in fresh, vegetable-based dishes like salsas and sauces. It also works very well in savory or spicy dishes that need a hint of something bright and refreshing to bring balance to the dish.
Cilantro works well alongside spices like chive, basil, and mint, but it tends to clash with herbs with flavor profiles like rosemary and Oregano.
The Health Benefits of Cilantro
The cilantro plant is very high in antioxidants. It also contains large concentrations of potassium, manganese, iron, and magnesium. Cilantro is one of the best plant-based sources for vitamin K. It has antiseptic properties and mild analgesic properties that can be useful for small aches and pains.
Dills uses in the culinary world extend far beyond making pickles. It has a great flavor that blends notes of citrus with a hint of earthiness. It has a mildly astringent aftertaste. Its flavor profile makes it great for complementing a wide variety of flavors, and a little bit packs a big punch.
Dill goes excellently with poultry, fish, and root vegetables. Its inherent citrus notes and natural tang play wonderfully with lemon juice, which is one of its best friends in the kitchen. Otherwise bland vegetables like potatoes come to life when they are introduced to dill.
For a healthier take on potato salad, try roasting potatoes with a bit of lemon, dill, and garlic in the oven until golden brown and tender. This combination packs plenty of flavor without having to rely on unhealthy ingredients like mayo, mustard, and other additive packed ingredients commonly found in potato-based side dishes.
Dill also works very well with beets, mixed into rice or other grains, as well as in homemade salad dressings, sauces, and marinades. The flavor of dill begins to diminish when it is dried, so this is an herb that is best used fresh. If you are unable to use all of your dill before it begins to wilt, it usually holds up fairly well in the freezer.
The Health Benefits of Dill
Dill has a variety of health benefits that make it a great addition to any healthy diet. It has antimicrobial properties and is rich in calcium and iron. Dill is used in many herbal formulas for digestive health. It can treat a variety of digestive ailments in adults, as well as in children. It is sometimes used to treat colic. In some studies, dill has shown promising results when it comes to reducing cholesterol.
Fennel has mild diuretic properties, which is likely why it was used by some ancient cultures as a weight loss tonic. Fennel has its roots in Mediterranean cuisine where it has remained popular for many years. Fennel consists of a few different parts, all of which are used in cooking and are similar in flavor, but the bulb is used most commonly.
All parts of the fennel plant have a refreshing, crisp, mildly sweet herbaceous flavor to them. The leaves and flowers (sometimes referred to as fronds) are commonly used as a flavorful salad garnish. Fennel seeds are found in a variety of spice blends such as Chinese five spice due to their ability to blend well with a variety of other flavors while offering a touch of sweetness. Fennel seeds can also be kept on hand and chewed as an all natural breath freshener.
The bulb of the fennel plant is crisp and moist in texture. It is very similar to the texture of an apple, but a little bit harder and easier to work with when cutting and slicing. It is crisp and refreshing. It makes an excellent addition to salads, salsas, relishes, and could even be used as a sandwich topping. If a recipe that you’re working with could benefit from something refreshing and crisp, fennel could be just what you’re looking for.
The Health Benefits of Fennel
Fennel is a great herb for people who suffer from digestive issues. It reduces common gastric complains like gas and stomach cramping. Fennel is rich in vitamins and nutrients such as zinc, phosphorus, vitamin B, and vitamin K. The large number of vitamins found in fennel make it a great choice for those looking to improve bone health. Fennel is also believed to be wonderful for heart health due to the high levels of potassium. The high amounts of selenium found in fennel may point to fennel having significant immune system boosting properties.
Lavender has seen a resurgence in popularity in the past few years. It has a sweet, bright, floral taste that people are taking advantage of to flavor their foods. In modern times, lavender isn’t just for tea. It is being added to beverages of all kinds. Lavender can also be added baked goods, ice cream, along with a variety of other foods.
Lavender is a gentle herb, but its flavor is particularly pungent, so when working with it for cooking purposes it is best to start out small and work your way up until you familiarize yourself with the right amount for your preferences.
