Fresh herbs are the unsung heroes of some of the most flavorful and vibrant dishes you love. Since they are often used in small quantities, it’s easy to forget they pack a powerful punch. While casually enjoying a pizza margherita, you may not immediately attribute its mouthwatering qualities to a few roughly torn basil leaves—with the more obvious presence of melted cheese and all. But, yes, the seductive peppery notes you detect are indeed the work of this unassuming herb. Or, let’s say, you fall in love with a loaf of bread and chase its scent for city blocks—only to realize it was elegant rosemary that attracted you like an olfactory siren.
We understand it may be difficult at times to discern which herb is best deployed for different cooking occasions. With this in mind, we hope this down-and-dirty guide helps you get further acquainted with the top five most commonly used ones. Go forth, stand tall, and confidently add herbaceous flavor to all the things.
1. Great Cilantro Divide
Here is an ingredient not shy about announcing its presence in a dish. A genetic trait makes it taste completely different to different people. Those who loathe the herb often declare it has a wholly unappealing soap-like taste. The late (and great) chef Julia Child famously hated cilantro, telling Larry King it has a “dead taste” and she would “throw it on the floor” if she spotted it in her food. The folks who enjoy cilantro claim it tastes fresh and citrus-like—and they would confidently add it in heaps to broths, salads, and dressings. Once you’ve figured out which camp you belong to, you can finally move forward with your life. If it is the herb for you, throw some minced leaves into a bowl of noodle soup, use them to flavor your guacamole, or savor them in a pork roll sandwich.
2. Always Time for Thyme
Considered in ancient Greece to be symbolic of courage and fortitude, thyme is….well, timeless. The sweet, slightly minty flavor of this herb is subtle, blending into foods rather than overpowering them. As such, it’s widely used in various cooking traditions—as delicious in haute French cuisine as it is in more rustic meals. Its earthiness means it pairs especially well with pork, lamb, and poultry. Thyme has the versatile ability to shine as brightly in a meat braise as it does roasted with hearty root vegetables; it can elevate a thick chowder as finely as it can flavor a dry rub. With its small leaves that don’t always require labor-intensive chopping, thyme is a natural go-to for adding delicate flavor to your favorite meals.
3. Parsing Parsley
Parsley, with its flat or curly leaves, is lovely in its bright green glory, but don’t take this herb at face value—it’s more than just a pretty face. Yes, its leaves look downright fantastic as a garnish for your finished dishes, but please also consider it for its myriad outstanding qualities. It has a clean and vibrant flavor that makes it an ideal seasoning for a plethora of dishes. More tender curly-leaf parsley is perfect for chopping up, while the flat-leaf variety has a more robust flavor suited to stews, marinades, and soups. Whether it is baked into meatballs (yum!) or tossed in a salad, don’t forget to think of parsley for your next cooking adventure.
4. Hello, Beautiful (Basil)
The flavor of basil begins somewhat peppery before becoming sweet and anise-like. It tends to turn bitter the longer you cook it, so you’ll often add it to your food near the end or as a bright aromatic garnish. With its strength and pungency, basil is frequently used in Mediterranean and Italian cooking because it pairs particularly well with these regions’ other oft-used flavors: garlic, lemon, olive oil, and tomatoes. Dishes that benefit from fresh basil? Pizzas, pastas, and salads to rattle off a few. Often associated with summer meals, basil imbues your cooking with unmatched fragrance, lending a bit of freshness. Start by thinking about spoonfuls of garlicky green pesto to satisfy your deepest sauce desires.
5. Rosemary, Baby
Like its earthy friend thyme, rosemary is indigenous to the Mediterranean region. However, unlike thyme, this herb has a powerful aroma that overwhelms a dish if used in excess. Its flavor intensifies the longer it cooks, so start with less and go from there. The most fragrant of the herbs, rosemary is beloved for its lemon-pine scent and magical way of making everything smell heavenly. Bake it into breads to win over your enemies. Add it to a pan sauce for your steak and draw a crowd in your kitchen. We also love to use rosemary in marinades for grilled meat, and it is quite enchanting mashed with butter for basting poultry.