Seasoning: Fresh Versus Dried Herbs

Herbs are a major part of cooking, and can be found in fresh or dried varieties. This article talks about both varieties, their advantages and their drawbacks.

Herbs and spices have been prized ingredients since the world began. They add flavor and interest to foods that might be rather bland on their own. While dried spices have long been a way for cooks to season their foods, is there a difference between dried spices and fresh? If so, what are the differences?

Dried spices and herbs provide seasoning in a less-expensive form that lasts a long while in the jars. Almost every kind of spice or herb under the sun is available, either in the supermarket, or in a kitchen specialty shop. Cooks make their own seasoning blends from dried herbs and spices, and keep these handy for their favorite recipes.

These dried spices and herbs are easily blended into most recipes, and indeed, are vital when a cook wishes to make a herb-crusted pork loin or something of that nature. Dried herbs, such as peppermint or chamomile, can also be steeped for herbal teas.

Fresh herbs and spices are harder to find, and are more expensive. Most grocery stores do carry fresh versions of the most common herbs: basil, oregano, rosemary, tarragon, parsley, chives and dill. Some stores even offer potted versions of these plants, so the ambitious cook can have a fresh supply around all the time.

The fresh herbs are usually very fragrant, pungent and add a great deal of flavor to the dishes they season. Some people say that dishes seasoned with the dried versions taste "flat" after having the same dish using fresh herbs.

While dried herbs and spices can be used directly from the jar, the fresh varieties need a bit more preparation. For whole spices, such as cardamom and cumin, the seeds may need to be roasted, or a spice grinder used to crush them before cooking. Fresh herbs like oregano, rosemary and basil need to be stripped off their stems, washed and either torn or chopped before adding them to a dish. Rosemary need not be chopped, depending on the dish, but it should not be in large "hunks," either. It should be added as individual "spikes." The entire woody stem of the rosemary plant should be discarded, as well. Herb leaves can be left intact in cases where the whole leaf provides a pleasing "look" to the dish or if used as a non-edible garnish.

A cook can also start his own herb garden, and grow his own herbs for cooking. Some of these can be used fresh then, and some can be dried. The individual pots of herbs sold in stores can be placed on a sunny windowsill for easy access. They are also small enough that an apartment-dweller can have two or three of the pots sitting about, without feeling strapped for space. Fresh herbs can be dried by the old-fashioned air method, or in a dehydrator.

A cook should keep an eye on her dried herbs, though, and should replace them periodically. Even though they last much longer than fresh herbs, eventually, they will lose their flavor completely. Dried spices with little or no distinct fragrance should be discarded and replaced. A cook can put a piece of masking tape on the container with the date the spice was purchased, and can keep track of her spices in this way.

The main drawbacks to fresh herbs and spices are their cost and limited availability. Most of the major herbs listed above are available fresh, but many are not. Some are also prohibitively expensive (saffron comes to mind). Dried herbs and spices are available in many, many more varieties, and even in particular blends, like pumpkin pie spice, or poultry seasoning. Buying a dried blend like this means the cook doesn't have to buy several different spices, all of which are used in that blend. However, nothing compares to the burst of flavor that fresh herbs add to a dish.

It all comes down to what the cook needs to do with her spices, what kinds of herbs and spices she needs, and the availability of these items. Both dried and fresh spices and herbs have their uses in a creative kitchen.

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