Here’s the scoop on what we consider the essentials when it comes to herbs, spices, oils, vinegars, and the like – Sure, a recipe will tell you what to use, but you get to decide what essential will mean in your kitchen. I’ll outline what I think is the stuff you really ought to have on hand whenever you need or want them – then you make it yours.
Herbs first – When it comes to this list, fresh counts – A basic herb garden is something every serious cook aughta have, regardless of where you live. An herb garden is a cinch to start and maintain, indoors or out, doesn’t take up much room, and provides you with a gorgeous, year-round palette of flavor.
• Basil – Over 100 varieties of this strongly flavored and scented herb can be found and grown these days. Basil goes beautifully with many dishes, from eggs to pasta. We favor Genovese as our go to for general use and pesto, with Lime, Dwarf, and Thai essential varieties as well. The Thai variety is essential to several South Asian cuisines. Dries well for over-winter use.
• Cilantro – Also known as Chinese Parsley, Dhania, and Coriander in it’s seed form, Cilantro adds an unmistakable light, bright, citrusy punch to many, many dishes. Essential in Mexican, Tex-Mex and Southeast Asian cooking, cilantro works great in salsas, stews, soup, relishes, chutneys and as a basil replacement in pesto.
• Chervil – This annual relative of parsley sports a mild, anise-like flavor profile and works well in salads and as a flavor note for lamb or pork.
• Dill – The sole Anethum representative in the herb ranks, Dill has a potent flavor and scent that marries perfectly with fish, potatoes and egg dishes. Use sparingly, as it is indeed potent! Dill is essential for pickling, in our opinion, and dries well for over-winter use.
• Fenugreek – This herb has been used for millennium as a means of increasing mother’s milk production. In cooking, it finds use as fresh, whole vegetable, and as an herb or spice from the dried or fresh leaves and seeds. Fenugreek has a bitter flavor profile used widely in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines.
• Marjoram – This is another fave of ours that comes from the Mint family. Oft confused with Oregano by appearance, the smell and taste of the two are distinct. Where Oregano is potent and spicy, Marjoram is delicate and subtle. It’s great in marinades for meat or poultry, and fantastic in an omelet or quiche. Dries well for over-winter use.
• Mint – It’s so much more than a foil for bourbon! Mint is, of course, not just one herb; Spear, Pepper, Pineapple, Orange, and Apple mint varieties can be found, grown and used. Spearmint is the ‘Mint’ 90% of folks think of when they use the generic term, and this is appropriate, as it is the root source of all those variants. Spearmint pairs perfectly with lamb, and adds a great note in marinades for other meat, poultry or fish; oh, and you can use it for deserts, too… Take care when you grow it, as it will take over everything, including your house, (Ask me how I know).
• Oregano – Named by Linnaeus, here’s yet another essential mint family relative. There are at least a dozen variants to be found, grown and cooked with, and they all have their own distinct notes. Oregano, strong and earthy is essential to Mexican and Italian cooking. Our favorite varieties are Mexican and Turkish. Dries well for over-winter use.
• Rosemary – Woody and resinous, this herb is essential for Mediterranean cookery. Perfect for marinating meats and poultry, and adds a perfect flavor note to roasted root veggies. Dries well for over-winter use, but super easy to grow and very hearty.
• Sage – Used for centuries as a healing herb, Sage is a fantastic herb with a wide variety of cooking uses. Sage’s savory, peppery flavor is great as a rub or marinade constituent for meat and poultry, goes great in stuffing, and shines in quiches. Widely used in northern Italian cuisine, Sage dries well for over-winter use.
• Savory – Also known as Satureja and Yerba Buena, this herb has numerous members all called ‘Savory,’ with Summer, (Satureja hortensis), and Winter, (Satureja montana), the primary members. These Rosemary and Thyme relatives have a peppery flavor profile that’s similar to thyme. Wonderful as a constituent herb for roasted meats, root vegetables, and stuffing, they’re also great in soups and stews.
• Tarragon – This strongly flavored annual is relates to Wormwood, the long-banned secret weapon powering Absinthe. One of the four essential fines herbes of classic French cooking, Tarragon goes great with chicken, fish and egg dishes.
• Thyme – Another broadly cultivated and derived herb; there are at least a dozen varieties to grow and use. This pungent but subtle herb is a go-to all-purpose seasoning. Lemon, Orange Balsam, and Italian Oregano thymes are all worthy in your pantry and garden.