In a nutshell, or should I say . . . in a herb garden, whether you are a novice or seasoned cook, you can not go wrong with any herb when you know which plant goes into what group!
By creating two separate herb groups, you can mix, match, and relax. Your herbs will not have a chance to clash on the plate or fade in the pot.
Knowing there are two separate herb groups takes the worry out of the kitchen and garden becomes there is no more guesswork. Instead, this idea makes any decision about a herb so simple and extremely easy.
Remember the trick is in using both herb types to your advantage!
Here are the two types of herbs to remember –
the delicate and the robust.
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Why you need to know the differences between delicate and robust herbs
Imagine, living on an island sans your cookbook . . .
You have three herbs: dill, rosemary, and sage . . . and you have guests coming over.
You caught a white-fleshed fish and need a sensational sauce.
And you have a wild duck to roast.
Your neighbours dug up a small rucksack of Adirondack Blue potatoes and gave you a basket of local greens.
Which herb do you use for which dish?
Armed with knowing the difference between two herb types, this becomes simple and easy.
A sprinkle of delicate dill is your best flavour for the mild fish and salad.
Sage and a sprig of rosemary will work wonders with roasted wild duck and the spuds.
The heavier essential oils of sage and rosemary would smother the refined flavours of fish.
Dill would wimp out on the strong duck flavours.
And, you might have got away with slithers of sage in the salad, but to be safe, test before your guests knock.
Next, because the two types of herbs are either delicate or robust, it is easy to discover:
– which herbs bruise easily and which are woody,
– which herbs to use as soon as possible,
– which herbs are worth dehydrating,
– and which herbs are related. This is important for allergies or food sensitivities.
Why Do We Use Herbs?
For centuries herbs have added a timeless upbeat to fruit, vegetables, dairy, protein, drinks, and even sweets.
We also use herbs to give our garden a healthy boost of nutrition while providing bees with nectar and pollen.
The best part is, not a lot has changed! Those same herbs are grown today.
Did you know: when you tuck a comfrey leaf under or around each plant the soil and plant get a massive boost of nitrogen?
Why Am I Talking About Soil And Nitrogen?
Soil and herbs go together – so if you are a gardener, you may know plants need nitrogen to survive. In fact, having little to no nitrogen means your soil is depleted with little opportunity for growth and seeds for the next season.
So, before you plant your next seedlings, I strongly recommend you test your soil with a home kit.
Many gardeners test before each season or crop rotation.
If the results show you need to adjust your soil, do that then retest two weeks later.
Some gardeners will test their soil annually if the crop is not a heavy load on soil requirements. It is possible to send a soil sample to an external laboratory for an in-depth analysis.
Tip: Be aware there are 3-1 testers that measure moisture, light and pH – you do not need this style!
You want a simple, easy tester to measure the missing nutrients, Nitrogen, Potassium, Potash and pH (acidity/ alkalinity) in your soil. When you know what’s missing, it’s easier to correct the deficit.
There is more information on this link about what nitrogen does for your garden.
The 2 Main Herb Types: Delicate and Robust
I divided the herbs into two groups, delicate (subtle) and robust, (not-so-subtle) to keep things simple and easy.
And, if you are new to cooking or gardening, consider growing and using the lighter, more subtle tastes of delicate herbs first.
Delicate herbs have mild flavours, fine leaves, and airy aromatics.
They are delicious with noodles, pasta and rice, salads and eggs, fish, shellfish, and poultry.
Angelica: is related to the carrot, dill, and fennel families. A native of northern Europe, angelica’s lacy white flowers attract bees.
Stems are candied for cake decorations or stewed with fruit.
The seeds give Vermouth, Chartreuse, and Gin their distinct flavours.
Tender leaves add flavour to fish and chicken and create interesting salads, teas, tinctures, and tonics, while the root is used in perfumes.
Did you know, in 1510 the Normandy Benedictine monk, Don Bernardo Vincello, created the liqueur, Benedictine?
Angelica was one of his main ingredients.
