Buying ingredients for cooking, like many other pursuits, is a constant compromise for most of us. We’d love to subsist entirely on organic, local food, but we settle for splurging only on grass-fed meat. We’d love to use the finest implements and tools, but we content ourselves with a few high-end pots and supplement those with some bargain dishes and silverware. Anybody who cooks from scratch on a regular basis has most likely run into the herb conundrum as well: is it worth it to buy them fresh, or is using store-bought dried herbs an acceptable substitute?
In a perfect world, we’d all have beautiful, healthy herb gardens where we grew our own specimens of parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, and delicately tended the plants until we harvested their aromatic bounty. But let’s get real … how many of us are really growing all our own herbs at home? Few, if any, and the alternatives are equally frustrating. If we buy fresh herbs, they can go bad before we’ve had a chance to use them all; if we buy dried herbs, we lose out on flavor. Utilizing herbs wisely and frugally depends on knowing which herbs are worth buying fresh, which dried herbs you can use to cut corners, and what to do with all those bunches and bottles to maximize their effectiveness once you’ve brought them home.
Best When Fresh:
These herbs all feature broad, flat leaves and are very high in moisture. Since they can lose much of their essential oil if they’re dried, they’re best when used fresh, and it’s usually worth the cost. However, if you don’t use all of them right away, these are also the herbs most likely to wilt and discolor after just a few days in the refrigerator. To preserve the life of your fresh herbs, snip the stems as you would a bouquet of flowers, and stand the bunch upright in a glass of cool water. Cut several ventilation holes in a plastic bag, then place it on top of the leaves. Cilantro should be kept in the refrigerator, but other herbs can stay right on the countertop. Preserving herbs this way and changing the water in the glass every few days can help them last up to two weeks or more.
Fine When Dried
- Bay leaf
These herbs are different from moist, delicate, leafy herbs. They have a woodier, oilier texture and a lower moisture content, so it’s perfectly fine to buy them dry and store them in the cupboard. Dried herbs should be kept in sealed glass or plastic jars, away from light and heat sources. If they’re stored properly, they can last for several years without a noticeable degradation in flavor.
Dabbling in Drying
One way to marry quality and convenience is to buy herbs fresh in season and dry them yourself to use all year long. Although some leafy herbs store better than others—cilantro is the notable exception, and does not dry well—just about every herb can be dried and preserved for later use. Doing the task at home can often be more economical than buying prepackaged herbs at the supermarket, and easier than you might think.
If the herbs are dirty, rinse away any debris, and then tie each bunch together and hang it upside down in a sunny spot (this allows the oils to concentrate in the leaves). Once the herbs are no longer moist, move them to a dark, dry location and hang them again, this time covered by a paper bag with ventilation holes (the bag prevents the herbs from accumulating dust or insect eggs). Woody perennial herbs could dry in as few as three to four days; moister herbs might take as long as a few weeks. Once the herbs seem to be completely dry, remove the leaves from the stems and seal them in a glass jar. Check them in about a week, and if there’s any moisture condensing on the inside lid, take the herbs out and give them some extra drying time.
In general, dried herbs have more intensely concentrated flavor than fresh herbs, since the individual leaves lose moisture and size but retain the same amount of flavor oils. Even with this difference, either one can be substituted for the other in any recipe, as long as you adjust the amount. When using fresh herbs in place of dried ones, use approximately three times as much to achieve the same level of flavor. If you’re substituting dried herbs in a recipe that calls for fresh, divide the recommended amount by three. If you keep dried herbs in the cupboard, check their flavor every so often to be sure that they haven’t dried out completely. Even herbs stored well will eventually lose their flavor.
Ultimately, the decision whether to buy fresh herbs or dried ones should be dictated by the kinds of foods you like to cook, and what you will find most useful. If you love cooking Mexican or Italian food, you may find fresh oregano to be a great help, even though most cooks can survive with the dried stuff. Likewise, if you use basil or parsley only once in a great while, there’s no harm in skipping the expensive fresh bouquets and grabbing a bottle of dried leaves. Just because you don’t have time to cultivate your own glorious herb garden doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the ripe flavor of freshly cut herbs—but for your wallet’s sake, make sure to spend wisely on the ones that deserve the splurge.