13 essential herbs and how to use them

Herbs like mint, basil, and tarragon have long been prized throughout the world for their curative properties (mint for indigestion, basil for kidney problems, and tarragon for snake bites). This guide focuses on their culinary applications.

Consider growing your own herbs if you can. Having fresh herbs available minimizes waste, since there is no rush to use all of the herbs immediately. Visit your local nursery garden for seeds, seedlings, and other garden supplies. For some of the more obscure varieties, consider online catalog companies such as Cook's Garden, Burpee and Park Seed.

For advice on buying and preparing fresh herbs, check out our tips.


Alternate names: Coriander leaf, Chinese parsley, koyendoro, Mexican parsley, pak chee, yuen-sai, green coriander, coriander green, dhania
Characteristics: You either love cilantro or hate it. Its leaves look like flat-leaf parsley's, but note the smaller leaves and lankier stem. Cilantro's flavor is described by some as bright and citrusy, and as soapy by others. This herb pops up in the cuisines of India, Mexico, and Vietnam in dishes like dhania chutney, salsa, and pho. The seeds of the plant are called coriander and are used in some pickling recipes, as well as in boerewors, a South African sausage.
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Characteristics: In the United States, the two most widely available varieties of mint are peppermint and spearmint. The leaves of both plants look similar, with their rough-fuzzy, jagged leaves, but they part ways when it comes to their taste: Peppermint has a strong, cooling aftertaste due to the high concentration of menthol; spearmint is lighter and sweeter to the palate. Lesser-known types of mint include ginger, apple, and curly mint, which, when used in large quantities, impart the flavor that is connected to its name. Mint is a common ingredient in Thai food like rolls, as well as in Middle Eastern dishes such as tabbouleh, and in traditional mint tea from North Africa. It's not unusual to see mint paired with lamb or chocolate; other popular uses for the herb are jellies, sauces and cocktails such as the Mint Julep and Mojito.
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Pictured, left to right: Curly parsley, flat-leafed (Italian) parsley
Characteristics: This unsung hero can do more than just garnish a plate. In French and Italian cooking, many a stock, stew, and soup calls for bouquet garni flavored by this herb. Generally speaking, flat parsley has a peppery bite whereas the curly kind is relatively bland. And as their names denote, they have textural differences, too. Pastas and egg recipes often benefit from a sprinkling of chopped parsley; the herb's clean, light flavor cuts down on heavy creaminess and also acts as a palate-cleanser. For something different, try substituting parsley for basil when making pesto.
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Alternate names: dill leaf, dillweed, dill weed
Characteristics: This herb resembles a finer, more delicate fern with leaves that are soft, like super fine hairs. Dill elicits strong reactions: Some describe the flavor as clean and grassy, while others dislike it for being tangy and earthy. And even though this herb is often associated with Scandinavian cuisine (especially salmon) -- gravlax, anyone? -- it's found in other international dishes, as well: tzatziki (Greek), corn (Indian), and borscht (Eastern Europe). Often used in pickling, dill goes well with potatoes and dips that incorporate mayonnaise and sour cream.
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Pictured, left to right: Sweet (Italian) basil, purple basil
Characteristics: Basil is the most commonly used herb in the United States, and as seen here, the two varieties usually available have very different appearances. The leaves of the purple basil tend to be smaller, and while both kinds of basil share a similar flavor profile -- peppery and minty with a touch of sweetness -- sweet basil is relatively sweeter than its purple counterpart. Green basil is largely showcased in dishes from Italy (basil pesto) and Southeast Asia (green chicken curry), proving its versatility. The dark color of purple basil makes it a wonderful garnish in dishes. Regardless of which kind you cook with, add the leaves at the end of cooking for maximum flavor.
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Alternate names: Wild marjoram, pot marjoram
Characteristics: Oregano's hint of sweetness combined with some spiciness adds warmth to any dish. Fresh oregano can be difficult to find in the marketplace and because dried oregano has a stronger flavor than the fresh, use it sparingly. Mediterranean (Greek) oregano is typically milder than Mexican oregano, the former being used in pizza seasonings and the latter sometimes called for in chili recipes.
