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What are herbs?

Herbs are the leaf part of a plant that is used in cooking – these can be used fresh or dried.

Any other part of the plant, which is usually dried, is referred to as a spice. These include, for example, barks (cinnamon), berries (peppercorns), seeds (cumin), roots (turmeric), flowers (chamomile), buds (cloves) and stigmas of flowers (saffron).

Herbs are a fantastic way to add flavour and colour to any sort of dish or drink, whether sweet or savoury, without adding fatsalt or sugars. In addition to flavour and colour, they each also tend to have their own set of health-promoting properties.

Generally, fresh herbs are delicately flavoured, so if adding them to your cooking, do so in the last few minutes. Tasting your dish as you go along will help you tell if you’ve added enough. If not enough herbs are used, then little difference will be made to the flavour of the dish, but if too many herbs are added, their flavour will overpower other ingredients.

Health benefits of herbs

Consuming herbs may help to prevent and manage heart diseasecancer and diabetes. It may also help to reduce blood clots and provide anti-inflammatory and anti-tumour properties. Research is ongoing but studies have shown that:

  • Garlic, linseed, fenugreek and lemongrass may help lower cholesterol.
  • Garlic is useful for people with mildly elevated blood pressure.
  • Fenugreek can help control blood sugar and insulin activity (as can linseed, flaxseed and cinnamon).
  • Garlic, onions, chives, leeks, mint, basil, oregano, sage and many other herbs can help protect against cancer.
  • Herbs are rich in antioxidants, especially cloves, cinnamon, sage, oregano and thyme, by helping to reduce low-density lipoproteins (‘bad’ cholesterol).

Fresh herbs often contain higher antioxidant levels compared to processed or dried herbs. If you are using herbs in order to harness their health-promoting aspects first and foremost, aim to add your fresh herbs at the end of cooking or as you serve to preserve these properties.

Cooking with herbs

You are only limited by your imagination with it comes to using herbs in the kitchen – they can be added to virtually any recipe. Try adding herbs to:

  • stews and casseroles
  • soups
  • breads
  • mustards
  • marinades
  • butters
  • sauces
  • salad dressings
  • stocks
  • vinegars
  • vinaigrettes
  • yoghurts
  • custards
  • desserts
  • drinks.

They don’t always have to be added into a dish either – herbs added once a dish has been served is another great way of enhancing the flavour, smell and visual appeal of your dish. For example, spaghetti Bolognese with some fresh basil leaves on top or a pumpkin or chicken dish with fresh sage leaves.

Good herb and food combinations

There are unlimited ways to use herbs in your cooking. Here are some traditional pairings to get you started:

  • basil – pesto, tomato sauce, tomato soup, tomato juice, potato dishes, prawns, meat, chicken and poultry, pasta, rice, egg dishes, strawberries
  • bay leaves – soups, stews, casseroles, meat and poultry marinades, stocks
  • chilli – meat, chicken and poultry, shellfish, tomato dishes, curries
  • chives – salads, chicken, soups, cheese dishes, egg dishes, mayonnaise, vinaigrettes
  • coriander – Asian dishes, stir fries, curries, soups, salads, seafood, guacamole
  • dill – salads, sauces, fish, sour cream, cheese and potato dishes
  • fennel – stuffings, sauces, seafood, salads
  • garlic – soups, sauces, pasta, meat, chicken, shellfish, pesto, salad dressings, bread
  • ginger – cakes, biscuits, Asian dishes
  • lemongrass – Asian dishes, stir fries, curries, seafood, soups, tea
  • marjoram – meat, fish, egg dishes, cheese dishes, pizza
  • mint – drinks, confectionery, meat, chicken, yoghurt, desserts, sauces, vegetable dishes
  • oregano – cheese dishes, egg dishes, tomato sauce, pizza, meat, stuffing, bread, pasta
  • parsley – pesto, egg dishes, pasta, rice dishes, salads, butter, sauces, seafood, vegetable dishes
  • rosemary – fish, poultry, meat, bread, sauces, soups
  • sage – stuffings, tomato dishes, cheese dishes, pumpkin dishes, chicken dishes
  • tarragon – salad dressing, egg dishes
  • thyme – chowders, bread, chicken and poultry, soups, stock, stews, stuffings, butter, cheese, mayonnaise, mustard, vinegar.

Just remember that for health benefits, butters and creams are best saved for sometimes rather than everyday foods.

Tips for cooking with herbs

Suggestions for cooking with herbs include:

  • Dried herbs are more strongly flavoured than fresh. As a general rule, one teaspoon of dried herbs equals 4 teaspoons of fresh.
  • If you regularly use herbs, you might like to create a ‘bouquet garni’ by tying chopped and mixed herbs in little muslin bags – these can be added to your cooking for flavour but removed before serving.
  • Some herbs are hardier than others (like rosemary and parsley) and will retain their flavour during the cooking process – these can be added at the start of your cooking.
  • Some herbs are used only to flavour a dish but are not eaten – bay leaves for example.
  • The flavour of herbs fades with time, so discard dried herbs after 12 months.
  • Dried whole herbs, where the leaves are still attached to their stalk, tend to have a stronger flavour than loose leaves sold in packets or jars.

Herb combinations

Although you can use one type of herb at a time, there are many great combinations that work well too.

Some traditional combinations are:

  • basil – with chives, chilli, garlic, oregano
  • bay – with parsley, thyme, garlic, oregano, marjoram
  • chilli – with coriander, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, mint, oregano
  • chives – with basil, garlic, tarragon
  • dill – with chives, garlic, parsley, tarragon
  • garlic – with basil, rosemary, sage, fennel, chilli, coriander
  • oregano – with basil, parsley, chives, thyme, bay, chilli
  • sage – with rosemary, garlic, marjoram
  • thyme – with bay, parsley, garlic, rosemary.

As our food landscape is ever-evolving, particularly with the influence new migrant groups bring with them, so does the availability of herbs that previously were uncommon in Australia. For example, Vietnamese food is known for using herbs with such abundance that, at times, there are more herbs than salad leaves in a Vietnamese salad.

Native ingredients like lemon myrtle, river mint and pepperberry, for example, are also starting to become more widely available.

Be adventurous with herbs

Herbs can be used in an unlimited number of ways. The more you use herbs, the more adventurous you will become.

Not sure where to start?

  • Follow a recipe that calls for one or 2 herbs you haven’t used before.
  • Experiment with using other herbs in place of herbs called for in a recipe to see how the dish turns out.
  • Make your own bouquet garni.
  • Grow some herbs in pots on your windowsill or in the garden for use in your cooking.
  • Visit an Asian market (for example) to try experimenting with some new flavours.

Besides boosting the flavours, smells, looks and textures in your meals, the more herbs you try, the wider the variety of potential health benefits you are likely to receive.