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Beier's Greenhouse Articles Section >> Eleven Essential Cooking Herbs

Eleven Essential Cooking Herbs - by Evelyn Fielding of Beier's Greenhouse

Before we get started on the list of essential cooking herbs, here's a little more advice for growing and using these delicious plants:

Grow at least two of each type of plant to give you plenty for fresh cutting and enough to dry. Some you'll love more than others, so grow more of those.
Dry all kinds of herbs the “no fuss” way: Remove the leaves if possible. Fennel, chamomile, thyme, marjoram, oregano, and the like you can leave on the stem. Lay herbs on a cookie sheet, cover with a paper towel, and stash in a cupboard or closet for a few days. Please don't dry herbs in a food dehydrator. Store in labeled zip top bags in a drawer.
Chop fresh herbs, stuff into ice cube trays, cover gently with water, and freeze. Don't forget to label the bags—they all look alike when they're frozen. Although, some nice “mistakes” have been made in the kitchen when the cook thought she was using an ice cube of basil that turned out to be mint instead! Use a standard-sized ice cube tray and a smaller one, keeping the stronger herbs in smaller cubes.
Make it a habit to put some type of herb in every single recipe. You'll learn how to use them, so don't be afraid to experiment.
Still nervous about how to use herbs in cooking? First, smell a good handful of the leaves. Rub them between your fingers and take a deep whiff. What gets called to mind? A grilled pork chop, perhaps, or sweetly steamed carrots? After the sniff test, do the chew test. Take a pinch of herb leaves and chew them slowly, allowing all the complex flavors to surprise and delight your tongue. Would that flavor potatoes just right, or would it be better in a green salad? Your senses will tell you how to use herbs for cooking.

OK, here's how to use 11 essential cooking herbs, starting with the obvious and moving on the more unusual—but still essential.


Everyone knows about basil, right? Spaghetti sauce, barbeque sauce, hamburgers, meatloaf, pizza, the list goes on and on. You can put basil in just about anything, and it's the main ingredient in pesto, of course. Try making basil oil or basil vinegar, lovely additions to all kinds of foods.


Keep snipping chives and they'll keep coming back. Let them set flowers and they'll turn woody, bitter, and impossible to eat. However—the flowers are delicious, too, though a bit intense. Pack a quart jar full of chive flowers, cover with white vinegar, let sit for a week, then strain off into a clean jar. The resulting pink-colored vinegar is fabulous splashed on salads or as a finishing touch on a bowl of soup. Chive's mild onion flavor is a great accent to salad, chicken and fish. Chop finely, please.


In some ways, marjoram is a nicer herb than oregano and is very easy to grow. The flowery flavor compliments so many foods without taking over, but use marjoram with all types of meats. Add to stews and rich, long-simmered soups. Marjoram and chicken? An obvious combination. Snip marjoram frequently because it dries or freezes very well. Substitute for oregano every chance you get. Add marjoram toward the end of cooking so the rose undertones aren't knocked out by heat.


The piny flavor of rosemary tends to take over a dish, so use sparingly and let it be the star of the show. Of all its applications in the kitchen, perhaps adding rosemary to home-baked breads or biscuits is one of the best. Did you know that rosemary and chocolate get along famously? For an unusual chocolate chip cookie or chocolate cake, add a teaspoon of very finely chopped fresh rosemary. When harvesting, snip no more than 1/3 of any branch at a time. Please bring your rosemary inside for winter, because it's not a perennial in northern Minnesota.


Thyme holds its deep, woodsy flavor through drying and freezing, so grow plenty. Thyme also combines well with other herbs such as rosemary and basil but competes with oregano, so use either oregano or thyme in recipes. Pork chops call out for thyme, but use it as a marinade herb for all other kinds of meat. Thyme is a must for soups and stews so dry most of it for winter use.


Oregano is the boss-Daddy of herbs—it'll take over the dish if you don't watch it carefully. Combine oregano with other Italian-style herbs (basil, rosemary, marjoram, etc.) and bring out all the subtle fruity flavors in the others. Fresh leaves should be added toward the end of cooking; dried or frozen can be added earlier. For a lovely meat rub, mix garlic, salt, olive oil, and fresh oregano leaves. Sprinkle on top of spaghetti or pizza instead of incorporating oregano into the sauce.


Mint is another highly useful herb in both savory and sweet dishes. Fresh mint pesto is fabulous; garnish a gorgeous grilled steak or chop with a small mint salad; incorporate finely chopped mint into chocolate cookies or cake; a spoonful of mint simple syrup is the right touch for iced tea and coffee; heck, the way these plants produce, you could have enough mint to feed a small army and not make the same dish twice. Mint is an essential tea herb, as well, especially when mixed with a sprinkle of dried stevia leaves. There are hundreds of kinds of mint, so try the unusual orange, apple, chocolate, etc. varieties to spice up your meals.


Use dill fronds in anything pickled, but don't stop there. Add finely diced dill leaves to eggs, marinades, and potato/pasta salads. Tomatoes absolutely adore dill, and almost any kind of green vegetable gets along with its intense flavor. Let your dill go to seed and you can save them by snipping the flowers, bunching together, and hanging upside down inside a paper bag for a week or two. Shake gently to release the seeds from the dried flowers.


Fennel has a stronger licorice flavor than tarragon, just a little less than anise itself. Fennel leaves are useful but for serious cooks, only fennel seed will do—either ground or whole. Add to ground meats, Indian dishes, Mexican cooking, pickles, and fish. Fennel compliments other Italian herbs but deserves to be the star every once in a while. Now for the bulb! Let your fennel bulbs grow to the size of a small child's fist and roast in the oven or on the grill for an astounding vegetable side dish. Fennel bulbs can also be eaten raw with a touch of salt and olive oil. Don't bother to dry fennel leaves; harvest the seeds as you would dill. Here's a tip: don't plant fennel near dill. The cross pollination leaves dill seeds nearly flavorless.


A slight hint of licorice flavor makes tarragon an unusual and delicious addition to all kinds of foods. Eggs, seafood and freshwater fish, pork, steamed vegetables, and sauces and gravies benefit from a touch of tarragon. Try adding to plain rice after steaming: chop the fronds roughly and stir into the rice. Tarragon is an essential herb in blends such as herbes de Provence, bouquet garni, and fines herbs, too. Tarragon's delicate flavor is nearly lost when you dry it; try freezing instead, or bring a nice potted specimen in the house for cutting all winter.


You can't have Thanksgiving without sage, but don't relegate this royal herb to the third week of November. Use it all year with pork, sausage, and cheese dishes. Tomatoes also love sage, so switch out basil and oregano and substitute sage. Funny enough, sage is a nice compliment to fruits such as berries and great with apples. Finely chop a teaspoon of sage to add to apple or berry pie. While there are dozens of different sages grown for their flowers and fragrance, use Salvia officianalis in the kitchen.