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The Ultimate Guide to Cooking with Fresh Herbs

Brighten up your meals with our helpful guide for cooking with fresh herbs.

By Laura Denby, Freelance Writer

Four pots side-by-side with the two most center ones with different herbs going out of them and growing upward

Shutterstock / EStas


When summer arrives, its time to fire up the grill and load up on picnic-basket favorites. But a good cook will tell you it's also the best time to shelve that old jar of dried seasoning. Why? Fresh herbs such as basil, cilantro and thyme are at their peak freshness. Check out our best recipes featuring fresh herbs.

Herbs are an easy way to add life to dull dishes. As such, they're the secret weapon for many professional cooks. These tasty little plants add vitality to every bite. Toss some basil into a caprese salad or garnish tacos with fresh cilantro and your family might just start calling you chef!

Herbs come in a variety of forms and flavors, but deciding which to use can be tricky. Follow this helpful guide to learn the best uses for some of summer's freshest (and finest) ingredients:


Basil

One of the more popular herbs in the United States, basil has many varieties. Perhaps the most common are sweet (Italian) basil and Thai purple basil. Both are floral and clove-like, with powerful sweetness and a hint of pepper. Although most commonly associated with Mediterranean cooking, basil is a fragrant companion to Asian and Indian foods and adds a refreshing balance to spicier dishes.

For maximum flavor and to prevent browning, add basil at the end of cooking. Remove the leaves and discard the stems, as the leaves hold the most flavor. Basil is a delightful accompaniment to summer tomatoes, grilled chicken, curry and mozzarella cheese.


Cilantro

Otherwise known as the coriander leaf, cilantro is bright and refreshing with a zesty lemon flavor. Some find it "soapy," and American consumers are pretty well divided on whether they love or hate it. The herb is a staple in Latin American and Asian cooking.

Like most herbs, cilantro can be eaten raw or cooked, and it has the ability to bring the dullest sauces to life with its invigorating flavor profile. See for yourself with this cilantro-packed recipe for Enchilada Sauce.


Parsley

Parsley is perhaps the most versatile and popular herb in the world. It has a subtle flavor that adds freshness and bite. Although the leaves hold the most flavor, the stems can be equally potent.

Use it to garnish a soup or toss with summer greens for a crisp salad. It also makes easy seasoning for stocks. For a quick parsley-studded brunch dish, try this Cheese and Fresh Herb Quiche. Parsley pairs perfectly with lemon, butter, pasta and eggs.


Mint

This cool, bright herb has a similar flavor profile to basil. Though it's most commonly associated with desserts, mint is a key player in savory dishes, such as this flavor-boosted shrimp and feta skillet.

For a more traditional approach, use mint to garnish a fresh fruit arrangement or toss it into fresh lemonade. For a fast and refreshing summer side, try this Minty Watermelon and Cucumber Salad.


Rosemary

Tough and woody, rosemary is a pungent herbal stalk that pairs best with full-flavored and robust meats. The leaves can be used fresh or dried.

Rosemary's pine-like flavor lends itself to hearty meals like lamb chops, pork tenderloin and roasted potatoes. But don't let the hearty pairings fool you; rosemary is just as tasty with light summer fare. Whip up these Strawberry-Rosemary Yogurt Pops for your next family BBQ.


Thyme

A staple in French cooking and a key ingredient in herbes de Provence, thyme is a pungent herb with a thin woody stem and tiny leaves. The leaves are aromatic and floral with a strong but understated taste. For best results, strip the leaves from the stems (like rosemary) and chop before use.

Thyme is a classic addition to roast chicken but can also be used in breads, desserts, cocktails and side dishes. See for yourself, with this easy recipe for Scalloped Potatoes with Ham.


Dill

A bouquet of wispy, fragrant fronds, Dill weed is a tangy herb most commonly associated with Scandinavian and German cooking. Its delicate strands boast a strong flavor of clean, fresh earthiness.

It's ideal for poultry and a complement to lemon, yogurt and seafood. Be sure to sneak fresh dill into your next chicken soup or salad.


Chives

Often confused for green grass, chives are a garlicky relative of the onion. They have a bold yet refined flavor, making them one of the most versatile ingredients in a cook's arsenal. What's more, the whole plant is edible—including the bright purple flowers that sprout in spring.

Use chives as a garnish for a simple omelet or as a main ingredient in potato salad.


How to Store Fresh Herbs

After purchasing a bunch of fresh herbs, wash and dry them thoroughly to remove any sand or dirt. Wrap the stems in a damp paper towel and place in a Ziploc bag. The moisture from the paper towel will preserve the freshness and lifespan of these finicky little leaves for an extra few days.

Want to save them even longer? Learn how to freeze fresh herbs, here.