For over 250 years everything remained the same; 27 herbs and spices were steeped and stirred, including nutmeg, fir cones, and saffron, with a generous spoon of honey to sweeten.
Then, during the French Revolution, Vincello’s recipe was buried for safekeeping. It wasn’t until 100 years later that the recipe was re-discovered!
I’ve not yet tried Angelica, but this herb’s on the top of my wish-list to grow.
Borage: is related to comfrey.
Use young leaves chopped into soups or salads, added to fruit and vegetables, or infused as a tea.
The small purple-blue flowers are used as a garnish or frozen in ice cubes for a little fun.
Borage is popular in Mediterranean cuisine because of its mild cucumber flavour.
A word of caution when growing borage as it is almost too good at self-preservation.
If you get a plant, upturn it before too many seeds mature.
Did you know, borage grows up to 3’ tall, nourishes the soil, and protects other plants from pests, especially strawberries, squash, and tomatoes?
Chevril: is related to parsley and sometimes called, French Parsley.
Chevril has the honour of being one of the prestigious ingredients found in Fines Herbes, a combination of herbs often used in French cuisine.
Because the flavour and aroma are delicate with hints of liquorice, add leaves to cooked dishes just before serving.
Delicious added to any salad, fish, seafood and exceptional with tomatoes.
Chives: are related to garlic, leeks, onions and shallots. They also belong to the amaryllis family.
Their round purple flowering heads attract bees.
Use the long slender green stalks in any savoury dish.
I like chives because they give a dish a geometric, almost architectural, structured look.
Easy to grow in a container or in the garden, they survive long cold winters.
This herb has mastered the art of multiplying- you will have even more in the spring.
Did you know, chives originated from China?
It was the Romans who brought chives to England and today they still grow wild near Hadrian’s wall.
Cilantro / Coriander: that’s a little confusing but here’s the difference between these two.
Cilantro refers to the leaves and coriander is the seed.
The minty-anise taste of this leafy herb is one people either love or hate. If you don’t know your guests well enough, serve cilantro in a bowl and on the side. Everyone will think you thought of ‘them.’
Because cilantro is fragile, they need special handling.
Rinse the leaves with gentle cold water to dislodge any growing medium (grit).
Then, remove any yellow or dark leaves, pat them dry and spread on a paper towel.
Once completely dry, roll into a loose cylinder shape.
Slide into a plastic bag and refrigerate.
Better yet, buy your cilantro with roots.
Stand upright in a jar and add water.
Place near a good light and your plant will continue to grow.
Your cilantro should last twice as long and give you double the yield!
Dehydrated cilantro is disappointing so line up your recipes and use fresh! I start with the leaves, (usually in a pesto) then use the stalks and roots.
The root is edible and versatile. Chop for a salad, stuff it whole in a baked fish, and add to a stock or soup or slow-cooked dish for extra flavour.
Did you know, cilantro is a member of the carrot family and related to parsley.
The seeds, known as coriander, were brought to Massachusettes by the British in 1670!
They were also found in King Tut’s tomb.
Comfrey: is one of my most favourite herbs because of what it does for the environment. Large prickly stalks and abundant leaves are high in nitrogen, giving any compost heap a well-deserved boost.
Add a leaf or two under or beside your seedlings for a slow release of essential nutrients.
Bees love the pollen inside the Comfrey’s small purple flowers and the plant can live for several decades with minimal fuss and a low risk to disease.
Dill: a delicate caraway flavour with fragrant, fragile leaves. With a fresh bunch of this herb, I find as many dill-worthy dishes to use as possible.
Wonderful with potatoes, yoghurt, cheese, tomatoes, I’ve even added dill to slow-cooked chickpeas.
Dill seed is used to pickle cucumbers – hence the name, dill pickles!
Did you know, dill is related to parsley and ancient Greeks often used the herb in recipes? In fact, scientists have traced dill in food from as far back as 400 BC.
Mint: Middle eastern dishes use mint in salads, and if you ever get a chance to do the same – run with this change. The essential oil, menthol, cleanses palates with a fresh, light twist to leafy greens.
