Beyond a Sprig on the Plate: A Gardener’s Guide to Cooking with Herbs

By Vicki Blachman

Freelance Writer

hen thinking of centuries-old herbal traditions, it’s easy to forget there are always people with no idea where to begin. For those new to growing herbs, I’ve developed a standard response. Plant seeds or transplants in a sunny raised bed, using soil that’s well-amended with organic matter. Of course, there’s more to it. But a simple answer may encourage people to try, and I’m convinced they’ll be hooked after that. In cooking with herbs, the simplest advice is to trust your sense of smell. Again, it’s not really that simple. But I’m afraid the endless possibilities, or the belief that you have to have an exact recipe, keep too many from trying at all.

Recently, I met the new horticulture students of Garza Independent High School in Austin. Most of them had no previous experience growing or using culinary herbs. But under the skilled guidance of teacher Martha Cason, and with the help of guest instructors, they’re learning sound business practices, math skills, and science — all centered around growing and selling fresh culinary herbs. The innovative program was started nine years ago as a way to keep at-risk students engaged and motivated to complete high school, but now attracts a more diverse group. These days many participants not only graduate, they do so early. When I visited their booth at the farmers’ market, they were braving a chilly wind to sell their herb bundles and happily demonstrating their knowledge to customers. It was clear this year’s class had gotten the “herb bug.”

Like the Garza students, many gardeners have found herbs fairly easy and enjoyable to grow but may feel they need more information on using them in cooking. Dedicated to all these newcomers, here’s my basic tutorial for using fresh herbs in cooking — no recipe required.

The Sprig on the Plate

Herb sprigs, especially if they reflect herbs used in preparing the dish, are a fine way to add interest to the presentation. Your dinner guest may even pick up the sprig to see what it is. This might lead to a conversation about the scent and appearance of the herb, but it rarely leads to actually consuming it. While a number of cuisines include sprigs of fresh cilantro or basil with foods such as Phð to be torn up and added as needed, I generally use other tactics to help my guests get the most enjoyment from culinary herbs.

Mince and Sprinkle

The essential oils of herbs are more evenly distributed, providing flavor and accents of color throughout, when minced and combined with the food. I’ve rarely seen anyone take the time to pick out the flecks (note I said “rarely”), so chances of ingestion and enjoyment are increased.

If you are following a recipe and it calls for dried herbs, substitute fresh whenever possible using twice the dried measure called for in the recipe. Eventually get brave and work up to more as you learn about herbs and gain confidence.

If not doing so already, grow at least a few herbs. A 14- to 16-inch diameter planter can hold several of your favorites just a short trip from the kitchen counter. When choosing which ones to grow, pick a few you think smell the best. I’d suggest one rosemary plant. It will quickly outgrow the container, but they’re great confidence builders and no one should ever be forced to use dried rosemary.

Mince, Sprinkle in Stages

Train yourself to season at the beginning, middle and end of cooking. The volatile oils that give herbs their flavor will change and some will dissipate during cooking. Shortly after you begin cooking, put in about half of the total amount you intend to use. Taste and add more near the end, then sprinkle on some of the same fresh herb just before serving.

When seasoning in stages, remember fresh is usually best but not always. (That sentence just reinforced every teenager’s belief that adults send mixed messages.) Foods that are cooked slowly at a low temperature, such as the French classic cassoulet, gain dimension and depth from the use of certain dried herbs like thyme and bay added at the beginning of cooking. Additional fresh herbs added near the end of cooking add another layer of brighter flavor.

Use a Carrier

When a piece of leaf just won’t do, transfer that herbal flavor to a carrier. Steep herbs in any liquid ingredient called for in the recipe, such as fruit juice, broth, milk, cream, wine, vinegar or oil. When the liquid is well flavored, remove herbs and use liquid as indicated. The flavor will be in the food without the greenery. Or if green isn’t an issue, blend leaves with good quality olive oil, and then strain through a fine sieve. Use a squirt bottle to creatively paint the plate with flavor just before serving. If storing these oils in a bottle without an airtight stopper, remove lid, cover the top of the bottle with plastic wrap, replace lid to secure, then store refrigerated until use. Herb oils and vinegars can also be used as the final flavoring stage.

I keep a jar on my kitchen counter full of mixed herbs, whole peppercorns and garlic cloves completely immersed in seasoned rice vinegar. The flavorful result is a perfect finishing touch for sautéed vegetables. Sauté vegetables such as summer squash, green beans, cabbage or spinach in a small amount of olive oil until almost tender. Add kosher salt and a minced clove of garlic. Then, with the pan still hot, splash a small amount of the herbal vinegar into the pan. The steam will finish the vegetables and add amazing flavor.

Use Whole Leaves

Young, tender leaves of hoja santa make a perfect wrap for steaming tamales or fish, bright purple shiso leaves add contrast rolled around bite-sized offerings of fish or cooked whole shrimp, and large-leaf varieties of basil are a classic wrap for individual bites of fresh mozzarella.

