February 1, 2018 |

Herbs: We’re Kind of a Big Dill

By Jeffrey Freehof

dried herbs, fresh herbs

Should you use fresh over dried herbs?

Although fresh herbs can still be purchased in the winter months, they are not as plentiful and inexpensive as they are in the summer. There is a time and place to use dried herbs, and this is a good time of year to use them. I want us to explore together how dried herbs can be purchased, stored and used while still bringing out their explosive flavors to create the profile you’re looking for when preparing your menu dishes and sauces. Furthermore, there is a conversion to consider when switching from fresh to dried herbs that I want to touch on as well. Since the flavor of dried herbs is more concentrated, you need to measure carefully when using them in your recipes.

When a recipe calls for a cup of freshly chopped basil, you will only need 1/3 cup of dried. That general rule goes for most dried herbs because of their potency. Using dried herbs in recipes such as a marinara will require you to simmer the sauce for two to three hours to really bring out the flavors of your dried herbs. Although this is a true statement and will yield great results, since we live in such a hurried lifestyle today, I want to teach you a trick when using dried herbs to bring out the bold flavors in your recipe a lot faster than using a three-hour simmer.

For example, if you want to make a marinara sauce with dried herbs, I would have you sauté the onions, then when adding the garlic go ahead and add a blend of herbs. I like a mixture of basil, oregano, thyme and rosemary. I sometimes include a touch of sage.

Simmer the herbs with the onions and garlic on a low heat for approximately five to eight minutes. This will allow the flavor of the herbs to bloom in the warm, moist heat. Add some good drinking wine (my thought is, if it’s not good enough to drink, then don’t cook with it)and then add your tomatoes and tomato sauce. You can certainly bring your sauce to a simmer, but since you have already brought your herbs’ flavors back to full life you can simply simmer your sauce for 20 to 30 minutes and you’re good to go after you add salt and pepper (to taste).

There are many operators who live by using fresh herbs, and some even grow their own. There are also some old-school cooks who strive for that consistency and know that if they buy and use dried herbs, their sauces and product should remain more consistent.

Herbs can be purchased in so many different ways now. Of course, you can buy fresh herbs in different pack sizes. You can even purchase micro herbs now.Although these are fresh, they have a more powerful, concentrated flavor than regular herbs. These herbs are typically used as a garnish in some higher end venues.

Dried herbs can certainly be purchased in small jars that would be typically used in households, as well as larger containers that usually weigh six ounces or so. Larger jug containers that are 20 ounces or more are also available.

One of the things that is important to understand about dried herbs is that they generally lose their bright, fresh visual appearance once they are dried. But they still pack a punch when it comes to extracting flavor. In order to keep them from fading even more in color and flavor, dried herbs should be stored in a cool, dark and dry place.

I used to make fresh rosemary bread in my restaurant every day. We served this to our guests along with olive oil with roasted garlic cloves and seasonings for dipping. I love the flavor of rosemary, but dried rosemary is texturally unappealing. That’s why I always purchase and use ground rosemary in my bread and other recipes. Buying herbs in bulk as long as you can use it within a reasonable time is the most cost-effective way. I would buy ground rosemary in a five-pound bulk bag.

Use your own pizza dough, brush it with olive oil and sprinkle some ground rosemary on it. Knead the dough for just a couple of minutes and spread the dough over a half sheet pan and let it rest and rise in a warm, moist environment. Bake it in your pizza oven. You can cut the bread into rectangles or wedges. Spread some tomato paste over the dough before it rises, adding a drizzle of olive oil and then bake it once it’s proofed. This makes for amazing tomato-rosemary bread.

Herb-crusted chicken or fish is always a healthy and flavor-enhanced entrée choice. You can brine a bone-in chicken or boneless chicken, then season it with your favorite blend of herbs. I love rubbed sage with poultry, and would even use some thyme and blend a little cumin. Sear the chicken in a hot skillet or on a flat-top grill. Finish it in the oven until it reaches 165 F for a flavorful, tender and juicy meal.

The same can be done with a fresh piece of fish. Tarragon and dill are perfect enhancers for a variety of fish. Prepare the fish in the same manner as the chicken. A finishing sauce of butter, white wine and lemon juice is perfect. I like to thicken it with a blend of cornstarch and water, which will tighten it just enough to coat and glaze the fish. Serve it with whatever sides you feel your guests would enjoy.

There are so many different herbs that are available, and each one brings its own unique profile. For that reason, I encourage you to play around and experiment. 

Jeffrey Freehof is a frequent Pizza Today contributor, chef and restaurant consultant.