Sunday, October 31, 2010

Why Use Dried Herbs vs. Fresh?

One of our storage areas for spices and dry goods
Maybe some of you are wondering why someone like me, a grower of a large variety of herbs, would ever want to use dried herbs. Or even better yet, why would I waste my precious time in the pursuit of drying and storing herbs?

Well, first and foremost is basic laziness. If it is pouring rain out (210 inches so far this year in Boquete) and I need an herb for a sauce or soup, I am not venturing out to pick fresh. Plain and simple.

Another reason is that I only have some herbs available only part of the year. Even though I live in the Tropics and the weather is just about always in the 60's to 70's, some herb gems like Marjoram and White Sage seem to have to leave me for half of the year. Some love the rain...some love the dry.
Then there is the question of what flavor or visual profile I am looking for in my dish. For example, I really prefer dried Greek Oregano in my pizza sauce. I do not want a bunch of dark brown, limp leaves, from using fresh Oregano floating around in my pizza or marinara sauce. Dried Greek Oregano has really strong and intensified flavors when dried that is very different from the fresh. It is the concentration of the herb's essential oils when all of the moisture has been drawn out that makes many (not all) herbs have a more intensified fragrance to them rather than a greener, more delicate fragrance when used fresh.
Fresh Thyme & Sage
Thyme and Culinary Sage

Now don't get me wrong, I love using my fresh herbs (you may want to check out an earlier post of mine on using fresh herbs in cooking on this blog called Keep It Simple: Fresh Herbs). I feel quite spoiled being able to use year 'round all of the fresh seasoning out of the garden for fresh salads, salsas and pesto. But there are a few dried herbs herbs that are must to keep in the pantry.

Here is my list of Dried Herb Pantry Essentials.

Our daily use spice rack in the kitchen.
Dried Kitchen Seasonings:
Basil: For Italian Cuisine
Bronze Fennel: To season homemade sausage.
Curry Leaves: Use like one would use bay leaves in Indian Cuisine.
Epazote: A unique herb used a lot in Mexican cooking, mostly beans, for flavor and to hold back the resulting "toots". See my post, Epazote, the Secret Mexican Herb for more information on epazote.
Greek Oregano: for pizza dough and tomato sauces.
Marjoram: to rub on Pork Chops, mix into risottos and for Mediterranean style cooking
Sage: My favorite chicken rub and for gravies.
Thyme: I mix this into my pie dough for savory pies.

Tea Time:

Lemon Balm: mixed in with a little green tea.
Chocolate Mint: A great after dinner tea.
Spearmint: Strong and sweet just like they make it in the Middle East
Orange or Mandarin Peel: with Black tea. Also great in cooking sweet or savory

House Hold Upkeep:

White Sage: a little burned around the house like an incense cleanses the air and is a natural anti-bacterial. Smells like the desert! Click on this link to revisit my post on White Sage: Let's Clear the Air.

Using dried herbs is easy if you remember a few rules:
Use about half of the amount of dried that you would of fresh because the oils are concentrated.
To use, take a small handful in the palm of your hand, and rub your palms together, like you are trying to warm then up, and allow the crushed leaves to fall below, maybe onto a clean plate or a bit of waxed paper. Left over in your palm will be the leftover branches and leaf veins. I use the waxed paper or plate to ensure that I do not over load my dish, being able to add a little at a time and to keep out the twig shrapnel!

Store your freshly dried herbs in an airtight bottle and out of the sunlight and heat to keep its flavors strong. Do not shake your herb bottle over a simmering pot, moisture will get into the bottle and ruin your dried herb soon after you put the lid back on. They only have a shelf life of about 1 year, then toss and buy new.

Remember that a little bag of freshly dried herbs are always better than a store bought version that has traveled many miles to get to your store, maybe overseas in hot containers. That little jar on the store's shelf also has been most likely sitting, God only knows for how long, in one or even two supplier warehouses and then on the Market shelves.

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