8 Things You Didn’t Know About…Using Dried Herbs
If you’ve ever read a cookbook by, well, just about any well-known chef, they you’ve no doubt come to the section where they practically exhaust the language of poetry in extolling the wonder of fresh herbs — “heavenly,” “sublime,” “incomparable,” etc. etc.
But what about dried herbs, jars of which most of us dutifully keep in our cupboards? They get barely a peep, if they get mentioned at all. (Alice Waters, for example, in The Art of Simple Food describes fresh herbs as “vital” to her cooking but doesn’t even deign to discuss dried herbs.)
As anyone who loves food has to admit, fresh herbs do taste better, no doubt (I’ll leave the rhapsodizing to all those cookbooks). But let’s face it, the reason we keep dried herbs around is because we’ve all got those recipes that call for — what? — a teaspoon of fresh thyme or marjoram, and we’ve said to ourselves, “I am not shelling out $2 for a bunch of fresh thyme just for one friggin’ teaspoon.”
Yep, I’d love to grow a big gorgeous herb garden like Alice Waters and be able to go out and clip off a teaspoon of thyme when I need it. It’s on my bucket list. Someday. Until then, I’ll keep my cupboard stocked with dried herbs. They may not inspire anyone to gush, but there are a bunch of ways to get the most out of them.
There are a whole lot of cute, mod ways to display your dried herbs on your counter (hello, Dean & Deluca), but for the best flavor, you want to keep your dried herbs out of direct light and away from heat. In other words, store them in your pantry.
We like dried herbs because they keep longer than fresh — but they don’t keep forever. Not that they actually go bad; they just loose their flavor. You should replace your dried herbs at least once a year, so for herbs you don’t use very often, it’s a good idea to buy them in smaller quantities and label them with the date you bought them.
How much of a dried herb should you use in a recipe that calls for fresh? The general rule of thumb is to use 1/3 dried for the amount of fresh (for example, 1 tsp. dried for 1 tbsp. fresh). But if the dried herb you’re using has lost its potency (i.e., it’s old), you should use more.
That’s all fine and good, you say, but how do you know whether your dried herbs have lost some of their mojo? Take a pinch and crush it between your fingers, then smell. If you get a good, strong whiff of, say, basil, then you’re good to go. If the scent is weak, you’ll want to use more.
In fact, it’s a good idea to crush any dried herb you’re using to release the flavor. After you’ve measured out the right amount, press it against your cutting board with the flat edge of your knife before adding it to whatever you’re cooking.
Other tips to get more flavor out of your dried herbs? If you’ll be adding any sort of liquid to the recipe (milk, water, wine, oil, etc.), then soak your crushed herbs for 10 minutes or so in a bit of the liquid. You can also simmer dried herbs in some butter for a minute or so.
In reality, though, some herbs really are so much better fresh that it makes almost no sense to use dried, namely parsley, cilantro and chervil.
Ok, so my last column was about using your microwave, and I plugged Beth Hensperger’s book Not Your Mother’s Microwave Cookbook. And now I’m plugging it again because she’s got this great tip about drying fresh herbs in your microwave. I have to admit that I haven’t actually tried it yet, but the next time I find myself with too much thyme on my hands (get it?), I’m going to.
Here’s what she says to do. Rinse fresh herbs and pat them dry between paper towels, pressing to remove as much moisture as possible. (She says they need to be completely dry.) Strip the leaves from any stems, then measure out 1 loose cup. Spread the leaves in a single layer on a double layer of paper towels, put them in your microwave, then cover with another double layer of paper towels. Fill a 1-cup microwave-safe glass measuring cup with 3/4 c. of water and set on top of the herbs. Microwave on high for 1–2 minutes, checking every minute (some herbs will dry more quickly) and turning once. The herbs are “done” when they’re dry and brittle. You can store them in a screw-top glass jar like you would any other dried herbs.
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