Herbs are any plants that possess useful qualities. While they are most associated with flavoring food and with natural medicine, they may also be used to make dyes and fragrances and also as decorations. This article will be primarily focused on the culinary aspects of herbs, and how to incorporate more of them into your diet. Raising consumption levels of herbs can lead to many health benefits as well as reducing the need for salt in foods. Herbs play an integral role in nearly all culinary traditions, we tend to associate them most closely with Mediterranean, Asian and Latin cuisines but they are present in nearly all styles of cooking. This article will cover several popular herbs along with ideas on how to use them in your day to day.
Basil is a versatile herb used in cuisines from many different countries, it is most commonly associated with foods from the Mediterranean (primarily Italy) and Asia. It is native is tropical climates, primarily Southeast Asia but can be grown nearly anywhere as an annual. Basil is usually used fresh in recipes, as cooking can destroy most of the flavor rather quickly. Fresh basil is the main ingredient in pesto, a staple in the Ligurian region of coastal Italy. It is also used in many different soups in China and Taiwan. In addition to the leaves, the flowers of the basil plant are also edible. Essential oil from basil has been shown to repel insects, specifically mosquitoes, and basil is thought to have therapeutic properties in many different Eastern folk medicines.
Chives are an herb that are very similar to green onions. They are grown all across Asia, North America and Europe, and are commonly used in soups and as part of recipes for both fish and potatoes. Chives are very helpful plants to have in gardens, they possess natural insect-repelling abilities as well as producing large amounts of nectar which attracts bees for pollination. They are also one of the few herbs that can be frozen without blanching and still retain most of their flavor, making them popular with home gardeners. Chives have a mild stimulant effect, but their use for medicinal purposes is limited due to their similarities with the medicinal properties of garlic but with weaker effects.
Cilantro, also known as Chinese parsley is an herb that is in the same family of plants as carrots, celery and parsley. In the United States the leaves of the plant are known as cilantro and the seeds are known as coriander. Cilantro is used widely in many different cuisines, it is especially prevalent in Mexican and Thai dishes. It is easy to grow, making it a staple in home herb gardens. Cilantro is also similar to basil in that heat can very quickly diminish its flavor, for this reason it is usually added at the end of the cooking process or as a garnish. Cilantro seeds, or coriander, are commonly used in the pickling of vegetables and are also widely used in the brewing of Belgian wheat beers.
Dill is in Europe and Asia, and is widely cultivated around the world. Dill is used in a variety of different fish dishes across cultures, and is of course responsible for the flavor of dill pickles. It is also an essential ingredient in many different soups, as well as a topping for potatoes and as an ingredient in salad dressings. Fresh dill tends to have the best flavor, although freeze dried dill tends to hold up pretty well also. Dill does well and has a mutually beneficial relationship when planted with broccoli and cucumbers, as it has been shown to attract beneficial insects. However, it has the opposite effect when planted along with carrots and tomatoes.
Mint is an extremely versatile herb with many uses. In Middle Eastern cuisine it is commonly used in soups, salads, and in lamb recipes. It is an easy to grow herb, and is common in herb gardens. It is similar to cilantro and basil in that it is generally added to foods after they have finished cooking, as excess heat leads to its flavor rapidly deteriorating. Mint contains antioxidants, and is often used as a treatment for seasonal allergies. Peppermint oil can also be used topically as a pain reliever and to help with itchiness caused by rashes. Mint also contains antimicrobial properties as well as freshens breath, and is used in many toothpastes and oral care products.
Oregano is another plant in the mint family, and is native to Southwest Asia and the Mediterranean. Unlike many herbs oregano tends to be more flavorful after is has been dried. It is most often associated with its use in the recipes of Southern Italy, where it is used in sauces and as seasoning for meat and vegetables. It also plays a major role in many of the spicier dishes of the region. Greek, Filipino and Turkish cuisine all rely on it as well. Oregano oil has been used in folk medicine for centuries, however, no clinical studies have shown it to be useful in the treatment or prevention of any diseases. It grows best in hot, relatively dry climates.
Parsley is native to the Mediterranean, and is widely cultivated throughout much of the world. In temperate climates parsley is a biennial, living for two growing seasons whereas in tropical climates it can be grown as an perennial. Parsley is regularly used as a garnish for potatoes, rice, fish, chicken, and beef, and is also an ingredient in many soups. It is also a major ingredient in Middle Eastern mainstays such as falafel and tabbouleh. Parsley is an excellent source of antioxidants, making it a great addition to many dishes. Normal consumption of parsley is safe for pregnant women, however, excessive consumption can lead to problems and should be avoided.
Rosemary is a perennial native to the Mediterranean region, and is characterized by its woody stems and fragrant, needle shaped leaves. Rosemary is used in both fresh and dried forms in Mediterranean cuisine, and is a mainstay in foods such as stuffing and roast meats. Its mustard like aroma and fragrance makes it a great addition to grilled and smoked meats. Rosemary oil is used in perfumes and shampoos, and also burned as incense. It has been used for centuries in many different regional folk medicines, although there is no hard scientific evidence of its benefits.
Sage is an evergreen, perennial shrub that us native to the Mediterranean region. Sage is prevalent as a culinary herb in England, Italy and the Balkans. It imparts a peppery, savory character on the dishes it is present in. It is also widely used in the United States as an ingredient in Thanksgiving stuffing. Sage has a long history in folk medicine and has been used to treat everything from snakebites to infertility. Some scientific studies have suggested that certain parts of the sage plant may be linked to improved cognitive function, but these studies have not produced replicable results and there are some extracts of the sage plants that can introduce neurotoxic effects.
Thyme is a perennial, evergreen herb that is in the same family as mint. Thyme grows best on well drained soil in hot climates and with full sun, and it is fairly drought resistant. Thyme is used in both fresh and dried forms, and dried thyme tends to retain most of its flavor. Thyme is used widely in European cuisine, and is an essential component of the French bouquet garni, used to impart flavor in soups. In Medieval times knights would often carry thyme with them into battle, as it was considered to give them strength and courage. It was also common for thyme to be placed under pillows to ward off nightmares.