The herbal factor: Elevate your cooking with herbs

June 15, 2011 12:38:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Dr. Lelia Kelly knows her herbs. The Mississippi State University Extension Service consumer horticulture specialist grew and sold them commercially before coming on board at MSU. When she pronounces herbs the multipurpose plants of the 21st century, it''s with good reason. 


"Herbs have so many functions. They release wonderful aromas, add beauty to the landscape, are great additions to any recipe and have health benefits," Kelly says. In a free workshop Saturday at the Hitching Lot Farmers'' Market in Columbus, she touched on several of the South''s favorite culinary herbs -- including basil, sage, lemon balm and mint -- and shared some tips for growers and cooks. 




No rules 


"The best advice I can give about cooking with herbs is to experiment," Kelly counsels. 


Herbs can be used to flavor oils, vinegars, butter or margarine, breads and desserts, beverages, meat, poultry, fish, soups, stews, eggs, cheese, sauces and dressings. The possibilities are endless. 


Most cooks who are novices at using culinary herbs fret about how much to add to a recipe, when to add them, and what herbs go with what foods. But in essence, there is only one rule to remember when cooking with herbs, Kelly says, and that is -- there are no rules. 


Using a recipe that calls for a specific herb is a good way to get started, but the excitement really comes when the singular flavor of each herb is understood and you can create your own unique dish. 




Training tastebuds 


Mountain Valley Growers of California offers this advice for developing an herb palate: 


n Take a clean leaf of an herb and chew, but don''t swallow. Experience herbs like you would a fine wine; check the fragrant bouquet, let the leaf meet the tongue and chew thoughtfully. It''s not necessary to swallow. Learning about the flavor will help you decide if it will make the perfect pot roast or sorbet. 


n Add fresh chopped herbs (one at a time) to something bland yet familiar -- like butter or sour cream or potatoes. This allows the intensity of the herb to stand on its own and helps you know how much of that herb to add. 


n Just start playing. Add a little rosemary or tarragon to the potatoes or the chicken, sprinkle some oregano on the pizza or pasta. Lay sprigs of thyme on your roast. 


n Keep notes, at least at first, of what was pleasing, how much was used and what didn''t work. Note whether the herbs were fresh or dried, or a combination of both. This will be invaluable, especially when you start blending herbs together to get more complex flavors. 


Herbs can be fresh or dried. An important guideline to remember when substituting dried herbs in recipes that call for fresh herbs, is to decrease the amount by half, cautions Kelly. 


Also important: Add herbs during the last 15 or so minutes of cooking. (Of course, this can''t be done with recipes that require herbs to be mixed in with the batter, etc., but for stews, vegetables and other recipes, the subtle flavor is diminished if herbs are added at the beginning of cooking.) 


Fresh herbs are more flavorful and aromatic than dried herbs, and many are fairly easy to grow. 




Green thumb 


Homegrown herbs can pleasantly surprise with their clean, intense flavors. Dr. Kelly and offer basic guidelines. 


Climate is the first consideration, and Mississippi''s can be challenging. Research which plants grow best here -- like annuals basil and dill, and perennials chives, mint and lemon balm, and biennial parsley.  


A major cause of herb failure is poor drainage. 


"If they have wet feet, they won''t do well," cautions Kelly. Be sure to use a well-drained or raised bed for the best chance of success. Herbs do well in containers, too, making them ideal for would-be gardeners with little or no garden space. Keep in mind that most herbs are sun-worshippers.  


"Most will require full sunlight," states the specialist. "There are just a few that like shade." (A couple of shade-tolerant herbs are catnip and lemon balm.) 


"Lemon balm is one of my favorites," Kelly shares. "And once you have it, you have it forever. It reseeds like crazy." Another herb that''s easy to grow is mint, which comes in varieties ranging from orange to chocolate.  






The most flavorful culinary herbs are harvested from well tended plants in their leaf-making stage. All herbs have two phases of growth, the leaf stage and the flower (or reproductive stage).  


When the plant enters its flowering stage, leaf production slows or stops and the leaf on the plant may become bitter, grassy, woody or yellowed. These leaves are not of optimum quality for cooking. Flowering can be delayed by harvesting kitchen herbs often. If your herbs grow too fast to use them all fresh, dry or process the extra for later use 


A few tips mentioned by Kelly for preserving flavor include keeping leaves whole when drying, and if dried herbs are stored in jars, keep the jars out of direct sunlight. 


"I don''t wash my herbs before drying because I don''t have dirty herbs. You know why? Because I mulch," she told her audience Saturday. "If you do wash, be sure they''re 100 percent dry before you freeze them or the condensation will form ice crystals." By drying, cooks can always have herbs on hand, even when growing season is long past. 


For more on the wide world of culinary herbs, Kelly recommends visiting and its Lawns and Garden link. Included in information there are how-to videos on topics from harvesting and preserving herbs to deadheading roses. Take advantage of recipes using herbs there that can help liven up summer menus.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.