As well, drop one or two dried mint leaves in a cup of hot water for a refreshing herb tea. The colour and flavour will have you converted and saving money on commercial tea bags.
Ancient Greeks cleaned their banquet tables with mint. Romans freshened their breath and Medieval monks cooked and made medicines.
Did you know, mint has many vitamins and minerals necessary for good health and the USA produces 70% of the world’s mint supply?
Parsley: often seen on plates as a garnish, parsley has health benefits.
It turns out parsley is high in antioxidants.
If you are a spring allergy sufferer, give your immune system a natural boost by sprinkling parsley on your food whenever you can.
Packed with Vitamin C, parsley supports your body while it heals from cuts and scratches and helps build stronger bones and teeth.
Did you know one molecule of Vitamin C has 20 atoms? Sorry, I couldn’t help but add that lesser known fact. It may come in handy one day!
Vitamin K in parsley protects us from hardening of the arteries and heart disease. This vitamin prevents calcium buildup in blood vessels (which becomes plaque). As well, Vitamin K is necessary for blood clotting.
Vitamin K also protects and strengthens your nervous system.
Did you know, one molecule of Vitamin K has 79 atoms? I thought that was intriguing but even better; Vitamin K prevents cancer!
Did you also know, anyone with a leaky gut syndrome, autoimmune or inflammatory diseases should eat more parsley? The large intestines absorb Vitamin K.
How much parsley do you need to eat to gain these benefits?
Most studies agree two tablespoons of fresh parsley each day has the most benefit.
Plus, you’ll walk away with fresh breath!
Stronger herbs have hardy leaves, woody stems and their fragrance lingers for longer.
Their texture and essential oils balance rich meats such as duck, venison and lamb. And they stand up to the dense, earthy flavour of beets and tougher swiss chard.
Having said that, on its own, a robust herb can take a bland ingredient, like zucchini, pasta, or rice and give it a plateful of personality.
Basil: anyone who has eaten Italian or Thai food knows basil. This strong anise-sweet taste has, for me anyway, a pleasant peppery bite.
Basil tastes best with tomatoes, pasta, chicken, and fish. Tear, snip or chop whole leaves. Blend to a paste or leave to marinate in a little extra virgin olive oil, salt, and freshly grated garlic.
Did you know Basil belongs to the mint family and helps keep flies away?
Bay leaf: subtle yet strong, a dish becomes more complex with bay leaves.
Best slow cooked to bring out their subtle woodsy flavours, bay leaves work well with other herbs. Rosemary and thyme come to mind. And then there are the spices such as cinnamon quills, star anise, cloves, or nutmeg.
Did you know, a fresh bay leaf is milder than a dehydrated one?
As well, the Greek winged goddess, Nike, rewarded winners of speed and strength with wreaths made with the Bay Laurel. These same bay leaves became the emblem for the Olympic Games as a symbol for victory.
Fennel: with a light liquorice flavour, fennel is fabulous and often forgotten.
Their frond-like leaves are soft and delicate. The bulb’s flesh has a clean white look with a fabulous crisp texture. Use both for an interesting salad.
Did you know, fennel is in the famous Papiro Erbes, a medical compilation written 3500 years ago?
Did you also know, fennel has a male and female plant? We tend to eat the rounder male!
And one more thing, Italy produces 85% of the world’s supply of fennel.
Marjoram: related to oregano but sweeter and milder tasting. With hints of mint and citrus, marjoram is used in European and Mediterranean dishes.
This herb does not like long cooking times, unlike oregano which can be slow cooked for 10 hours.
Marjoram blends with most herbs and vegetables. If you want a unique taste – try fresh marjoram sprinkled on steamed spicy cabbage!
Did you know, you can add chopped marjoram to melons and apples! And even though they’re related, Marjoram and Oregano work well together in any recipe.
Oregano: has a stronger taste than Marjoram and is found in Italian and Greek cuisines. When paired with basil in a tomato sauce, perfection happens.
