From the bright, aromatic essence of basil to the subtle licorice undertones of tarragon or the hints of pine in rosemary, few foods add flavor, aroma, and visual appeal as quickly and easily as fresh herbs. Here’s a simple guide for both beginners and seasoned chefs on buying, storing, and using them.
Selecting & Buying Herbs
Fresh herbs are sold in a variety of ways: in pots, in small plastic clamshells, or in bunches (especially parsley and cilantro). However you buy your herbs, look for bright green leaves with no browning or yellowing at the tips. If you’re buying them in bunches, look at the stems—dry, splitting stems mean they’re older. For herbs sold in plastic boxes or bags, give them a sniff before buying. They should have a pronounced aroma with no hints of mustiness or mold. Potted herbs are a great choice. You can snip leaves and keep the plant alive for future harvests.
Storing Fresh Herbs
Herbs are more delicate than other produce and have to be stored and handled gently. Generally, keep them dry and refrigerated. If you buy them in bunches, take them out of the bags and remove the rubber bands, then snip the ends and stand them up in a glass with 1/2 inch of water, then store in the refrigerator. If you buy them in plastic boxes, remove them from the box and wrap them in very lightly dampened paper towels, then store in the warmest part of the fridge to prevent freezing.
Using Fresh Herbs
Rinse herbs gently just before using them. If they’re very dirty or sandy, immerse them in a large bowl of cold water, agitate gently, and lift them out of the bowl. Never cut herbs when they’re wet, or they’ll blacken and get slimy. Instead, pat herbs with paper towels and let them air-dry before cutting, or use a salad spinner to dry larger quantities of herbs.
Be sure your knife is very sharp before cutting herbs—dull knives, blender blades, or food processor blades will bruise the leaves and destroy the vibrant green color. And use all parts of the herb, not just the leaves. Rosemary, sage, and thyme stems can flavor soups and stocks, and chive, sage, thyme, and other herb blossoms are beautiful garnishes (don’t use basil or marjoram blossoms, since they’re often bitter).