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Characteristics: Rosemary has a strong, even pungent, pinelike fragrance and flavor. Recipes that call for rosemary tend to require the needles to be stripped off their branches and chopped before cooking. But don't overlook the woody stems, which can be used to flavor soups and roasts. Native to the Mediterranean region, rosemary gained popularity with Italian cooking in Tuscan favorites like schiacciata, a flatbread that is sometimes made savory with rosemary-infused oil, and chicken cacciatore. The herb pairs well with pork chops, poultry, and even fish, (especially when grilled). Vegetarians can enjoy the herb in potatoes. For an unusual sweet-savory treat, consider rosemary shortbread cookies.
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Characteristics: Related to onions and other bulb vegetables, this herb looks a lot like lawn grass. Its deep-green hollow stems lend a refreshingly light oniony taste, which helps cut down on the heaviness of rich foods such as blue cheese and chive dressing and risotto cakes. When finely chopped, chives work well as a garnish.
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Characteristics: This plant's light gray-green leaves are soft and fuzzy, and its taste ranges from mild to slightly peppery with some touches of mint. Because of its pronounced flavoring, sage is a good herb to pair with foods traditionally considered heavy, rich, and creamy, like meats (sausage), and certain dairy products such as cheese and cream (ravioli with sage cream sauce), as well as sweet and savory breads (cornbread). Unlike more delicate herbs, sage can be added in the beginning of the cooking process.
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Alternate name: Bean herb, mountain savory
Characteristics: There are two varieties of savory: winter savory (pictured here) and summer savory. In general, savory has a peppery flavor, although winter savory is more pungent and stronger flavored than the summer variety. This herb has long been incorporated into European cuisines such as beans, meat, and poultry. It is also commonly added to soups and stews that have meat or poultry and/or beans, as in this Georgian Pork stew and white bean and pasta soup.
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Characteristics: The tiny leaves on this low-growing woody plant work best in tandem with other herbs and spices such as basil, sage, and lavender. Thyme is a major ingredient in the classic French flavoring herbes de Provence. And it plays a major role, next to parsley and bay leaf, in another blend of French herbs, bouquet garni a crucial flavor component in broths, soups, and stews. Thyme's importance in Middle Eastern cooking cannot be understated; along with oregano and marjoram, it is a crucial element in zaatar. This herbal blend is often used in flatbreads such as pita, as well as to flavor roasted meat and poultry. Like rosemary, recipes calling for thyme require you to strip the leaves off the woody stems. Using the entire herb infuses a headier scent and flavor.
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Alternate name: French tarragon, Dragon herb
Characteristics: Tarragon's glossy, long, tapered leaves impart a delicate anise flavor (like licorice and fennel) that is more sweet than strong. The herb is often paired with foods that easily absorb other flavors such as chicken, scallops, and eggs. Once considered the king of herbs in French cuisine, tarragon is an essential ingredient in the classic béarnaise sauce. It's not an easy herb to keep for long periods of time so it is often placed in a bottle of vinegar. Elegant in form, the herb also makes for an elegant garnish.
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Alternate names: Sweet marjoram, knotted marjoram
Characteristics: This herb is often mistaken for its relative oregano when judged solely on its looks, but marjoram's grassy, lemony taste proves to be the sweeter of the two. Like thyme, marjoram works well in ensembles (herbes de Provence and zaatar) and pairs nicely with meats and poultry, especially in stews. In Mexico, marjoram, thyme, and oregano are combined to create a lively pungent hierbas de olor, the Mexican equivalent to the French bouquet garni. Try also using marjoram in tomato sauce, white bean salads, fish dishes and vinaigrettes.
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Esther Sung first joined Epicurious.com in 2006. Prior to this, she spent several years in book publishing, including at Harper Entertainment, where the proverbial three-martini lunch was sadly nowhere to be found. When not in the office, she moonlights at the Bottle Shoppe in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and through this she has developed a fondness for Syrah and Malbec. A quasi-vegetarian, she admits to having relished eating yuk hwe, a Korean raw beef dish.

Photos by Chris Astley


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