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What Herbs Should I Keep on Hand?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 17, 2024
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Many home cooks like to keep a supply of fresh or dried herbs on hand to accentuate the flavor of popular meat and vegetable dishes. Some grow them fresh in a small garden or in flowerpots on a kitchen window sill, while others buy them from the grocery store. But which herbs are considered essential and which are considered unnecessary?

Four of the most essential herbs are mentioned in the English ballad Scarborough Fair: parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Parsley is one of the easiest plants to grow in an herb garden and provides a mint-like freshness when added to casseroles, meats and vegetable dishes. Sage is a popular flavoring in sausage production, as well as in savory blends for poultry and meat. Rosemary is easy to grow in small pots, and its branches can be used as natural basting brushes. Thyme is an ancient plant used to create savory sauces for meat dishes such as lamb and turkey.

Other essential herbs are usually found in Italian cuisine, so it pays to keep both fresh and dried versions on hand for quick spaghetti dinners. Oregano is a very popular choice for Italian cooking, and is fairly easy to grow. Dried oregano is also a popular additive to commercial spaghetti sauces, and a generous sprinkling should improve the flavor of frozen pizzas.

Basil is another popular herb found in Italian cuisine. While oregano leans towards the savory and peppery side, basil leans more towards the sweet. Fresh basil leaves should be chopped just before adding them to a recipe for maximum flavor. Dried basil can be used as part of a spice rub for pork, chicken, fish or beef. It is also part of the blend known generically as Italian seasoning.

There are other herbs that should be kept on hand for ethnic cooking. Many cooks enjoy the complex flavors provided by cilantro. Cilantro provides the seasoning for authentic Mexican-style salsa and pico de gallo. Fresh cilantro is often sold in the same produce section as parsley, and the two resemble each other, so it pays to read the labels carefully.

Some other things to consider keeping on hand are lemongrass, chives, marjoram and garlic. Asian cuisine often calls for other spices and herbs, so cooks can find a local Asian grocery store or well-stocked gourmet grocery store to make sure they are in season or available in dried form.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By StarJo — On Sep 02, 2012

@lighth0se33 – I also love herbes de Provence. However, I usually leave the sage out of mine.

I can't help but associate sage with sausage. So, anything I eat that has sage on it tastes like sausage. I don't want other meats to have this flavor, so I never cook with sage.

By kylee07drg — On Sep 01, 2012

Chamomile is one of the best natural herb treatments for menstrual pain. My neighbor grows it in her yard, and she lets me have some of it to make tea.

The tea isn't sweet unless I add honey to it, which I usually do in order to improve the flavor. There is no way to describe the flavor of chamomile, except to say that it tastes exactly like it smells.

Hot chamomile tea relaxes my body so that I don't have such intense menstrual cramps. Any woman who suffers from them should consider keeping chamomile on hand.

By lighth0se33 — On Aug 31, 2012

Herbes de Provence is at the top of my favorite herbs list. It's actually a mixture of several standard herbs, but the combination is magical.

I use it on chicken, baked potatoes, and rice. My first bottle of it came with a spice rack that my sister bought me as a wedding gift, and I was unable to find a replacement for the herbs once I ran out.

However, the lid on the bottle told me what was in it. It contains rosemary, sage, thyme, marjoram, basil, and oregano. So, I can make my own out of other herbs that I already have on hand.

By DylanB — On Aug 30, 2012

Fresh parsley tastes entirely different than dried parsley. I had been eating the dried version for years, and when I tried it fresh, I didn't even recognize it.

It is much more potent. I can't say that I like it better, though. I think I prefer the subtlety of the dried parsley, because I can sprinkle a normal amount on something without the flavor taking over the entire meal.

By serenesurface — On Mar 08, 2011

I make mint tea with fresh mint. It's unlike any tea I've had before and definitely much tastier than the tea bags in the grocery store. You just need 2-3 mint leaves. Actually, you can make tea with some kinds of dry oregano and thyme also. It's especially good when you have a cold. You can have it with a slice of lemon and honey.

I also like fresh parsley. I've noticed that fresh parsley goes really well with cheese. If I'm short on time and need to make a snack, I make a filling with feta or mozzarella cheese and fill it inside of those frozen pastries or croissants. Parsley is good on pizzas and in chicken noodle soup too. But watch out that you don't grab cilantro instead of parsley in the store. I did that once and the result was not so tasty. They look very similar but parsley has smaller leaves. Italian parsley is easy to differentiate because it's small and curly unlike cilantro that has large and flat leaves.

By fify — On Mar 05, 2011

Two herbs that I cannot cook without are oregano and mint. I use dried versions most of the time but I often buy them fresh and dry them myself. The store brands are usually not fresh and don't taste as good. The dried mint I'm using now, I bought from a farmer's market near my house. I laid the leaves out on a newspaper in the sun and it dried in a couple of days. All you have to do after that is smash it with your hands into tiny pieces and put it in a spice container.

I use lots of mint when I make lentil soup and also for stuffed peppers. Oregano, I use in all of my meat and chicken dishes, it adds flavor to the meat instantly. One of my favorite snacks is plain yogurt with dry oregano and wheat crackers.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
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