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Cooking With Fresh Herbs

Starting your own herb garden is a great way to enjoy the outdoors while cutting back on salt, sugar and fat in your diet. Cooking with fresh herbs—basil, thyme, parsley, oregano, cilantro and mint—instead of dried ones can provide added flavor and antioxidants to your favorite dishes.


Herb gardens are possible for cooks living in all types of environments: urban, suburban and rural. You can plant herbs in pots and containers on your patio or windowsill, or grow your own herb garden in your backyard.

Step One: Growing Herbs

  • Herbs require six to eight hours of sunlight daily, and nearly neutral soil. Try for a pH reading between 6.5 and 7.
  • Herbs can either be grown from seeds or planted as 3.5-inch plants.

Step Two: Picking Herbs

  • Harvest herbs often because they’ll grow better.
  • Annual herbs can be cut down to around 4 inches tall, but don’t take more than a third of a perennial plant.
  • It’s best to pick herbs right before use or in the morning before the sun gets too hot so the flavor and nutrients remain intact.

Step Three: Washing Herbs

  • Thoroughly wash your herbs under running water and dry in a salad spinner. Soak up any additional moisture with paper towels.
  • If the herbs are from your garden, spray them with a hose to wash away larger particles of dirt.

Step Four: Cutting Herbs

  • Most herbs are best when minced with a sharp knife or cut with kitchen shears, but it depends on the recipe and your preference.
  • For herbs with strong stems, such as oregano, rosemary and thyme, you can run your fingers down the stem to strip them. For those with weaker stems, such as parsley and cilantro, feel free to use the stem and leaves.

Step Five: Cooking with Herbs

  • As a general rule of thumb, use three times the amount of fresh herbs as you would dried herbs. Fresh herbs cook down.
  • Unless used in batter, most herbs retain their flavor best when added right before the food is served, especially delicate herbs like basil, mint, parsley, cilantro and dill leaves. Sturdier herbs, such as oregano, rosemary and thyme, can be added during the last 20 or so minutes of cooking.

Step Six: Storing Herbs

  • Store herbs in a perforated bag in your refrigerator’s crisper drawer or seal them in a bag to freeze. But keep in mind that the herb will be limp after thawing and is best used in cooked foods rather than as a garnish.
  • Another method to maintain freshness (similar to cut flowers) is to cut diagonally the ends of the stems and place them in a glass with an inch of water. Cover loosely with a plastic bag and place them in the refrigerator, changing water daily. They should last about a week, though the flavor is stronger the sooner you use them.
  • Check out our video for additional tips on freezing and storing herbs.

When to Use Which Herb in Which Dish

Try fresh basil—known for its strong, sweet smell—in Italian dishes. Try our penne pasta and fresh tomatoes recipe or our recipe for basil-lemon pork chops with melon.

Use fresh thyme—flavorful and often blended with other herbs—in our recipe for home-style minestrone or confetti corned beef hash.

Add fresh parsley—often used as a spice and a garnish—to our parsley deviled eggs recipe or our wild mushroom pizza recipe.

Try fresh oregano—often used in tomato sauce recipes—with our classic marinara sauce or green beans with tomatoes and feta.

Use fresh cilantro—a perfect addition to Mexican and Asian dishes—with our recipe for grilled spicy Thai chicken wings or fiery fruit salsa.

Try fresh mint—with its cool taste and smell—in refreshing salads such as chicken fruit salad or in cool desserts such as strawberry honey sorbet.