True or false: Fresh basil is always better than dried basil.
True, right? Not always.
With farm-to-table eating hitting peak popularity, people know herbs are ideal for bringing flavors out in a dish without adding extra salt, fat or sugar. Plus, they’re packed with nutrients, antioxidants and essential oils. We often assume fresh is best and, in some cases, that’s true — but dried herbs have their strengths.
Let’s start at the beginning.
What are herbs?
An herb is the leafy green or flowering part of a plant.
What’s the difference between fresh and dried herbs?
This is the obvious one: Dried herbs have been heated and all moisture has been removed.
Dried herbs are shelf-stable, which means they’re OK to store at room temperature for long periods of time (months or even a year). Most have an expiration date, but the rule is if you open the jar and you can’t smell the aroma, throw it out — the flavor is already gone.
Fresh herbs have varying shelf lives, but if you buy them, five days is a good rule to maximize their flavor; however you can use them until they start to dry up, turn brown or lose their aroma. If you grow herbs yourself, pick them right before you use them and store whatever you don’t use wrapped in a paper towel in a sealed plastic bag in the fridge.
Fresh herbs often cost more because they’re perishable and must be refrigerated.
When herbs are dried, their flavor becomes more concentrated, which means a tablespoon of a dried herb tastes much stronger than a tablespoon of a fresh herb.
Herbs that are more fragile lose their flavor more easily when exposed to high temperatures, which happens in cooking but also in drying when heat is used to evaporate moisture. Other herbs are more stable, so their flavors remain largely intact through either process.
When should you add herbs during cooking?
Fresh herbs should be added close to or at the end of cooking because you want to preserve their delicate, fragrant qualities (ex. parsley on pasta or mint on meatballs). It’s not as important in cold dishes like salsa and ceviche, though cilantro will look and taste brighter if added closer to serving time.
Add dried herbs earlier in the cooking process so the whole dish is infused with their flavor. If you add them at the end, their flavor won’t have time to permeate throughout your dish, so it won’t be as strong or consistent throughout. For example, if you’re making a soup, be sure to add the herbs before it starts to simmer.
Which herbs are better fresh and which are better dried?
- Chervil (aka French Parsley)
- Chives (in the leek/scallion family)
- Tarragon (in the sunflower family)
- Bay leaves
- Marjoram (sweet pine and citrus flavors)
- Savory (from North Africa, has a similar flavor to rosemary and thyme)
As mentioned, tender, fine herbs can lose flavor when dried while sturdy herbs hold up well, but many act as switch hitters (ex. fresh sage is great in pasta; dried dill can stand in for fresh in tzatziki) — the key is to know when to use which.
- If you’re using rosemary in Thanksgiving stuffing, dried works well because stuffing cooks for a long period of time, and the rosemary flavor will have time to diffuse throughout the dish. If you’re using rosemary to finish a leg of lamb, however, throwing a few sprigs of fresh rosemary on the top right as you finish will give it the aromatic hit you’re looking for.
- If you’re using basil in a slow-cooking Italian soup like minestrone, stir in the dried basil once you’ve cooked your garlic and onions but before you add the broth (bonus: this will make your house smell great). If you’re finishing a pizza, cut fresh basil up into fine strips so its aroma and flavor are released when it hits the hot pie.
One caveat: any recipe that uses a lot of one herb usually has to be fresh, so don’t sub those out. For example, if you try to make pesto with dried basil, well… just don’t. It would be bad for you and your food processor.
Otherwise, don’t be afraid to play around with each and see what works for you. The important thing to remember when switching back and forth is ratio.
What’s the ratio of fresh to dried herbs?
Opinions vary, but in general, you need to use 3X the amount of fresh herbs as dried.
So if a recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of dried basil, use 3 tablespoons of fresh basil. Or, if it’s something you can taste as you put it together — sauces, soups, dips, etc. — start with 2X the amount and work up.
Can I use both at the same time?
The minestrone soup we mentioned could easily be finished with some fresh basil for brightness even though you used some at the beginning — just make sure anything beyond a sprinkle adds up to the total the recipe calls for.
For easy ways to use fresh herbs, try one of these fresh marinade recipes.