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Tips for navigating the wonderful world of herbs

In this week's Home with the Lost Italian, columnist Sarah Nasello answers a reader's questions about how to source and utilize fresh and dried herbs in cooking.

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Food columnist Sarah Nasello answers a reader's questions about how to source and utilize fresh and dried herbs in cooking.
Contributed / Sarah Nasello
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FARGO — Last week, I received an email from a reader named Justin, who described himself as “a newbie who is just getting into cooking.” Justin went on to tell me that one of the challenges he faces is finding all a recipe’s ingredients locally, and knowing how to use them, specifically when it comes to fresh versus dried herbs. I love to hear from our readers and am grateful for this invitation to discuss how to source ingredients and how to use herbs throughout the year, no matter the season.

When developing a new recipe, the first consideration I make is to keep the ingredient list accessible to my Midwest audience. I do my best to incorporate basic pantry staples and, if I am using another recipe as inspiration that includes a hard-to-find ingredient, like ramps, sunchokes, Dutch cocoa powder or black mustard seeds, I will test other common ingredients to find a good replacement or move on to another idea.

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Dried herbs have a more intense, concentrated flavor than fresh herbs. When a recipe calls for fresh herbs, dried herbs can be substituted on a 3:1 ratio, like in this photo which shows 1 tablespoon of fresh parsley to 1 teaspoon dried parsley.
Contributed / Sarah Nasello

The second consideration is affordability. Whenever possible, I avoid ingredients that I may use only once, like exotic spices and sauces. Each year, I conduct a thorough purge of my spice/herb collection, and I cringe whenever I must toss an expensive jar that was only used once.

There are exceptions to this rule – like saffron, which is essential when making paella – but overall, I appreciate recipes with ingredients that won’t break the bank which can be used multiple times until gone. When I do end up having to buy an unusual ingredient, I search for other ways to use it beyond that recipe.

Herbs are a simple and effective way to add layers of flavor to a dish, and both dried and fresh herbs are widely available in our local markets. I grow a variety of fresh herbs in my garden throughout the spring and summer, but those days are numbered now that our overnight temperatures are dropping.

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I will continue to purchase fresh parsley, rosemary, chives and cilantro throughout the winter months, as they are affordable, can be used in a variety of dishes and will keep well for at least a week in the refrigerator if properly stored. To maximize their shelf life, I wrap my fresh herbs in a damp paper towel and refrigerate them in a plastic zipper bag.

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To extend the shelf life of fresh herbs, wrap them in a damp paper towel and refrigerate in a plastic zipper bag.
Contributed / Sarah Nasello

But for other herbs, like thyme, basil, dill, sage and mint, I mostly use dried versions in winter, which are more affordable than the small packets of fresh herbs and will stay fresh for at least a year. Plus, a little goes a long way when it comes to dried herbs - the ratio of fresh to dry herbs is 3:1, so if you find a recipe that calls for 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs, you can replace it with one teaspoon of dried herbs.

The grocery store brand is fine for everyday cooking, and stores like HomeGoods and T.J. Maxx are a great source for specialty blends at reasonable prices, like Herbes de Provence and Sicilian seasoning, as well as gourmet vinegars and cooking oils.

It is good to know the difference between dried and fresh herbs, and how to use them in cooking. In general, fresh herbs are often added at the end of a recipe to help them retain their color and flavor, while the heat from cooking will help dried herbs develop better flavor and blend in with the other ingredients. Dried herbs can also be used to season raw or cooked vegetables, toasted bread, soups and sandwiches.

If you are new to cooking, like Justin, some common dried herb staples to get started include basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, dill, mint, marjoram, tarragon and bay leaves. Play around to find your favorite – in our house, that is dried oregano, which we use to season fresh tomatoes, sandwiches, and garlic bread.

I was so pleased to receive Justin’s email and hope I have helped shed a little light on the wonderful world of cooking. If you have any questions about ingredients and cooking, please feel free to send me an email to sarahnasello@gmail.com .

More recipes from Sarah Nasello
Columnist Sarah Nasello shares recipes for Horseradish-encrusted roasted beef tenderloin, Christmas brunch strata and Pookie’s Christmas ice cream cake.

Recipe Time Capsule:

This week in...

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Recipes can be found with the article at InForum.com.

“Home with the Lost Italian” is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owned Sarello’s in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at sarahnasello@gmail.com.
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