Roughly tear whole leaves of basil, parsley, dill, fennel, cilantro, oregano or arugula to add to salad greens. Deep fry whole parsley or sage leaves to garnish or crumble into soups, pastas and cheese. Use whole fragrant leaves of savory herbs under fish or chicken cooked in parchment or foil pouches, scented geranium leaves under fresh fruit platters, or an underliner of “sweet” fresh herbs such as scented geraniums, mint, or lemon verbena instead of that paper doily under individual desserts. And, what’s a homemade marinara sauce if you don’t have to fish out the whole bay leaves after slaving over the simmering pot several hours?

Break the “Rules”

I remember my mentor, the late Madalene Hill, telling her students that if they used an herb chart, they should cut off the column where the herb names were, and just slide that from column to column. In other words, almost any herb can be used in almost any dish if you use the correct amount.

Trust your sense of smell, keep things simple by using one or two herbs at first, and start with small amounts. Most experiments will still be edible, and it’s absolutely the best way to gain confidence and skill.

I’m not suggesting that you add a liberal amount of garlic chives to the next double chocolate fudge birthday cake you bake, although I’m not above such an experiment. The strangest thing I’ve tried so far was to marinate blanched whole garlic cloves in orange liqueur, then coat them in a double dip of dark chocolate. I have no idea why it seemed like a good idea at the time. I was probably under the influence of a recipe rather than my instincts. Save your time and ingredients on that one.

Do try herbs that are considered to be “savory,” such as rosemary, thyme or basil in sweet foods like cakes, jellies and lemonades. An easy way to start is to add a small amount of finely minced rosemary or basil to your favorite lemon pound cake recipe. Or add small amounts of “sweet” herbs, such as lavender blooms, vanilla bean or lemon verbena, to sauces for seafood or vegetables. Again, trust your sense of smell. You will learn to almost taste the end result in your imagination before you add the herb to the food.

Get Full Use of Plant

Many herb plants such as chives and thyme have blooms that may be tossed whole into salads. Peppery nasturtiums are one of my favorites! Blooms from borage and scented geraniums may be frozen into ice cubes with a curl of citrus peel to provide color and flavor to iced beverages. Then, after you’ve removed the leaves and blooms to use elsewhere, keep those woody stems from basil, rosemary, sage, oregano or thyme for adding smoky herbal flavor to grilled meats and seafood.

So, what’s going to be on the test? Luckily, this is one time you only fail if you do nothing. Even a sprig on the plate is a good start if it sparks a conversation and a journey of discovery. I’ve included photos of some of the workhorses of my herb garden, and here are some of my favorite basic recipes to get you started. Vary the results by using your favorite herbs or what is seasonally available.


Basic Herb Vinaigrette

1 or 2 cloves garlic

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup vinegar (my favorite is rice wine vinegar)

1 teaspoon Dijon style mustard

2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 to 3 tablespoons minced fresh herbs

Drop the garlic cloves into the blender (or food processor) while it’s running and process until garlic is chopped fine. Add salt, pepper, vinegar and mustard. With blender running, add olive oil in a fine stream. Stop blender, add herbs, and pulse blender briefly to incorporate. Store refrigerated. Flavors are better if dressing is made at least two hours before using.

Easy Dinner Rolls with Fresh Herbs

2 packages active dry yeast

1/4 cup lukewarm water (115°)

2 cups warm milk (115°)

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons olive oil or melted butter

1/3 cup finely minced fresh herbs of choice

6 cups unbleached all purpose flour

Dissolve yeast in water. Add 2 cups of the flour and remaining ingredients except herbs. Mix well for five minutes. Add remaining flour one cup at a time until dough is just barely sticky. Continue to knead five more minutes, then add herbs. Knead only until herbs are fully incorporated and dough is fairly smooth.

Divide into 24 pieces and shape rolls (or may be made into two loaves). Place in oiled muffin tin cups and allow to rise until doubled (approximately 40 minutes for rolls).

Bake in preheated 350° oven until tops are golden brown. Brush with melted butter and remove from baking tin to cool slightly before serving.

St. Louis Herb Society’s Rosemary Fruit Punch

slightly revised

20 ounce can pineapple juice

6 sprigs fresh rosemary (each about 6 inches long)

1/2 cup granulated sugar

large pinch of kosher salt (approx. 1/16th teaspoon)

1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

12-ounce can frozen lemonade concentrate, defrosted

2 cups water

1 quart ginger ale

Bring 1 cup pineapple juice to a boil, add sugar and salt, and stir until sugar dissolves. Add rosemary and remove from heat. Cover and allow to steep 10 minutes. Then strain out rosemary. Discard rosemary. Keep remaining ingredients refrigerated and combine everything just before serving.

If serving in a punch bowl: fresh herb sprigs, strawberries, blueberries and lemon and lime slices floated in just enough lemonade to cover and frozen in a ring mold works well as a garnish.

Compound Butters

(Compound butter is a complicated term for a simple concept — butter with stuff added to it. Restaurants use them to finish grilled meats just before serving.)

1/2 pound butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 to 2 plump cloves garlic, finely minced

1/4 cup finely minced fresh herbs of choice

These are easiest made in a stand mixer or food processor. Cut butter into chunks and place in work bowl. Add garlic, olive oil and fresh herbs and mix well. Shape into a roll using plastic wrap or parchment. Wrap again in foil and store in freezer. Slice off 1/4-inch discs to top grilled meats and fish, or to flavor vegetables just before serving.

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