Last Updated: June 12, 2020
Typically associated with wellness and health for their curative properties, the use of herbs today have extended beyond their medicinal properties and made its way into our kitchens. Fresh or dried, these herbaceous plants offer instant flavour to culinary dishes, adding distinct fragrance and aroma to our dining tables.
Now that we are familiar with the different cuts of beef and the type of salt we should flavour our favourite protein with, let’s delve into the world of herbs for the ideal flavouring that will elevate our dishes from good to great just within seconds!
If you are constantly in a dilemma whether to use the rosemary growing in your herbs garden for the fillet of fish you are about to bake or that cut of filet mignon you are planning to sear, we are here to help. In this edition of our Produce Explained series, we present to you 10 culinary herbs you should keep in your herb rack!
One of the most popular culinary herbs, basil is widely utilised in both eastern and western cuisines. With an estimate of 50 to 150 species growing around the world, sweet basil, Genovese basil and, Thai sweet basil are some of the commonly used variants found in our kitchens today. Both sweet and Genovese basil are identified by their thin over-shaped leaves whilst Thai basil has dark pointed leaves.
A close relative of the mint family, basil is generally sweet with mild anise flavour and clove-like aroma. This tropical herb is native to areas in Africa and Asia, where temperatures are warm and humidity is high. It also has strong antioxidant and antimicrobial activity, giving them good medicinal values that will improve our immunity system.
Central to Italian cooking, sweet and Genovese basil is often used to liven the flavours of pasta and salads. Besides that, basil pairs naturally with tomatoes, making them ideal toppings used in pizzas. Basil also form the base of pesto sauce used commonly as dips or cooked with spaghetti. Since Thai basil has a more distinct and liquorice-like flavour, it is often used in soups, stews, stir-fries and curries to enhance the strong and flavourful taste of the dish.
Price: From S$1.95
Similar to the looks of fennel, dill is usually differentiated by its tall slender steam and fine leathery foliage. An annual plant, the lifecycle of dill lasts only for a year. It is, however, able to replant itself and tends to spread widely when it grows.
Dark green to bluish-green in colour, both the leaves and seeds of this herb are commonly used in the culinary scene. The fern-like leaves have a clean grassy flavour with subtle notes of liquorice. When used in cooking, dill loses its flavour the longer it is being cooked, thus, this herb is often added during the last minute upon completion or as a garnish to elevate the exciting flavours of the dish. While the dill leaves are considered as a herb, dills seeds are used as spices in seasonings. Opposite to the leaves, dill seeds develops more flavour and fragrance when cooked. As such, they are usually roasted before being used.
Dill’s strong, punchy taste makes them excellent in complementing ingredients with delicate flavours like fish and other seafood. Its fragrance and flavour also go well with potatoes and dips that incorporate rich and creamy items such as mayonnaise and sour cream.
Price: From S$1.45
A hardy biennial herb, parsley is considered as one of the most widely grown herbs in the world that grows in two distinct forms—flat-leaf and moss-curled. Their leaves have a triangular shape with serrated edges and can be flat or curved depending on its variety. Parsley plants that are one or two years of age tend to have rougher leaves causing the herb to lose much of its flavour.
Taste-wise, Italian flat parsley has a peppery bite and a distinct fragrance. On the other hand, its curly counterpart is relatively bland with a less assertive flavour. Since Italian flat parsley releases more flavour and stands better to heat, they are preferred for cooking as compared to the more decorative curly parsley that is used mostly as a garnish.
As an added health benefit, parsley can also be consumed for its natural anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. This not only boosts our immunity system, but also aids in digestion.
Parsley’s mild and clean flavour not only cuts down on heaviness in a dish, acting as a palate-cleanser, its aromatic leaves and bitter notes add flavour to soups, stews and a variety of dishes. If you are looking to add a touch of freshness and green in your dish, sprinkle some chopped parsley and that will do the job!
Price: From S$1.05
Whether it’s cilantro or coriander, these two herbs, in fact, come from the same plant species. Cilantro is used when referring to the leaves and stems of the coriander plant. After the plant flowers and seeds are produced, the seeds are often referred to as coriander seeds. To the uninitiated, cilantro might be mistaken for flat-leaf parsley despite its small leaves and lankier stem. Thus, do be careful when choosing the right herb during your grocery runs.
Despite them being the same species, cilantro and coriander have significantly different taste and uses. Whilst cilantro is a herb with lemon-like flavour and a subtle tartness, coriander seeds have a warm spicy punch and nutty aroma. Surprisingly, when it comes to cilantro, it is usually a love-hate relationship. Despite its citrusy sweet flavour, many find it to be too foul or “soapy” for their liking.
Cilantro is a staple in Latin and Asian Cooking. It is usually the ideal herb to add into spicy food like Mexican chilli and curries or guacamole, fresh salsa or ceviche for the added fragrance.
