Herbs such as rosemary, thyme, sage, winter savory, and bay are mainstays of our fall cooking. Of course, they can be used in recipes any time, but in autumn their woodsy, earthy flavors bring out the best in soups, stews, meats and vegetables, and provide a warmth and comfort perfect for this chilly time of year. Here's info on how to use five favorites.
First: fresh or dried?
Fresh herbs are always a great option, and most supermarkets now sell them. But dried herbs are fine, though you'll use smaller amounts than when using fresh leaves. Fresh and dried herbs are used at different times when cooking and each gives a slightly different dimension to a recipe.
The ratio of fresh herbs to dried is that you need roughly three times the fresh herb as you do dried. For example, one teaspoon of dried rosemary is equivalent to three tablespoons of fresh.
Generally fresh herbs are best in dishes that won't be cooked, such as salads, salad dressings, dips, mixed into butter, or in dishes that cook quickly, less than 10 or 15 minutes. Longer than that and fresh herbs lose much of their flavor, and, well, freshness.
If you buy fresh herbs for your Thanksgiving dishes, look for vibrant, healthy, unbruised leaves with no signs of wilt or disease. Keep them in your fridge with the stems in a jar of water, or wrapped in a paper towel. Watch for mold or fungus and discard if you see any.
Since fresh herbs are expensive, and often you only need a little for a specific dish, save the rest by chopping up the leftover leaves and freezing them in water or olive oil in ice cube trays or small plastic bags.
Dried herbs work best in dishes like soups, stews, casseroles, and long-roasted meats – recipes that take awhile to cook.
When using dried herbs such as rosemary, roll the leaves between your hands or fingers to help release the oils. And always add dried herbs as you are cooking, not at the end. Added too late, they can't work their magic and will taste harsh and dusty.
Keep dried herbs cool and dry, in airtight containers and out of direct sun and heat. Storing them next to the stove, while convenient, can make them less potent. Discard dried herbs after about a year. Their flavor degrades and you'll be doing your cooking a disservice by using them.
Five Herbs Found In Classic Thanksgiving Recipes
Bay (Laurus nobilis): Bay leaves are the dried leaves of the bay laurel tree. It is grown both as an herb and for decorative landscape purposes, often in pots as topiary. In the Mediterranean, this slow-growing tree is evergreen, as it is here in Zones 8 to 10. Bay has a powerful, earthy flavor, so a single leaf added to a soup or stew is enough. The tough leaf is not eaten, but removed from the dish before serving.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis):If you live in Zones 7 and warmer and can grow this shrub, it's worth it. Growing it indoors, however, is tricky, and usually results in the plant's demise due to too much water and too little light. The woodsy, aromatic oils in rosemary give a sharp scent and flavor to dishes. This is one fresh herb where a little goes a long way. Whether used fresh or dried, rosemary needs to cook awhile for the tough needles to soften.
Sage (Salvia officinalis): Common, or culinary sage is a member of the mint family, and grows as a woody subshrub with soft, fuzzy gray leaves. The dried leaf is usually ground into a fine powder, but the youngest leaves can be used fresh. It adds warmth and savoriness to meats, soups and stews. It also pairs well with pork, sausage, squash, and stuffing, of course. It is tasty fried and can be made into a tea.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris): A low-growing, creeping herb often used as a fragrant groundcover. Strip the tiny leaves from the woody stems before using, or remove from the finished dish, as with bay. Thyme is another popular stuffing herb, and is often used to flavor Thanksgiving turkey. It also goes well with eggs, bean dishes, and red sauces.
Photograph by Dezidor, Wikimedia Commons
Winter Savory (Satureja montana): Another member of the mint family, winter savory is a perennial herb with a strong, slightly smoky flavor. It's been used in cooking and as medicine for thousands of years, yet is not as well known today as it once was. Available dried, it is not as readily available fresh in stores as these other herbs. It is also used in stuffing, meatballs, and in bean dishes.
As we gather together to celebrate this Thanksgiving, let's take a moment to salute the herbs that help bring such flavor and seasonality to our favorite fall foods.
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By Nancy Buley, J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co., Wholesale Tree Growers
Photographs courtesy of J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co.
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