The next time you try your hand at baking a cake, try tossing in a tablespoon or so of dried lavender buds into the cake batter to make things more interesting. Lavender also goes very well with citrus forward foods and can be added in small amounts to sweet recipes that contain lemon or orange.
The Health Benefits of Lavender
Lavender is most commonly noted for is stress relieving effects. It is a very mild, gentle sedative and has a long history of being used to improve mood. It is also used by herbalist to help with sleep disorders and for soothing headaches.
If you’re looking to cook with lavender, ensure that you are purchasing food-grade flowers and not just buying them from a flower shop. The lavender that is found in floral arrangements and used for decoration is often sprayed and treated with chemicals. Instead, you should look at a tea supply store or purchase from a trusted source online that specializes in culinary herbs. Also, some people are allergic to lavender, so it is best to make sure that you do not have an allergy before consuming it internally.
Check out our article on natural insect repellents. Lavender is one of the herbs that can turn pesky bugs away! –> www.rhoot.net/natural-insect-repellents
Read this post about making your own massage oils for aches and pain. Lavender combined with Kava Kava helps with physical discomfort caused by emotional stress! –> www.rhoot.net/homemade-herbal-massage-oils-for-pain-and-stiffness
Horseradish packs a punch of heat and can be used in most dishes when a kick of spice is needed. Horseradish is a root that is similar to ginger but with a slightly different flavor profile. Horseradish is tangy, spicy, and earthy. Unlike with ginger, horseradish doesn’t have any underlying sweetness to it. However, just because its hot doesn’t mean that it has to be overwhelming. When it comes to spicy herbs, it’s all about the amount that you use any way that you use them.
If you were to roughly chop horseradish root into chunks and add it to food, it would be incredibly unpleasant when someone bit into a piece. On the other hand, if horseradish is finely graded and thoroughly mixed into a sauce or blended into the food properly, it can add just the right amount of warmth and spice to a dish without becoming overwhelming.
Horseradish makes an excellent addition to marinades, sauces, and toppings. It can be mixed with other herbs to add to the depth of the flavor and to add a bit of earthiness and heat. Horseradish adds warmth to food in a way that is far more interesting to the palate than what something like ground black pepper could provide. If you learn to use it properly, it could become your new secret weapon when it comes to packing flavor into your food.
The Health Benefits of Horseradish
- High in antioxidants
- Great for skin health
- Immune system boosting
- Good for respiratory health
Horseradish is often overlooked when it comes to health benefits. The short list above is a small sample of some of the benefits that it has to offer. Its high level of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties make horseradish a true super food.
Oregano has been used as a culinary herb as well as a medicinal herb for thousands of years. Oregano is earthy, savory, and mildly minty. It has a camphor-like aroma and has a slightly astringent and drying effect in the mouth. Its flavor works best with savory foods, and it is typically used to season meat, vegetables, and baked goods like bread.
Oregano is similar to marjoram, and people sometimes mistake the two, but Oregano is far more pungent in the flavor department. When working with Oregano, less tends to be more. It can easily overpower other flavors and spices, which is why it is important not to go overboard.
If you can find fresh Oregano, it a little bit of it can add a lot of flavor to a salad. Dried Oregano can add just the right amount of earthiness and depth to sauces. In order to get the best flavor, Oregano should be added toward the end of the cooking process. If you add it too soon, it can cause foods to become bitter.
The Health Benefits of Oregano
Oregano’s health benefits scope far and wide. It is rich in a variety of vitamins and minerals, and it has historically been used to help people cope with a variety of health conditions. Some of the things that Oregano can help with are listed below.
- Immune system support
- Muscle aches
Lemongrass has historically been used in Asian cuisine, but it has been gaining traction in recipes all across the globe. Just as the name suggests, it adds a bright, citrusy flavor to the foods that it is cooked with. However, the flavor that Lemongrass brings to the plate is more sophisticated than what would come from lemon juice. Lemongrass is bright and full of flavor without the risk of making a recipe too acidic, which can sometimes happen when using a regular lemon in recipes.
