I once did a poll to see what home cooks were craving to know. I wanted to know, how can I help you? One thing that stuck out to me, and I have heard this question a time or two before, is “when do I use fresh ingredients or preserved???” This is a rather simple conundrum to have and to answer ONCE you learn the basics. I promise, this is super easy!
When it comes to herbs, one thing you need to remember is, what are you using them for? Are they being used to garnish or to finish a dish? Are they being used to slowly add flavor to a dish? Are they going to be used to add color or will they be discarded afterwards?
Let’s start with uses for fresh herbs
Typically, when using fresh herbs, we want to use them to finish off a dish as a garnish. Fresh herbs have a brightness of flavor that is cleansing to the palate. I have even seen them thrown into salads (aside from Caprese salad). These fresh herbs help tie the dish together, whereas their dried counterparts are often featured in a marinade, sauce, or other prep stage of cooking. For example, let’s say you’re making spaghetti from scratch (even the sauce), you might throw in some dried oregano, basil, and parsley into the sauce to help build the rich foundation and earthiness of the sauce that the dried herbs lend. Now you want to finish off the dish because your sauce is finished and your pasta is done cooking, I would definitely fold in some fresh oregano, basil, and parsley into the dish (sparingly on the oregano, of course). Not only would it play off of the dried herbs already in the sauce, but it would bring out another dimension of the dish all together!
Now if you are feeling adventurous and want to try something new, try adding an herb mix called Fines Herbes into your next salad and see what it does. This herb mix is comprised of: parsley, chervil, tarragon, and chives (you can easily make this yourself by picking these fresh herbs). Now don’t go overboard, just a good pinch of these herbs into your next salad and you’re golden! Want to try something more adventurous??? Try fresh herbs fried. Yeah, I know! But they look great presentation-wise while lending flavor to the dish! Frying rosemary and sage with your potatoes is a great way to eat these pungent herbs while still getting their rocking flavor! Get your own copy of The Flavor Bible, look up whatever herb you want to use and see which foods it pairs with and see how you can work that fresh herb into the overall dish!
On to dry herbs. I touched base on this a bit in the above section but basically dried herbs are used for things that need a depth of flavor built that can’t be accomplished from fresh herbs. So rubs will use dried herbs, sauces that require a long cooking time… anything of that nature. You wouldn’t achieve these results flavor wise with fresh herbs because drying them changes their flavor profile. Much like drying chiles intensifies their flavors and adds a new depth, same thing with herbs. When dried, they take on a whole new flavor profile and really add in the making of sauces where intense, deep flavors need to be achieved over a long period of time. Also, some herbs like thyme, rosemary, and sage have such intense flavor in their fresh form that I would never eat them un-dried or uncooked. These herbs serve well in the beginning stages of sauces and some rubs.
The only exception I can think of to this rule is: stocks! When making a beautiful stock (a flavorful liquid, typically made from animal bones, used as a base to soups and sauces), you would typically use a combo of dried and fresh herbs as aromatics in the stock. This is THE only exception I can think of.
The rule to remember
Depth of flavor: dried herbs or fresh herbs with intense flavors
Garnish and bright flavor: fresh herbs
Now another thing that some people want to know is “when do I want to use canned product vs fresh?” Here is my take on this: I really only prefer to use one canned product and this is for matter of convenience only and that is canned tomatoes. To make a good, hearty tomato sauce that rivals those in the stores, it is more cost effective and time efficient to use canned tomatoes, rather than fresh to make tomato sauce. Sure, if you’re a homesteader and I guess had nothing else you needed a 20-quart pot for, you could make your own tomato sauce using fresh tomatoes, but I don’t have that kind of time and utilities are expensive when you start doing that. I’ll spend the eighty cents per generic brand can of tomatoes and make my tomato sauce that way.
Typically, any other time with my cooking, I try to use only the fresh or frozen product. I think fresh is always better than canned because of the bright flavor and lack of preservatives. I honestly believe that a HUGE reason why some kids don’t like vegetables is because they’re introduced to the canned versions first. How unappetizing is that?! Not only do they not look super appealing, the texture is waaaaay off, and they taste weird! Honestly, fresh veggies are the way to go (unless you’re making green bean casserole for Thanksgiving, there’s enough cream of mushroom soup to disguise the weirdness of canned green beans anyway).
You may be thinking: well what about pie filling? Well yeah, you COULD buy the can at the store or you can make it at home. Remember the awesome pie filling I showed you how to make?! Those steps could be applied to more than just apple pie filling; those steps could be applied to blueberry pie, cherry pie, strawberry rhubarb pie, blackberry pie etc. except custard pies (pumpkin, lemon meringue, etc.); those are a whole different beast.
How are you all feeling? Did I lose any of you? I hope not. Let’s go over everything I’ve taught you. Basically they fall into two rules
Depth of flavor: dried herbs and herbs with intense flavors; canned product
Bright flavor and garnish: fresh herbs; fresh produce
Fresh product is almost always better than canned, excepting tomato sauces and maybe green bean casserole.
So now I want you guys to take these into consideration this week and experiment with what you’ve learned! Try fried herbs; try making your own pie filling. Needing dinner in a pinch? Try my “fresca” pasta approach! This is how I like to cook a lot; I’ll cook up some pasta, build a “fresca” sauce out of olive oil, garlic, and onions, plus any other kind of veggies I want to eat. Throw the pasta in there, toss some chopped herbs into the pan and voila! Dinner is ready! Let me know how your food adventures go and what were your favorite experiments were. Happy eating everyone! And remember to not stress, it’s just food!