Did you know, oregano is also known as the pizza herb and has four times the antioxidants of blueberries!
Rosemary: related to the mint family with a Latin name that comes from the plant’s incredible ability to live on the coast. ‘Ros” means ‘dew’ and “Marinus” means ‘of the sea.’
This makes Rosemary the ‘dew of the sea.’
Fresh rosemary has a heavy, bitter, astringent taste making it perfect infused in olive oil and balancing out rich food such as lamb.
When still supple, branches of rosemary become topiaries and bonsais.
In the 16th and 17th centuries throughout Europe, older plants were sought after for wooden boxes and combs.
Today, rosemary wreaths are a symbol of remembrance.
Did you know, a rosemary wood comb creates less static, helps spread natural scalp oils, and increases blood circulation?
Tip: never pinch, prune, or cut the centre out of your rosemary plant until it’s reached the height you need. Rosemary stops growing tall when disturbed this way.
Add rosemary sprigs to oils, vinegar, and aromatic, relaxing hot baths.
Sage: related to the mint family and often bought dehydrated for rubs and stuffing.
Due to its musky, some say ‘smoky,’ smell and taste, sage works with meats, salads, pickles, cheese.
If you grow your own, snip off the stunning silver-green leaves with scissors and add to your favourite soups, stews, or slow-cooked dishes.
I use fresh sage in my favourite garlic white bean dip and it never fails to please guests.
Sage works its magic beside other robust herbs like Thyme, Rosemary, and Basil.
Try it dehydrated for an even stronger fragrance and flavour.
Tip: Not everyone loves sage, so use sparingly. A little goes a long way and the longer sage cooks, the better (which is why stuffing tastes so good after five hours in the oven!)
Did you know, ancient Greeks and Romans used sage to preserve meat and its Latin name ‘Salvia’ means ‘to heal, or ‘to save.’
Tarragon: related to the Sunflower family, this herb is fun! It’s leaves taste like basil mixed with aniseed. Fair warning: check which one you grab as there are two types – French and Russian. French tarragon is more intense in a delicious way!
If your recipe calls for tarragon try to avoid dried leaves, if possible. The oils which give the leaves their distinct taste will have dissipated.
Tarragon helps mustard, oils, pickles, béarnaise sauce, vinegar, and it is fantastic in salads.
Did you know: Tarragon is a French staple and is one of the Fines Herbes most widely used in French cooking? The other three are parsley, chervil and chives.
Thyme: related to mint and oregano, has a light, minty-lemony taste and is popular in the kitchen. Thyme is essential for the famous, bouquet garni (see below for the blend).
A hardy, easy-to-grow plant you will want in your potted plants or garden. Bees love the nectar and other insects stay away.
Eggs, fish, meat, salads, soups, stews and vegetables.
Think of thyme like parsley – mild, versatile and almost impossible to have too much.
Keep refrigerated in a sealed bag or stand in a jar of water and use as soon as possible.
The small leaves don’t keep long and drop off the stem.
Dehydrate by bunching the stems together and hang upside down to dry.
Crumble the leaves off each stem and store in a sealed container.
Did you know, if a recipe calls for thyme and you’re fresh out, substitute with a pinch of oregano?
Ideas For Herbs:
- Freeze herbs in ice trays topped up with water for drinks, soup, stock.
- Add to a marinade and chop extra for garnish.
- Lay whole sprigs between the skin and meat of chicken and roast.
- Stuff the cavity of a whole fish and bake.
- Chop and sprinkle over any root vegetable before roasting in olive oil.
- Make a different pesto sauce than the usual basil and pine nuts. How about oregano, parsley, and almonds?
- Use the stalks and roots as well – they have flavour!
- Make your own vegetarian stock with vegetables and herbs.
- Dehydrate or dry them! They’ll still taste fresher than any you’d buy from the store.
Getting More From Your Herbs
Keep them alive
When buying fresh cilantro, make sure you choose a bunch with the roots still on.
Placed in a jug or jar of water and your cilantro will keep growing. You will have fresh cilantro for twice as long and double the amount!