Lemongrass pairs incredibly well with chicken as well as with most vegetables. If you have a recipe that calls for lemon juice, and you want to take it to the next level, try grating some fresh lemongrass into the food instead. You may be surprised by just how much flavor and complexity this one simple step can have on your recipe.
The Health Benefits of Lemongrass
Lemongrass boasts a number of surprising health benefits that have a positive effect on all sorts of bodily functions. Below are just a few of the benefits that Lemongrass brings to the table.
- Reduces LDL cholesterol
- Liver supporting
- Antimicrobial properties
- Antibacterial properties
- Antiseptic properties
- Nervous system support
- Relief from insomnia
Check out our energizing herbal tea recipe featuring lemongrass! –> www.rhoot.net/energizing-herbal-tea-recipe
Check out our article on natural insect repellents. Lemongrass is another herb that can deter bugs from making you a snack! –> www.rhoot.net/natural-insect-repellents
Rosemary is a long-standing favorite among many chefs when it comes to cooking herbs. It is bright, tart, savory, with just the right amount of earthiness to balance out all of the sharpness. Rosemary is a versatile herb that pairs well with all sorts of foods if it used correctly and in the right portions. Like with many other aromatic herbs, it can easily overpower other ingredients in the flavor department if too much is used.
Rosemary pairs well with flavors like lemon and garlic. Its brightness to savory dishes and makes an excellent companion to otherwise gamey meats like venison and lamb. It also works very well with chicken and works with it to allow the subtle natural flavors of the chicken to pop and come to life.
Rosemary adds a flavor boost to vegetables that works wonders to make them more palatable. Rosemary adds brightness and zest to veggies in a way far healthier than some of the pre-packaged seasonings blends available. Rosemary works well with garlic as well as a variety of other herbs and spices. If you want to start experimenting with your own seasoning blends, rosemary is a key component to have on hand.
The Health Benefits of Rosemary
- Helps the body to eliminate free radicals
- Promotes hair growth and scalp health
- Boosts the immune system
- Improves memory
- Boosts energy levels
- Improves circulation
Read this post about making your own massage oils for aches and pain. Rosemary is one of a few wonderful herbs that can be used to help soreness! –> www.rhoot.net/homemade-herbal-massage-oils-for-pain-and-stiffness
Parsley is so much more than a garnish. It has a robust, green, sharp flavor that does an excellent job of setting off the flavors of other ingredients. There are a few different varieties of parsley, but the ones you are most likely to encounter in the grocery store are flat leaf and curly. Both varieties are very similar in flavor and give a peppery bite to the foods they are added to.
Parsley goes very well in a variety of sauces, and it makes an excellent marinade when combined with other herbs, spices, and chilies. Parsley goes very well with eggs and otherwise bland proteins that would benefit from a peppery punch. It can also be added to juices and smoothies for a green boost and an easy way to take advantage of its benefits.
The Health Benefits of Parsley
- High levels of antioxidants
- Kidney supporting
- Relief from water retention
- Boosts the metabolism
- Decreases insulin resistance
Sage is an earthy, piney, slightly sweet delight that can transform foods from bland to gourmet with just a pinch. Minced fresh Sage makes an excellent addition to a variety of foods and allows those who use it to get a lot of flavor with minimal effort.
Sage is a common herb to cook with during the holiday season, but it is perfectly capable of giving people flavor all year round. If you’re tired of tomato sauce, try tossing your pasta with a mixture of olive oil, Sage, and the other herbs of your choice with some lemon juice and chopped toasted walnuts. Sage also goes very well with meat because its flavor profile is potent enough to stand out among other strong flavors.
If you’re a tea drinker, you may want to try making a sage-infused honey. The finished product can be added to teas and other beverages to give them a kick of extra flavor. Sage honey pairs particularly well with drinks that fruity and berry forward in flavor.
