Cooking herbs from around the world
Historically herbs were highly valued as:
- Preservatives - cooking herbs were vital for keeping foods, before the advent of refrigeration
- Medicines - both for curing ailments/symptoms and for their antiseptic qualities.
- Perfumes - the Romans had them strewn on floors so their fragrances would be released when people walked on them. They also burned herbs in an attempt to banish bad smells.
And while they still have numerous non-culinary uses in areas such as medicine, alternative therapy and scented products, fortunately for us we have moved on to actually consuming and enjoying them! Here we look at some basics: how to select and store them, their classifications as well as a list (as comprehensive as possible, ever-increasing but not fully exhaustive!) of cooking herbs. We also explore how these gems are used in cooking and food in other areas of the site (see Cooking, Spice Mixes and Condiments). But let's not forget too that cooking herbs have a major role to play in spicy food, so it's not just about the chillies and spices! On their own, they can add depth and another dimension to a dish, make it fresh and light or even add its own spiciness. Spicy food is just not the same without the cooking herbs!
Herbs can be found in several forms, usually dependent on how it will be used and its flavour components:
- Ground - not commonly found for general home use
- Blends or mixes
- Essential oils - these are the natural aromatic oils extracted from plants, via steam distillation or a cold press process, which carry the distinctive scent or essence of the plant. They are not really oils but a concentrated mixture of organic compounds which exist within the cells of the plant. Each oil is derived from a single plant type and can be extracted from any part of the plant, as needed.
- Oleoresins - these are naturally occurring, thick or semisolid mixtures of an oil and a resin derived by solvent extraction from some plants. Oleoresins are not as volatile as essential oils (which can steam-distill if heated, due to the moisture present) and as such are preferred as flavouring materials in food manufacture. They also have a fuller, deeper flavour of the particular herb and are not usually available for home use.
The groupings are much simpler than for spices, as herbs are the leafy green parts of the plants, so they can be divided -
- Culinary - very simply, those which are used in cooking for the flavour they impart
- Medicinal - used for their healing properties
- Aromatic - valued for their strong aromas, they are used for medicinal purposes or for scenting products although most can also be used for cooking
- Ornamental - used mainly for their beauty, many have interesting or brightly coloured foliage or flowers
By length of the plant life:
- Annual - lives only one season then dies
- Biennial - these live for two seasons and bloom in the second year
- Perennial - these plants have a life-cycle lasting more than two years
By the active constituent they contain, these are mainly for medicinal uses and have a variety of healing actions:
- Aromatic (volatile oils)
- Bitter (tannins)
- Astringent (phenols and phenolic glycosides, alkaloids, or saponins)
- Mucilant (polysacharides)
- Nutritive (foodstuffs)
- Salty (mineral salts)
- Sour (organic acids)
- Sweet - this category may overlap with one or two of the others
The above are broad classifications and there are herbs which can fall into more than one group.