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What Herbs do I Use in Italian Cooking?

By Sonal Panse
Updated May 17, 2024
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Italian cooking has developed over a very long period of time. Long before the Italians had a country, they had a national cuisine. This cuisine, known and enjoyed the world over for its delicious flavors, owes much of its distinctive character to the generous use of herbs.

Fresh, seasonal herbs are practically the cornerstone of Italian cooking. They are important ingredients in many provincial, regional and national dishes. Particular herbs impart particular flavors, ranging from delicate to pungent and savory to sublime.

In order to get the authentic Mediterranean taste, it is necessary to know which herbs to use in Italian cooking. Most of the required herbs, in fresh or dried form, can be bought at local food markets and stores. They can also be grown in small kitchen gardens.

Some of the main herbs that are used in Italian cooking are basil, marjoram, oregano, thyme, mint, bay leaf, parsley, sage and rosemary. These herbs are eaten fresh with salads, are chopped and crushed for cooking meat and vegetable dishes or are used in soups and marinades. Herbs are also dried and used in seasoning Italian food.

Basil, marjoram, oregano, thyme and mint belong to the mint family. They are used traditionally to add flavor to a variety of tomato sauces, pasta sauces, soups, meats, fish, vegetables and salads. Mint is adds a wonderful flavor to desserts and drinks.

Basil is used with garlic, pine nuts and olive oil in making pesto. The commonly used varieties of basil are Genovese Basil and Sweet Italian Basil. Oregano, also called wild marjoram, complements basil in flavor and is used in pizzas and casseroles. Seafoods are flavored with marjoram.

Both curly leaf and flat leaf varieties of parsley are used, but Italians seem to prefer flat leaf parsley as it is more flavorful. Parsley is used as a salad garnish, is cooked with vegetables, and used to make soup and marinades. It is especially popular when used with red meats.

Sage and rosemary are fragrant herbs and used in meat and vegetable dishes. They are added to the stuffing in chickens, lambs and suckling pigs, and used for salad garnishing. Rosemary gives focaccia bread a memorable flavor. Bay leaves are used in dried form and are used for flavoring casseroles, roasts, marinades and soups. Myrtle gives flavor to roasted meat.

Apart from the benefit of their flavors, these herbs have health-enhancing properties. Their inclusion in Italian cooking makes Italian food tasty as well as healthy. Generally, resh herbs give the best results.

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Discussion Comments
By gravois — On Jan 04, 2012

This is a little off topic, but I used to date a girl whose mom was Italian. She made this absolutely incredible pasta sauce. I could have eaten a bowl of it plain, no pasta.

I asked her one day what gave it is characteristic flavor. It didn't taste like any pasta sauce I'd ever had. She told me that the secret ingredient is vermouth. Who would have thought. You wouldn't normally associate vermouth and tomatoes and garlic but it really works.

By truman12 — On Jan 03, 2012

I will be honest, I am not a great cook. I can boil water and saute vegetables and even bake a decent loaf of bread, but the foods that I make are not delicious. Edible for sure, but never delicious.

One big reason is that I'm not great with using spices. I tend to add too much or too little and frequently forget about the kind of spices I should be using. For instance, whenever I make Italian anything I just add a few healthy shakes of an all purpose Italian seasoning. This is common in most stores and simply a mix of the most common Italian herbs. It makes the food taste Italian but kind of anonymous. If I was better at using the individual herbs and spices I could make something that really stood out.

By tigers88 — On Jan 02, 2012

I think one of the most delicious flavors on the face of the earth is fresh basil. It tastes good with just about everything and there is no way to use too much of it. From pesto sauce to using whole leaves on sandwiches, there is nothing I like more than fresh basil.

There are also so many different kinds. At any given time I am growing four or five kinds indoors. These range from sweeter varieties to spicier kinds with a noticeable touch of heat. They are all definitely basil, but each has its own characteristic. Once you learn to predict the flavors you can better pair the kind of basil you use with the dish you are preparing.

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