A unique-looking herb that can be easily identified by its pine-like shrub, long stems and short, spiky leaves, rosemary is a tough woody herb native to the Mediterranean region. A member of the mint family, rosemary is able to thrive in sandy, poor soils making it a resistant herb that can be grown in rock gardens or infertile areas. Although rosemary is cultivated as a culinary herb, it can also be a beautiful ornamental shrub with its attractive blue flowers.
One of the most aromatic herbs, rosemary has a strong pine-like scent with floral undertones. Due to its robust flavour, the herb should be added sparingly to suit the taste of the dish it is complementing.
Rosemary’s delightful scent and astringent flavour make it an excellent pairing with proteins such as chicken, turkey, and lamb. Its hard and strong stalk can also be used as an accessory to skewer vegetables and kebabs for grilling.
Price: From S$1.45
Similar to rosemary, thyme is a short woody evergreen shrub with long thin branches and tiny perfumed leaves. Before it was used in the kitchen, this Mediterranean perennial herb has been used since the time of Ancient Egyptian and Greeks for embalming purposes. As the popularity of the herb grew in the European region, thyme became a herb often used in tandem with other herbs and spices to increase the complexity of flavours in a dish.
Even with its earthy and slightly minty taste, thyme is a herb with a very subtle aroma. As such, it is often not used alone. Thyme has the ability to blend well with the strong flavours of corresponding herbs and spices, thus it is one of the most essential herb often found in all the herb racks.
With its ability to be paired with nearly any kind of meat, fish and even vegetables, thyme can be added to most dishes. More often than not, this herb is used in soups and stews, making the soup base more flavourful.
Price: From S$1.45
A hardy herb that is able to withstand most weather conditions, sage is a member of the mint family native to the Mediterranean region. It can be recognised by its light greenish leaves that are long and narrow with a distinctively fuzzy touch.
Sage’s taste ranges from mild to peppery with minty notes. Apart from its culinary uses, sage has a long and rich history due to its healing properties as the herb is able to help relieve cuts and inflammation. In addition, sage is believed to be able to ward off evil during ancient times.
Sage’s pronounced taste makes it a herb that pairs well with heavy, rich and creamy food. Due to its strong flavour, it is also commonly used to flavour stuffings in sausages and is an excellent addition to sauces and pasta.
Price: From S$1.45
Long and slender, chives are perennial plants that grow in clumps from bulbs under the soil. They have a grassy look with attractive pink or violet coloured flowers with the appearance of fluffy cotton candy. Both the flower and the leaves of chives are edible.
As a member of the onion family, chives taste similar to onions but are more delicate in flavour. The herb’s slender tube-like appearance make them elegant garnishes used as a whole or sprinkled on dishes. Chive is a delicate herb, thus they are tosses into dishes at the last minute or used raw as heat tends to destroy its delicate onion flavour.
Fresh with light pungent notes, chives are used to cut down on the heaviness of rich, creamy foods that contain cheese such as risotto. They are also a great addition to salads, sprucing up its freshness and taste.
Leaf from the laurel tree, an evergreen shrub that commonly grows in warm climates, bay leaves comes in a number of species such as Indonesian bay leaf, Indian bay leaf, and California bay leaf depending on its country of origin. Thick and leathery, the leaves are elongated with sharp pointed ends.
Unlike other culinary herbs which are eaten together with the main dish, bay leaves cannot be consumed when it is used in cooking. The dried herb is added to soups, curries and stews for its incredible scent which is a mixture of mints, cloves and balsam. This distinct scent contributes to the depth of the dish resulting in a flavourful concoction love by many.
Included in stews and curries when they are simmering or being braised, bay leaves should be added at the beginning of cooking for it to release its flavour with time. They also have to be removed upon serving as the herb remains hard even after cooking.
Price: From S$3.65
An extremely hardy perennial plant widely distributed in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa, mint comes in various variety with distinct personalities. Peppermint and spearmint are two of the most commonly found types of mints that are used today. Both these mints have rough, fuzzy edges, green leaves and squarish stems.
As a culinary herb, mint is used in its fresh form to uplift a dish with its cooling and slightly peppery bite. Whilst peppermint has a stronger aftertaste due to its high concentration of menthol, spearmint is sweeter and softer on the palate.
Besides pairing the herb with food, mint has along long been used as a herbal remedy to treat ailments like stomachache and nausea. Mint teas are also known for being good stress relievers which also aid in improving one’s digestion.
Not just a sprig garnishing your dessert, mint is extremely versatile and can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes. It is a common ingredient in Thai cooking and is the perfect addition to a bowl of fresh salad to liven it’s overall taste and flavour profile.
Price: From S$0.90
Although herbs are not a necessity in our daily cooking, understanding its flavour and use greatly helps in elevating a normal home-cooked dish to one that is of restaurant standard. If you have a bunch of herbs laying in your kitchen and you are unsure on how to keep them fresh, do check out our tip on how to keep your herbs here!