How to take your cooking to the next level with dried herbs
Dry herbs get a bad rap, but they can be flavor powerhouses. Here's how to use them.
Dried herbs have a tendency to collect dust in the pantry. You buy a jar of them, use a little and then forget about them or just dip into them occasionally. But now that home cooks are turning more to their cabinets out of necessity, it's time to take a closer look at those dried herbs.
Jekka McVicar, who runs an herb farm in England and has written seven books on the topic, says that for better or worse, culinary authorities have been successful in indoctrinating us that fresher is better. "I know people think fresh is best," she says, but "with the situation we're all going to be in, dried is going to be essential."
Here are some things to keep in mind once you start pulling out those jars.
- The right amount: Dried herbs are more potent than fresh. As McVicar explains, you're shrinking and dehydrating the leaves, which intensifies the flavor and gives you more herb per teaspoon than fresh. If you're swapping dried for fresh, the guidance varies, often anywhere from a quarter to half of the amount of fresh. McVicar, herb lover that she is, leans more toward half. If you're unsure, start with a smaller amount and add more as you see fit. "It's much easier to destroy a meal with a dried herb than a fresh herb," she says. Angel Gregorio, owner of the SpiceSuite in Washington, takes a slightly different view. "I am a person who does not believe in rules," she says. Use whatever amount you think works best. That may depend on how old the herbs are, so take a whiff. "Smell is your best sense," Gregorio says. "That will help guide you when you're going through your pantry." She does caution against going overboard on mint, though. "It's almost like salt. Too much of it can overwhelm a dish."
- Where they really shine: "Dried herbs need heat, moisture and about twice as much cooking time to develop full flavor," cookbook author and culinary instructor Andrew Schloss wrote in The Washington Post back in 1995. "That is why dried herbs are preferred in long-cooking dishes. By the time an old-style pasta sauce is done simmering, the dried herbs in it will have peaked and mellowed in flavour, whereas the potency of the same herb fresh would have been spent long before." So consider dried herbs as MVPs in sauces, soups and stews. McVicar thinks dried sage works especially well in meatloaf. To maximize flavour, crush the dried leaves between your fingers before adding them to a recipe.
- Other uses: If you're making your own vinaigrette, toss in a pinch of dried herbs. For a Greek-inspired chickpea salad I like to make, I always include oregano in the vinegar-forward dressing. McVicar is a fan of dried basil in vinaigrette. Especially if you have dried your own, take a page from Gregorio. She endorses rehydrating dried herbs in balsamic vinegar and/or olive oil to use in pesto or what she calls a "chimichurri-ish" sauce. Combine them with whatever fresh you might have on hand. If you're just working with dried herbs, Gregorio suggests pairing them with something like citrus or wine to add some dimension. Don't feel like dried herbs are only for dry rubs. And don't be afraid to mix and match dried herbs to use together.
- Baking: Dried herbs are an ideal add-in for mixing up your standard bread. Sprinkle them on top of focaccia or fold them into your favorite no-knead Dutch oven round. Mixed with olive oil and a little Parmigiano-Reggiano, dried herbs can be a sort of magic dust on your pizza crust. Similarly, shortbread takes well to herbs. McVicar favours lavender. Thyme and rosemary are options, too. Feel free to experiment making flavoured sugars with your favorite dried herb.
- Infusing: This can be as basic as making a simple herbal tea. McVicar makes teas made with sage, rosemary and a mix of thyme and mint or sage. Try 1/2 teaspoon dried herbs per 1 cup of water. Dried herbs are a natural for flavoring custards, whether that leads you to a pudding or ice cream.
- Consider drying your own: When it comes to dried herbs, you're not just limited to what you can buy at the store. If, like me, you have a couple of plants in your backyard that have thrived despite neglect (or because of your dedication!), think about drying the bounty. A quick and easy method involves microwaving them between paper towels. If you have more time - and don't we all now? - try the oven. Gregorio first washes and blots the herbs dry with paper towels and then transfers them to a sheet pan in the oven on its lowest setting, ideally less than 200 degrees (try using the "warm" setting, if your oven has one). Start checking them after about an hour, although it may take longer. Once they crumble between your fingers, they're done. Or for the super-slow method, Gregorio says you can wrap them in paper towels and parchment and let them dry naturally on a sunny window sill.
Becky Krystal, for The Washington Post