Herbal Essence: Fresh or Dried Herbs?
Buying ingredients for cooking, like many other pursuits, is a constant compromise for most of us. We’d love to subsist entirely on organic, local food, but we settle for splurging only on grass-fed meat. We’d love to use the finest implements and tools, but we content ourselves with a few high-end pots and supplement those with some bargain dishes and silverware. Anybody who cooks from scratch on a regular basis has most likely run into the herb conundrum as well: is it worth it to buy them fresh, or is using store-bought dried herbs an acceptable substitute?
In a perfect world, we’d all have beautiful, healthy herb gardens where we grew our own specimens of parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, and delicately tended the plants until we harvested their aromatic bounty. But let’s get real … how many of us are really growing all our own herbs at home? Few, if any, and the alternatives are equally frustrating. If we buy fresh herbs, they can go bad before we’ve had a chance to use them all; if we buy dried herbs, we lose out on flavor. Utilizing herbs wisely and frugally depends on knowing which herbs are worth buying fresh, which dried herbs you can use to cut corners, and what to do with all those bunches and bottles to maximize their effectiveness once you’ve brought them home.Best When Fresh:
These herbs all feature broad, flat leaves and are very high in moisture. Since they can lose much of their essential oil if they’re dried, they’re best when used fresh, and it’s usually worth the cost. However, if you don’t use all of them right away, these are also the herbs most likely to wilt and discolor after just a few days in the refrigerator. To preserve the life of your fresh herbs, snip the stems as you would a bouquet of flowers, and stand the bunch upright in a glass of cool water. Cut several ventilation holes in a plastic bag, then place it on top of the leaves. Cilantro should be kept in the refrigerator, but other herbs can stay right on the countertop. Preserving herbs this way and changing the water in the glass every few days can help them last up to two weeks or more.Fine When Dried
These herbs are different from moist, delicate, leafy herbs. They have a woodier, oilier texture and a lower moisture content, so it’s perfectly fine to buy them dry and store them in the cupboard. Dried herbs should be kept in sealed glass or plastic jars, away from light and heat sources. If they’re stored properly, they can last for several years without a noticeable degradation in flavor.
Dabbling in Drying
One way to marry quality and convenience is to buy herbs fresh in season and dry them yourself to use all year long. Although some leafy herbs store better than others—cilantro is the notable exception, and does not dry well—just about every herb can be dried and preserved for later use. Doing the task at home can often be more economical than buying prepackaged herbs at the supermarket, and easier than you might think.