Try to have two recipes ready to try before you buy cilantro. This herb is so delicate that it’s best used within a day or two. For example, whole stuffed cilantro baked fish or batch of pesto sauce.
Dehydrate leftover robust herbs
If you buy fresh herbs, keep and re-use the clamshell containers!
– find your herbs quicker and easier in the pantry.
– dry even the last three sprigs instead of throwing them out.
Clamshell containers help keep the delicate leaves whole. A good example is whole dried mint leaves for your own tea.
The containers are already labelled and airtight.
Create your own famous herb blend
There are three well-known blends of herbs used by cooks, but why not make your own?
You don’t have to use only one herb at a time, and when there are two or more together, each mouthful of a dish is unique. SO when herbs begin to look limp, add them together and see what flavours you get!
If you need inspiration, the traditional French herb seasoning known as Fines Herbes includes; fresh parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon.
Some chefs also add thyme, marjoram, and savory.
Here’s a recipe for fresh Fines Herbes.
What you’ll need:
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves
1 tablespoon fresh chervil leaves
1 tablespoon fresh chives
1 tablespoon fresh parsley leaves
Chop all herbs until fine.
Combine into a small bowl.
Just before serving your favourite dish, give it a light sprinkle of Fines Herbes.
Suitable for poultry and fish, beans and lentils, light summer soups, and stews.
Prefer to buy your Fines Herbes ready to go?
Even though fresh is best, at a pinch, the dehydrated version works as well.
What about Bouquet Garni?
This blend of the more robust herbs with spices makes flavours spectacular in hearty soups, stews, or alongside any braised meat.
Or: even better, what about these pre-made herb balls! Just pop a ball into your cooking and you are done!
And, Herbes de Provence is . . . ?
A blend of herbs with an Italian influence. The typical base is thyme and savory. Then the rest is up to you!
Choose from rosemary, oregano, marjoram, sage, tarragon, and fennel leaves.
Here’s a quick recipe you can pull together in 10 minutes and keep stored in a sealed container.
Or, if you do not have all these herbs, grab a pre-made Herbes de Provence mix!
Herbes de Provence
Don't like some herbs, yet love others? Here's one way to build your very own, Herbes de Provence.
Use two herbs, thyme and savory as your base, and then add your favourites.
Flexitarians may want to add rosemary and sage to complement meats.
Pescatarians, vegans and vegetarians could add oregano, marjoram, and lavender flowers for a lighter, more subtle flavour that won't smother the delicate flavours of vegetables.
Here's another idea! Switch out the herbs each season. This way you'll have four unique, totally 'you' styles throughout the year.
Or, if you've found the one and only that you love and can't bear to change, then just use less or more, depending on your taste or the season!
Allergic or sensitive to lavender? Leave it out! Surprisingly, many people are sensitive to linalool, the fragrant essential oil in this plant.
- 2 tsp marjoram dried
- 3 tsp rosemary dried
- 3 tbsp thyme dried
- 2 tbsp savory dried
- 1 tbsp oregano dried
- 1 tbsp lavender flowers dried, optional
Mix well and store in an airtight container at room temperature.
Use within 3 months
3 Quick Tips:
Base your herb decision on the food.
If your food is already mild flavoured, then stay with delicate herbs.
If your food is already packed with flavour, use robust herbs to compliment.
If you stick to this golden rule no matter what your dishes are, you will invite layers of complexity and intrigue.
Banish long-forgotten herbs squished in the back of your fridge!
Here’s another simple and easy trick to stop food waste and save you money.
Use your delicate herbs first THEN, if your robust herbs begin to fade, dehydrate them for later! The plant’s essential oils help keep their flavours.
Balance out your garden by using this same method and grow the herbs that go together. So, if you have your favourite herb blend, make sure they are all close by, or in the same pot!
Once you know these secrets to herbs and sign up below for your quick checklist, your cooking will do a 180 degree.
Just writing about these amazing combinations makes me want to head back into the kitchen.
Which herbs do you always grow? Or do you mix them up each year?