You may have noticed I use a lot of herbs in my cooking—it’s simply because they’re a quick and easy way to make food taste more flavorful and interesting. And when I do, I often pause to appreciate fresh herbs—I think that their use and availability is one of the biggest and best changes over the course of my life as a cook and eater. (Can I get an amen?)
But when to use fresh herbs versus dried? And how and why? Let’s dig in.
Firstly, which is better—fresh or dried?
Fresh herbs are always my preference because they simply have more dimension of flavor. In other words, you’ll get a wider and more interesting spectrum of tastes from fresh versus dried. Using fresh sage, for example—like I did for the Chicken Saltimbocca featured in this post—you’ll get the top tickle of soft sage-y sweetness all the way to the lower, more savory, earthy notes. And that will make your food more flavorful than if you just got the middle tones available in dried.
The difference is especially true for delicate herbs like parsley, mint, cilantro, and tarragon. Dried versions are pretty much devoid of the lightness, sweetness, and well, freshness that makes those herbs so special. Relatively speaking, the dried version will taste sort of dusty and bland. (More about delicate herbs versus hearty ones in a sec.)
How to substitute fresh for dried, and vice versa
The general rule is that if you’re using fresh instead of dried, you should use three times as much. So if a recipe calls for, say, one teaspoon of dried oregano you can use three teaspoons (also known as a tablespoon) of chopped fresh oregano. And the rule goes the other way too—if your recipe calls for a tablespoon of chopped fresh oregano, you can substitute a teaspoon of dried oregano leaves (or half that if your oregano, or whatever, is powdered or ground).
Note that this is a general rule, not a hard and fast one. An exact substitution would depend on how fine or coarse you chop your fresh herbs and how old your dried herbs are, among other things. So use the 3-to-1 ratio as a jumping off point and then taste and adjust to your liking.
I realize it’s a little contradictory to say that fresh herbs have more flavor than dried, then a couple paragraphs later, to say that, if you’re substituting fresh for dry, you need a larger volume of fresh. It’s simply because I’m saying fresh herbs have more dimension of flavor, not that they have a stronger flavor. In fact, by volume, dried herbs have more potentency because, well, they’re dried and so their flavor is concentrated.
Because there’s a cost to substituting dried for fresh—less flavor—I don’t recommend it. In fact, just to confirm my assertion, I tested the Chicken Saltimbocca with both fresh and dried sage. Both delicious. But the one with the fresh sage? Deliciouser. More fresh-tasting and bright. More dimension.
That said, I know that sometimes ease and convenience win over the most deliciousness possible.
Using fresh herbs
When it comes to cooking with fresh herbs, think about whether they’re delicate and leafy, like the aforementioned parsley, mint, cilantro, and tarragon, or hearty and possibly woody, like rosemary, thyme, sage, and oregano.
Then note that fresh, delicate herbs are best enjoyed raw or barely cooked, like in a pesto, salad, or dip. Or stirred into a warm sauce at the very end of a recipe. Or used as a garnish.
In contrast, fresh, hearty herbs are typically not enjoyed raw (though there are exceptions, like a rosemary pesto or thyme-flavored butter). Which means they’re best added earlier in the cooking of a dish, so they have time to soften and infuse your food with their flavor. The heartier and woodier the herb, the sooner you want to add it. So rosemary and thyme can be added to a stew or soup with the initial sauté, while sage or oregano might go in at the same time or as late as the last five or ten minutes of cooking.
Using dried herbs
Dried herbs, whether delicate or hearty, are best added during cooking so they can hydrate and infuse their flavor into your food—akin to how tea leaves need time to their infuse flavor into hot water.
Storing fresh and dried herbs
Yes, a big drawback of using fresh herbs is there are often leftovers—you buy a whole bunch only to use a sprig or two. And then the leftovers go bad before you can use them up.
For me, the breadth of flavor that you get from fresh herbs is worth that price. But I also mitigate the price by storing my fresh herbs so they’ll last a long time. For fresh, hearty herbs, that means wrapping them in a damp paper towel and then in a plastic bag or the plastic container they came in, and then in the refrigerator.
For fresh, delicate herbs, trim the ends and wrap the bunch in a damp paper towel, leaving about 2 inches of the ends unwrapped. Then put the bunch end-first into a tall glass, fill the glass with an inch or two of water, loosely cover the whole set up with a plastic bag, and refrigerate it. You can even put more than one kind of herb in the same glass. I started doing this a couple of years ago and am pleased to report that my fresh, delicate herbs typically a couple of weeks and sometimes waaay longer.
Dried herbs, whether delicate or hearty, should be stored in a cool dry place away from light or heat and replaced every six months or so. (Which means even they might go bad before you can use them up.)
I can’t imagine cooking without herbs—I mean, what would Thanksgiving stuffing, fresh salsa, or Chicken Saltimbocca be without them? But after all these years of having fresh herbs at my fingertips, I can’t imagine cooking without them.
And my food is better for it.