Posted by Eric Troy on 28 Mar 2014 20:22
Recently I came across an article entitled Top 10 Common Errors Made in Cooking1 by an outfit called ListVerse.com, which publishes nothing but list articles.
The article made a lot of the usual absolute statements about practices that would "ruin your food," such as overcrowding the pan (depends on what you're cooking) and all nonstick cookware is crap (depends on the use and the quality).
Plus, some other tried and true recommendations were given, such as use sharp knives and don't under-salt. I had no big problems with any of this, except for number three on the list, which was a warning against using dried herbs, stating that "Dried herbs have no place in the kitchen. They have little (if any) of the flavor of the herb they are meant to represent. If you cook with dried herbs, you cook with no flavor."
If this had been an isolated statement, I would have ignored it, but it reminded me of this general perception that "dried herbs are bad" and "fresh herbs are good." Before I even start, you can quite frequently dismiss cooking claims claiming that one thing is always and absolutely bad, and another thing is always, absolutely good. See, it is true that some herbs lose a lot, if not all of their flavor when dried. But those are types of herbs that we don't use dried very often.
The flavor in herbs doesn't come from water, which is mostly what is lost in the drying process. They come from aromatic oils and other flavor compounds. Depending on the plant, some of the oils might be lost in the drying process along with the water because they evaporate right along with the water. They can also react to light, or oxygen, or moisture in the air. Some herbs just don't stand up to drying very well at all, and will end up tasting like dried grass, if not worse. Others, like most members of the mint family (although not all), including the oregano, thyme, and rosemary we often use, stand up to drying very well. Other herbs that dry well are bay and sage.
It is generally reported that chives, basil, parsley, tarragon, cilantro, and chervil, all herbs with softer leaves, don't dry well. However, I've used all of these in the past, with some success, except for parsley, which tends to have almost no flavor when dried. It is true that dried parsley is mightily frowned upon by most chefs, especially since it is the most widely available fresh herb there is, at all times of the year. Although the other herbs tend to taste less like their fresh version, they can sometimes be used to give very good flavor, and I've found dried tarragon, which shows up on many lists of herbs not good for drying, to have a strong flavor which needs to be used sparingly.
Herbs that have thick leaves and stems (with a lot of water), generally are more difficult to dry, especially since the long drying process can encourage mold-growth. Drying herbs is really a balance between drying them out fast enough so that they don't just sit there and rot, but at the same time not drying them so fast (meaning lots of heat and/or light) that they lose a lot of their flavor.
It is true that many herbs that do not retain good flavor after drying are still commonly sold as dried. Of course, there are different methods of drying, and some of these cause an herb to lose more flavor than others. Basically, the more gentle the drying process, the less flavor lost. Sun drying is probably worse than shade-drying, not only because of the heat but because the light, including ultraviolet light, can greatly affect the flavor. Oven drying is much too harsh, of course. Today, we have technology to help, and a freeze-drying process can preserve much more flavor than traditional methods. Also, an electric dehydrator can produce good results at home.
The reality of drying, however, is that it is not a perfect process that preserves every single flavor characteristic as it is found in the fresh plant. Some flavors will be lost. But, the loss of most of the water will cause those flavors which remain to be concentrated! This means that the dried herb might taste somewhat different than its fresh counterpart, but the resultant flavor is much stronger. This is why I reacted so strongly to the statement in the article saying "cooking with dried herbs is cooking with no flavor." It is a patently ridiculous statement and could only be made by someone repeating something they'd heard uttered by a similarly ill-informed person who had never actually done much cooking. Dried herbs are packed with flavor, just not the same flavor. You need to use less of them in your cooking for that very reason, up to two-thirds or three-quarters less.
Such a statement as the one made in the article I mentioned, made with such certainty, could cause a cook to use fresh herbs for a written recipe that calls for dried herbs, thinking the recipe author was mistaken in his or her use of the dried version. While this may sometimes be the case, often, recipes call for dried herbs for specific reasons. If a recipe tells you to add a dried herb at the beginning, but you substitute, say, 3 times as much of the fresh herb, thinking this will give superior results, you may end up killing any flavor the herb would have imparted. On the other hand, if you are clever enough to add the fresh herbs at the end, the recipe still may not have the flavor that was indented.
Can we say that fresh herbs taste better than dried? Yes. Absolutely, I'd go along with that statement. I would also agree that whenever possible, the use of fresh herbs is going to make your food better. But, it is not just the initial flavor of an ingredient that determines the taste of our dish, but the properties it has in cooking. One problem with fresh herbs is that they do not stand up well to long cooking processes. You may have heard, for instance, that when using fresh herbs, you should add some at the beginning and end of a preparation that requires a longer cooking time. This is because the flavor from fresh herbs is extracted quickly, and as the cooking process continues, you can lose some of this flavor, or have it altered by the cooking process itself. Putting basil in a pasta sauce and stewing it for hours may not deliver the basil flavor you expected. Also, if you cook fresh herbs too long, all their color will be lost.
Dried Bay Leaves
Dried Bay Leaves
This is why you often see fresh basil being added at the last minute, if not being used as a topping to be broken down by the eater (fresh basil tastes great and does not benefit from prolonged cooking). Sometimes, leaving the herb as whole as possible, instead of chopping it finely, may help. But if the cooking process is long enough, and if there is not a way to effectively use fresh herbs to render more fresh herb flavor toward the end of the cooking time, dried herbs may be superior. Dried herbs stand up to longer cooking times and take longer for the flavors to be extracted. Generally, you want to add dried herbs at the beginning of cooking, to give time for the flavors to be extracted. On the other hand, you're usually better off adding fresh herbs towards the end.
A good example of a cooking method where dried herbs, along with spices, will be superior, and preferred, is in a dry rub for meats that will be slow-cooked, for example, in a smoker. This is why it is called a dry-rub. For example, you can use a mixture of so-called Herbes de Provence to make a dried-herb rub for general use on meats, fish, or to season stews. Include herbs such as marjoram, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, oregano, mint, chervil, bay, or savory. Dried herbs are also used often in compound butters or marinades. Cajun cooking, some of the most well-loved food in America, uses a lot of dried herbs.
See also Six Major Cajun Cooking Misconceptions.
Of course, since dried herbs work well to impart flavor during long cooking processes and fresh herbs are great for a fresh burst of flavor toward the end, the obvious question is: Why not use both! Good question, I'm glad you asked it! You can use dried herbs at the beginning of cooking, and then add the same fresh herb towards the end, or at the last minute. This is a routine method used by many chefs, who would have laughed at the "dried herbs are bad" statement, just as I did in the scenario above.
Where a recipe calls for a dried herb to be added at the beginning of cooking, you would probably do well, if you wanted to accentuate the flavor and aroma of this herb in the dish, to go ahead and add some fresh at the end, even though the recipe doesn't call for it. Cooking is a creative process, so use your judgement, and most of all, your taste buds. The fact that cooking is a creative process should disabuse you from accepting any rules that condemn certain ingredients over others. Dried herbs will generally do well in stewed dishes such as pasta sauce, chili, soups, or stews, and it is not always necessary to use fresh herbs at the end.
See related article: Difference Between Seasonings and Flavorings.
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