Friday, April 22, 2016

8-2-Eat: The Fresh vs. Dried Herbs Debate

8-2-Eat is my food-focused list series. A perfect Friday distraction. With the cold winter months finally in retreat, it's time to thing about planting herbs for spring and summer. Here's my thoughts on whether 8 popular herbs are better fresh or dried.

Herbs are a wonderful way to add extra flavor to many dishes and most common herbs are available two ways: fresh or dried. Which should you use? There's probably more opinions than there are herb options on that question, yet I'll add my voice to the choir anyway. Sure, dried herbs have their appeal--they last a long time, so it's easy to have them on hand. And in many cases, they'll work in a pinch. But when comes to imparting good flavor, fresh herbs are going to be a better choice probably 99 percent of the time. Here are my thoughts about whether to go fresh or dried for eight of the most popular herbs.

Parsley: Fresh always. Parsley once served mostly as garnish next to an orange wedge. Today, we appreciate this bright, mildly bitter herb as a way to make a lot of dishes "pop." But dried parsley? It's absolutely wretched. It's odor--more akin to old hay that didn't get swept out from the corner of a barn--is nothing like its fresh counterpart. For some herbs, I'll say, sure, go ahead and use the dried if you don't have fresh, but when it comes to parsley, you're better off just skipping it. Try fresh parsley in Pasta with Peas, Bacon and Parsley or Parsley Pesto Spaghetti.

Basil: Fresh mostly. Fresh basil is one of the great delights of summer. It's so wonderful with tomatoes. I love it in panzanella and tossed onto a fresh pasta dish in little ribbons. Dried basil is OK when cooked into a sauce, but you're really losing that wonderful summer vibrancy with dried basil. And pesto, one of fresh basil's best uses, isn't going to be the same with dried basil. Try fresh basil in Heirloom Tomato Panzanella.

Mint: Fresh mostly. Mint is such a wonderful fresh herb--one of my absolute favorites. It's easy to grow and one of the cheaper ones to buy at the store. So it's hard for me to justify ever using it dry, where it loses much of its vibrancy. That said, I don't have the aversion to dried mint like I do dried parsley, but it it just doesn't do anything for me. Try fresh mint muddled into a Classic Mojito.

Rosemary: Fresh mostly. Fresh rosemary is perfect for adding a woodsy flavor to meats, salads and cocktails. Dried rosemary is pretty good at retaining its proper scent, but the problem is its texture. Rosemary is a pretty hardy herb, reminiscent of a evergreen branch. As a fresh herb, it's easy to remove and chop the leaves. Dried rosemary, however, is basically like little dried pine needles, and they don't reconstitute that much when cooking. If you are using dried rosemary, it's recommended that you grind the herb up or wrap the leaves in cheesecloth for applications like flavoring soups or stews so you can remove the leaves before serving. Try fresh rosemary in Winter Chicken Salad Sandwich.

Chives: Fresh preferred. Like parsley, chives are a good finishing herb to give a dish a little extra pop. More along the lines of a bright, grassy onion flavor in this case. Chives are one of the easiest herbs to grow. In fact, they are the only herb I've planted on my balcony that will survive the winter--they've done it 2 years in a row now, which is pretty impressive. Dried chives are, naturally, less flavorful, but they aren't a bad choice for stirring into a dip for some green color or topping mashed potatoes if you don't have fresh ones around. Try fresh chives on top of Sour Cream and Chive Mashed Potatoes.

Dill: Fresh or dried. Now we're getting down to herbs that, when dried, still manage to retain most of the flavor you get from their fresh version. Dill, often called dill weed in its dried version, is one of my favorite spring herbs. The fresh version is good in lots of things; the dried version works well in creamy dips and salad dressings. Try fresh dill in Pecan, Grape and Chicken Salad with Microgreens; try dried dill weed in Greek Yogurt Ranch Dressing.

Thyme: Fresh or dried. Fresh thyme is another of my favorite herbs, but there's a nice convenience factor with the dried version, since getting all those little leaves off a sprig of thyme can be a pain (I've found that putting the sprigs in the freezer is a great way to get a lot of the leaves off). Try fresh thyme in Fresh Herb Croutons. Try dried thyme in Roasted Vegetable Salad.

Oregano: Dried mostly. This is the only herb that I prefer to use in dried form. I actually really like dried oregano, which has a wonderful spicy-sweet scent and flavor. Plus, it's much easier to use than fresh oregano, which I find one of the most annoying fresh herbs to deal with: it's leaves are too large to be easily plucked off like thyme or rosemary but too small to be easily pruned and chopped like basil. Basically, you're stick with plucking each leaf off individually--a real thrill I assure you. Fresh oregano is very tasty, but dried oregano is pretty great too, so unlike many other herbs, the dried version isn't sacrificing flavor. Use dried oregano in Sautéed Chicken Fajitas. Try fresh oregano in Fresh Tomato and Oregano Soup.

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