The Health Benefits of Sage
Sage has been found to contain over one hundred different polyphenols, which are chemical compounds the protect the body from the effects of oxidation.
Some other studies surrounding Sage have shown promising results for reducing the symptoms associated with menopause, like hot flashes and sweating. This is because Sage reportedly contains compounds that have properties that are similar to estrogen, which can be useful for those who are suffering from conditions associated with low estrogen levels.
There have also been promising results with studies on the effects of Sage on blood sugar. Research suggests that it may work to lower blood sugar and improve insulin resistance. However, a lot more research is needed before any definite conclusions about this can be drawn.
Sage has been shown in a few different studies to potentially have a positive effect on cholesterol. Research suggests that it may lower bad LDL cholesterol and raise good HDL cholesterol. If this proves to be true, then Sage could end up playing an important role in the future of heart health.
Tips for Cooking with Herbs to Maximize Flavor/Benefits
Herbs can be intimidating at first. They come dried and fresh and are offered by many different companies. Knowing where to start and what to pick and be tough, but if you stick to reputable companies and growers, you are off to a good start. Here are a few small extra tips to help you get started.
The General Rule of Thumb
Dried herbs should be added at the start of the cooking time and heated thoroughly. Fresh herbs should always be added at the end once you are finished cooking and have taken the food off of the heat. This is because dried herbs need more time to release their flavor due to being dehydrated.
Fresh herbs are already at their peak flavor capacity without the need for heating or rehydrating. If you heat fresh herbs for too long, you run the risk of the flavor becoming bitter or changing in an undesirable way.
Making or Breaking the Flavor ( A Sharp Knife is Key)
Fresh herbs run the risk of bruising and becoming mushy when they aren’t cut properly. This can lead to uneven flavor dispersal throughout your dish and make your food appear unappetizing. Investing in a sharp knife and learning about a few cutting techniques can do a world of good for the overall appearance and flavor of your finished recipes.
Fresh isn’t Always Available – But Aim for it When You Can
When push comes to shove, fresh herbs tend to be easier to work with than dried herbs. This is for a few reasons. The first reason being that fresh herbs are much more forgiving in the flavor department. It is a lot easier to overdo it and overpower a dish with dried herbs than it is with fresh herbs due to how concentrated the flavors can become once an herb has dried.
Although the flavors get more concentrated when herbs are dried, this is not always in a good way. Fresh herbs tend to have a more palatable taste than their dried counterparts. When an herb is dried, it begins to break down and lose some of its volatile oils, which can change the flavor profile and make it less enjoyable overall, even if it is more intense.
However, dried herbs do have their time and place, and when used properly, they can add wonderful flavors to recipes with a depth that can be hard to achieve when using fresh herbs. When working with dried herbs, just be sure to do your best to purchase from a company that stores their dried material properly, and make sure you have the proper measurements ready to go so that you don’t accidentally spoil the flavor of your recipe by using too much.
Don’t be Afraid to Take Your Tastebuds for a Ride
The herbs mentioned throughout this article are just a few of the basics. They serve as wonderful starting points, and they have stood the test of time. They have traveled from culture to culture over centuries. However, when it comes to herbs and their uses in cooking, there are dozens of herbs worth exploring.
Some of the herbs used in cooking are more beginner friendly than others, but with a little bit of research, you can open yourself up to a whole new world of flavor and make your body happier and healthier in the process of doing so. When you begin to learn how to work with herbs, you can start to eliminate pre-packaged seasoning blends and in turn remove some nasty preservatives and unnecessary sodium from your diet.
As always, be sure to check with your healthcare provider before introducing any new herbs into your diet. Especially if you are taking medications or are pregnant. Herbs are generally pretty gentle, but they can be tricky and interact with the body and medicines in mysterious ways. Once you have been given the go-ahead from your doctor, you can begin to experiment with new herb combinations and recipes safely.
Crocker, P. L., & Crocker, P. L. (2018). The herbalists kitchen: Cooking and healing with herbs. New York: Sterling Epicure.