Ask Peter: Fresh or dried herbs?
In your opinion which is the best — dried or fresh herbs? I thought fresh was best, but maybe it depends where you buy them from? Elaine
Both fresh and dried herbs can play a key part in your cooking and they are both worth having to hand. But some work better than others and you do need to have an understanding of what they bring to your food, if anything at all.
Some dried herbs, such as basil, dill or parsley, seem pointless to me. I just don’t think their delicacy works as a dried herb. The fresh aniseed tones of basil become rather musty, and dill becomes so concentrated that it loses the delicate aroma and flavour that I love so much when it’s tossed fresh, and in large amounts, with tomatoes, feta and olive oil.
These herbs can work when used for things you wouldn’t normally use them for such as marinating a haunch of venison or a slow brown meat braise, but making pesto from dried basil is something I shudder to think about. Can you imagine it?
And why people would need to use dried parsley is beyond me. It’s an easy-enough-to-grow herb. Once when I was served it in scrambled eggs I sent them back, appalled that anyone would do that. However, dried oregano is lovely when added sparingly to pasta sauces or used to top a mozzarella and tomato pizza. I’ve used it in bread and pasta dough, in a version of chimichurri sauce and in soups and stews.
Dried oregano, of course, comes in varying qualities and I have to say that the best I’ve had has come from Turkey, where it more resembles a cross between oregano and marjoram. Rubbed between your fingers and crumbled over freshly sliced tomatoes, or even on scrambled eggs, it is delicious.
Dried thyme can be used equally effectively and I guess the difference with these herbs is that they are more robust in texture than, say, basil. Dried rosemary is of the same ilk — a lovely oily herb that’s quite tough and strong and just seems to work well when dried — although like all herbs it has a much more concentrated flavour then, so use it sparingly.
Our own indigenous dried kawakawa and horopito also do well dried, in fact their flavour loses no character, but becomes more intense. Although I did once make a fabulous green alioli on TV using fresh kawakawa that wouldn’t have been half as good had it been dried.
Dried mint, or as it’s sometimes called “rubbed mint”, is, for me, an essential ingredient in harissa. I like to puree grilled red peppers with both fresh and dried mint, garlic, fresh chillies, dried ones (in the form of smoked paprika), toasted ground cumin and a few coriander seeds, olive oil, lemon zest and juice. The combo of the two mints works well, and I believe it’s better than just using the dried.
I’ve eaten a terrible bearnaise sauce made using dried tarragon; fresh is infinitely superior, but have also enjoyed the dried herb mixed into a homemade mustard — so perhaps it does have a purpose. I guess the reason dried herbs exist is so people who don’t grow them, or can’t find them (because it’s winter and basil will have died in the garden) can still access them.
But why don’t we treat them as we do vegetables and use only seasonally, when we can get herbs of a good enough quality? Rosemary and thyme can be grown all year long and will survive most of New Zealand’s climate, even winter, so can be used fresh all year round.
And, of course, hydroponically grown basil can be successfully used all year round as well. If you grow lots of herbs, you should consider using the freezer to preserve the surplus of your more delicate herbs like basil and tarragon, rather than drying them.
For both of these, I’d suggest you roll them in plastic food wrap, a few stalks at a time, into a tight cylinder. Twist the ends and get as much air out of the rolls as possible. Then store these bundles in an airtight plastic tub in the freezer and try to use them within four months, or their flavour will disappear.
It’s worth keeping the leaves attached to the stalks as the stalks also have some flavour — and freezing them this way seems to keep more aroma in the leaves themselves. Whatever you do, just don’t serve me dried parsley!
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to [email protected] and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.