Although I’d like to say “good nutrition” is the No. 1 factor people use when choosing foods, “good taste” rates the highest. Adding fresh and dried herbs can improve flavour and help reduce fat and salt in your favourite recipes.
Herbs virtually add no calories, yet they add distinctive flavours. They get their characteristic aromas from chemicals known as essential or volatile oils. These oils are concentrated in the flowers, seeds, leaves, roots or throughout the plant, depending on the species.
Dried herbs lose their potency through time, so use the “sniff test” every six months with your dried herbs and spices. If there’s little aroma upon sniffing, there will be little flavour.
You can grow your own herbs indoors or outdoors. In cooler months, a sunny windowsill with exposure to about five hours of light per day is ideal. Herbs also will grow if they get 10 hours of fluorescent lighting daily. Use a warm and cool bulb in your grow light.
To grow herbs, you will need a container at least six inches deep with holes in the bottom (for good drainage), pasteurized potting mix and seeds or small plants from a garden shop.
If you are starting from seeds, plant the seeds as directed on the package. Leave about an inch of space at the top of the container to allow for watering.
Treat your potted herbs like houseplants. Water them regularly but don’t overwater, which can lead to soggy roots. Snip the herbs often so they will grow full and lush. For best growth, use liquid fertilizer mixed with water as directed every week or two.
Herbs can be preserved by drying them in a dehydrator, an oven on low or a microwave. They also can be frozen. Store home-dried herbs sealed in a bag or jar in a cool, dry place and use within a year for best quality.
To use fresh herbs, rinse them well under running water and chop in tiny pieces. The idea is to expose as much of their surface area as possible. With dried herbs, use a mortar and pestle to grind the herb into a powder.
Herbs vary by flavour strength, so it’s important not to overdo them. Since herbs can lose some flavour during food preparation, timing is important. Add fresh herbs close (10 to 15 minutes) to the end of cooking when making soups and stews. When adding herbs to cold foods, such as salads, add them a few hours ahead of time to allow the flavours to meld.
– Julie Garden-Robinson, PhD, L. R. D., is a North Dakota State
University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist
and associate professor in the department of health, nutrition and exercise sciences.