If you cook with herbs then you might have already thought about growing your own herbs for cooking. It’s easier than you might think as well. You can learn how to set up a small herb garden, how to cultivate and prepare herbs as well as what herbs to use with certain foods. In no time at all, you can become an herb specialist and your food will be all the better for it!

There are many different types of herbs such as culinary herbs, aromatic herbs, medicinal and much more. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden Handbook on Herbs lists 73 different types of herbs. There are many common and non-common herbs and if you are a beginner culinary herb gardener, there are some that may be easier for you to start with. Parsley, thyme, savory, marjoram, mint, chives and basil are some common herbs used in cooking.

Herbs for Beginners

If you are a beginner herb gardener, you might not know what herbs to plant since there are so many to choose from. It is a good idea to get a variety of flavors and uses in cooking so that you are not stuck with all one kind of herb. You can choose from:

  • Strong herbs such as rosemary, sage and winter savory
  • Accent herbs such as dill, mint, sweet basil, sweet marjoram and thyme
  • Blending herbs such as chives, summer savory and parsley

These are great to start out with and over time you might want to move into other interests and less common herbs. Remember that there are annuals, biennials and perennials to choose from. The climate will also effect the type of herb you choose. Annuals include anise, basil, chervil, coriander, dill and summer savory. Some samples of Biennials are caraway and parsley. Perennials are chives, fennel, lovage, marjoram, mint, tarragon, thyme and winter savory.

Of course this is not a complete list but it gives you an idea. Annuals are herbs that will bloom only for one season and then they die. Biennials live for two seasons but they only bloom on the second season and perennials bloom each season once they have been established so they are very popular.

Preparation and Drying

Once you have grown the herbs and you are ready to actually use them, it requires some preparation. You have to dry the herbs before you use them in cooking. Most herbs reach their peak just before flowering so you can collect them then for drying and storage.

Cut the herbs in the early morning when the dew has just dried. You should cut annuals off at ground level and perennials about a third way down the stem. Now wash the herbs with the leaves on the stem in cold water to remove dirt, dust, bugs, etc. You can drain them on towels or by hanging upside down in the sun to let the water evaporate.

Next you will strip all the leaves off the stalk leaving only about the top six inches. Be sure you also remove any blossoms. You know that the herbs have to be properly dried before storing and certain hers such as mint and basil need to be dried quickly or they mold. One way of natural air drying is to hang them in the dark in paper bags. Be sure to hang upside down because this lets essential oils flow from the stems to the leaves.

The room should be about 70-80 degrees and be well ventilated and dust and dirt free. It normally takes about 1 to 2 weeks for the herbs to be completely dry and feel crumbly.

If you need to dry quickly you can use an oven. Place the leaves or seeds on a cookie sheet and cook on low heat (less than 180 degrees F) for about 2 to 4 hours. You can also put them in the microwave for about 3 minutes, mixing them around every 30 seconds so they dry evenly. Once your herbs are properly dried you can store them until use.

Which Herbs for Which Foods

There are so many different types of herbs that it may be hard to know which herbs are good for which foods. There are no set rules for this but some general guidelines are set below.

Basil is good for tomatoes and other vegetables as well as fish, meat, poultry, potatoes, cheese, garlic and summer fruit. Thyme is good on meats as well as soups and stew and vegetable dishes. Nasturtium is a good garnish for salads, entrees and desserts and sage is good on meat and fish dishes. Oregano is best on Italian dishes and dill is good for many things such as chicken, fish, beef, asparagus, beans, beets, carrots, cabbage, corn, cucumbers, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, breads, eggs and cheese. Mint is also often used for flavor in drinks and sauces. A good rule of thumb is to remember that you don’t want the herbs to over power the food, and you don’t want the herb to get lost in the flavor of the dish you are using it in. A more pungent or stronger herb marries well with a more robust meat or food and a more subtle herb goes well with a lighter dish.

Published: August 24, 2005

Written by: Organic Gardening Staff Writer – Copyright Organic-Gardening.net all rights reserved