Cooking With Dried Herbs And Spices

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Toss Your Musty Old Herbs Right Now

I had a lovely weekend at Islandwood, a delightful education center here on Bainbridge Island, where several hundred women gathered to share friendship and fun. I was among the presenters, offering programs in sustainable gardening and cooking with herbs. The weekend was a blast, and the event raised over $15,000 to support programs that bring inner city school children out to the woods, where they explore with botanists and biologists and learn about sustainable living (including composting toilets, which are always a hot topic of wonder and amazement, even for adults).

Among the fascinating things I learned was that most people’s cupboards hold herbs that are elderly indeed. When participants had the opportunity to taste fresh herbs (all from Log House Plant’s very broad collection), many of them were astounded at the variety (many kinds of thyme, mint, etc.) as well as the bright, vivid flavors.

Throw Away The Oldies

Try this at home: check the sell-by dates on your herbs and spices. Any that are more than a few months old should get the boot! Or you can keep the containers but toss the contents, restocking in small amounts. The best place to get fresh dried herbs (if that is not a contradiction in terms) is at a busy bulk food department. My local Town and Country Market goes through amazing amounts of herbs and spices, so they are always nicely colored and strongly flavorful.

I usually buy no more than a tablespoon of either one, unless it’s something I use a lot (such as ginger or cumin). You can figure out pretty fast which you DO use a lot of, and get as much as you think you’ll actually use up within two or three months’ time. When you get home, compare the old and the new; the older ones will look dull and have less scent as well as less flavor.

Keep Them Tasting Great

Whether you buy herbs or dried your own from the garden this summer, you can extend their shelf life by freezing them in double bags and leaving just a tablespoon or so ready to use. For frequent use, herbs and spices are best stored in glass jars with tight fitting lids, so you can see what you’ve got and how fresh it looks. Glass also protects flavor and prevents fragrance crossovers better than plastic. This is especially important if your herb and spice rack is right next to the stove, where it’s very convenient but also exposed to flavor-degrading heat and moisture.

When you dry your own herbs, it’s pleasant to experiment with sweet and savory blends, whether to reduce your family’s salt intake or simply to perk up the less varied winter diet. Smell and taste less familiar herbs to see what they suggest. Look through cookbooks from around the world to discover intriguing ways to flavor daily staples from onions and potatoes to carrots and beets.

Herbs de Provence

A classic combination for vegetables, chicken, grilled fish, soups and stews. Vary according to your own preference, as French cooks do.

2 tablespoons thyme
2 tablespoons  lavender
2 tablespoons  rosemary
1 teaspoon sage
1 teaspoon basil
1 teaspoon oregano

Blend well and store in tightly closed glass jar.  Makes about 2/3 cup.

Summery Herb Seasoning

Wonderful in a vinaigrette, this fragrant, flavorful blend is also lovely sprinkled over grilled apples and pears or steamed vegetables.

1/4 cup dried lemon thyme
2 tablespoons dried rosemary
2 tablespoons dried lavender
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 teaspoon smoked paprika

Mix all ingredients and spread on parchment paper to dry. Grind in a blender to desired texture, then store in a sealed glass jar. Makes about 1/2 cup.

Savory Herb Blend

Terrific in soups and on leafy salads, this enlivening seasoning mixture is also excellent on steamed or roasted vegetables, savory fruit salads, and omelets.

3 organic oranges, rind grated
3 organic lemons, rind grated
10 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 cup dried thyme
2 tablespoons dried rosemary
2 tablespoons dried marjoram
1 tablespoon dried sage
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon (or less) dried hot pepper flakes
1/4 cup ground black pepper (or less)
1 teaspoon sweet paprika

Mix all ingredients and spread on parchment paper to dry. Grind in a blender to desired texture, then store in a sealed glass jar. Makes about 1 cup.

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