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Herbs… Fresh vs. Dry! The Debate Rages On!

pot of herbsUpon reviewing my previous posts I noticed a mention that I'd elaborate on the different uses of fresh vs. dry herbs and thought there's no better time than the present to do so! Let me start by saying just because they're dried doesn't mean they last forever. That jar of tarragon sitting in the back of the cupboard that you got from mom 10 years ago should be thrown out.... In restaurants we go through these jars pretty quick, but at home they tend to sit around for a while. Any dried herb that's been sitting on your spice rack for six months or more is pretty much garbage. Spices last a bit longer, but more than a year old, pitch it. The best approach to these very different forms is primarily in the timing, when to use them in a recipe to get the best results. Using both dry and fresh herbs of the same variety in the same recipe can create multiple layers of flavor from the same plant. For instance, a pizza sauce with oregano, or a marinara with basil will be greatly enhanced by using both forms. For my examples I'll be citing mostly sauce making processes, as this is the best application for dried herbs. Dried herbs are generally best used in the begining of the cooking process, while fresh is usually the last thing added to a sauce. Some herbs lend themselves to being dried better than others. Tarragon, basil, and oregano are the best of the dried herb family. They all get a woody character from the drying process. Please do me a personal favor and NEVER buy dried parsley! There's no flavor left in parsley after it's been dried unless you dry it yourself and use it immediately, in which case what was the point in drying it to begin with? Just use fresh! Seriously! Don't make me hunt you down! As I said, dried herbs are best used at the begining of the preparation. Keep in mind that the flavor is much more intense than fresh and it's easy to overdo it, which will also leave whatever you're cooking with a gritty mouth feel. With most herbs the ratio to keep in mind is 3 or 4 to 1. Meaning 3 or 4 times more fresh than dry should be used to get the same intensity. The flavor left in dried herbs is primarily in the oils in the leaves so toasting them breifly in the oil or fat used in the first steps of flavor layering is the way to go. When I make marinara, the first thing I do is saute my onions low and slow WITH a bit of dried basil and half as much dried oregano and also a pinch of crushed red pepper. When you go to add the dry herbs pinch them tightly between your fingers while you're sprinkling them into whatever it is you're cooking. This grinding motion will help release those oils. Fresh herbs are used in a completely different way, and it's much more difficult to over use fresh (think of tabouley, almost entirely chopped parsley). When I was training on the pasta station at my first fine dining restaurant the sous chef told me, "don't be affraid to use a lot" when refering to adding the herbs to the pasta right before plating the dish. I was more concerned at the time with the fact that prepping the fresh herbs was the biggest time sink when setting up my mise en place, so conservation was more what I was thinking! The less I use, the more time I have to set up the rest of my station because I don't have to prep as much! Now, years later, I understand that it is time well spent. For sauces the fresh herbs are always the last thing that goes in. The more you cook a fresh herb the duller it's flavor gets, so a thirty second steep is generally the best approach to release the flavor and aroma and preserve that bright freshness. For marinades fresh is the ONLY thing I'll use. If you coat a piece of meat with a marinade utilizing dried herbs the finished dish usually ends up with a mouth feel akin to chewing on lawnmower clippings. But if that's your thing.... Some fresh herbs need to be treated with care so not to bruise them during preparation. Parsley you can chop until it's almost powder, but basil needs a lighter touch, like a chiffonade, gentle rough chop, or just tearing it apart with your fingers. Because fresh basil is so supple it will bruise and brown and be generally unappealing if treated too roughly, and be sure to use the sharpest knife in the kitchen when (and if) you cut it to make sure you don't just crush it. The general rule of thumb is ANY greens or herbs with soft leaves should be treated gently or it will bruise and turn brown. This rule applies to the softer lettuces and spinach as well as fresh basil. Fresh_herbsStoring fresh herbs is something I should also cover. Basically the leaves are still alive, still "breathing" and metabolizing so putting them in a ziplock bag is the worst thing you can do! Get a very damp (almost dripping, but not quite) paper towel and wrap small bundles of the herbs with it. Store these in a container with a tight fitting, but not air tight lid and keep them in the humid part of the 'fridge. You'll be surprised how long some fresh herbs will last this way. At work we had a batch of fresh shiso leaves last a month one time! If you have any questions or there is something you'd like me to elaborate on, just ask in the comments. Until next time, live well and eat better! Jack http://www.epicurious.com/articlesguides/seasonalcooking/farmtotable/visualguidefreshherbs?mbid=epilf http://ger-nis.com/recipes/fresh_herb_guide