Sometimes when you’re reading over a recipe, it’ll call for dried seasoning or fresh herbs, but is there really a difference? Are they fully interchangeable? You may be surprised at how much of a difference two versions of the same ingredient can be. At the same time, they can be used as alternatives to each other, but it’s not necessarily a one-to-one switch. Understanding the differences between fresh and dry herbs and how to use them will help you have a better outcome with your cooking while taking full advantage of the deliciousness each can give you.
Fresh herbs are a great way to add flavor and freshness to whatever you’re cooking. Whether it’s a workhorse like basil or a more specialized herb like cilantro, there are a variety of herbs for a variety of jobs. Fresh herbs also tend to have a “brighter” and more subtle flavor than their dried counterparts. This is due to essential oils and freshness of the herbs. They also tend to be soft when fresh, giving them a more pleasant mouthfeel initially than dried herbs.
Fresh herbs also tend to have a “brighter” and more subtle flavor than their dried counterparts.
When you’re using fresh herbs, there’s a few important things to remember. First and most importantly, fresh herbs are more delicate and can lose some of their flavor pretty easily. This impacts both the preparation and the cooking of fresh herbs. For example, when you’re cutting fresh herbs, make sure your knife is very sharp since a dull knife will actually crush the herb — effectively pushing the essential oils and bruising the leaves.
By the same token, fresh herbs don’t do well when cooked for long periods of time at high heat, as they lose much of their flavor in the process. Instead, you’ll want to add fresh herbs later in the cooking process, and use a gentler cooking method or a lower heat. You can even use fresh herbs as an uncooked garnish when serving to get the most impact out of them. That said, the subtlety and the freshness that pairs with the innate flash from the herbs makes them a reliable resource to lean on in the kitchen.
Since dried herbs are found in the spices aisle and can be bought in big containers (often for half the price for an equivalent amount of fresh herbs) does this mean they are a weaker, or worse version of fresh? Is fresh always better? Not necessarily. In fact, there are situations where dried herbs may be preferable to fresh ones. First, there’s the obvious — dried herbs last longer than fresh ones. Drying herbs is a perseveration method, elongating the shelf-life of the herbs to about a year (though some can last as long as three years), compared to two to three weeks for fresh herbs.
They also tend to have a more condensed flavor, meaning a tablespoon of dried basil will taste more strongly of basil than a tablespoon of fresh basil. For this reason, if you’re substituting fresh herbs for dry versions, you likely only need a third of the dried for a similar result (to swap out a tablespoon of an herb, you need a teaspoon of the dried version). Dried herbs also have less of the oils that give fresh herbs that bright herbaceousness, which can make dried herbs taste a bit flatter or even drier.
To get the most out of dried herbs, you need to cook them for a longer period of time.
Besides flavor, dried herbs are also used differently in cooking. Specifically, to get the most out of dried herbs, you need to cook them for a longer period of time. Essentially, the cooking process helps the herbs release the flavors and what oils there are over time. This can take a bit longer than fresh herbs, which tend to be moister and have more oils. That said, dried herbs are able to withstand a greater degree of cooking and heat than fresh herbs, making them great for dishes that cook for longer periods of time.
OK, so you’re making dinner, and you’re unsure about whether to use fresh or dried herbs. How can you tell? It largely depends on flavor and time to cook. For flavor, ask yourself — is the fresh flavor important or are the flavors of the herb taking center stage? Think pesto as an example of both. In that case, fresh is probably the way to go. If the herb’s spicier qualities are being used to color another primary ingredient, dry will usually be fine.
A good rule of thumb is if you’re cooking the herb at a high heat for more than 15 minutes, go with dried.
When it comes to the time you’ll be cooking a dish, a good rule of thumb is if you’re cooking the herb at a high heat for more than 15 minutes, you might as well go with dried. Why? After that, most of the oils cook out of the herbs. This leaves the herbs still imparting their flavor, but they lack the aspects that differentiate them from dried herbs, meaning you don’t need to pay extra for fresh herbs.
● ● ●
Herbs are an important component to cooking and give depth and new elements to your dishes in many ways. When you consider that dried herbs tend to be cheaper and store longer than fresh, it makes them a better go-to for day-to-day cooking. Alternatively, fresh herbs are great to pick up when they’re called for in a recipe, or if you want to show off and add a bit of flair to your dish. And if you have your own herb garden where you can regularly pick fresh herbs, all the better! Ultimately, it’s your preference and comfort with cooking that will decide what you use. Whatever you go with, we’re sure it’ll taste fantastic!