Guide To Herbs: A Prelude

NOTE: Last week on Food Republic, we started things off with a guide to cuts of beef. This is a food site for men, so of course this made sense. That said, gentlemen, we know that you all are masters of nuance (or at least aspire to be), so we're taking a greener turn for the second Food Republic Guide, showing you how to employ fresh and dried herbs to make whatever dish you're making reach its flavor potential.

Over the next two weeks, we'll be hitting you daily with a Guide To Herbs that will break down favorites like basil and rosemary, plus surprisingly useful also-rans like parsley and sage. There'll be recipes, how-to's, and at the end we'll have a big herbal party! (Well, maybe not.)

Until tomorrow and our (spoiler alert!) Guide to Parsley, here's a quick primer on the difference between herbs and spices, and the difference between fresh and dried herbs.

If you're not using herbs and spices in your cooking, some would say you're really not cooking. If you're not using herbs and spices in your cooking because you're unsure of how and when to use them, then you've come to the right place.

Herbs? Spices? What's the difference? Here's an easy way to tell: if you can grow it a window box or your backyard, it's an herb. If plane travel to Jamaica or India is involved to procure it at its source, it's a spice.

Today, we focus on herbs.

Herbs come in two classes: fresh and dried. In almost every case, fresh trumps dried. Fresh herb flavor is more pronounced and aromatic. Dry herbs have what may be described as a "flat" flavor, but they have their uses too.

Dry herbs have several benefits not offered by their fresh brothers. First, they cost a lot less. Second, they are waiting for you in the cupboard. A word of warning: herbs can last a long time, but not forever. There is no precise time limit, but one to three years is about all you can ask from a dried herb before it loses its potency. The rule of thumb is if they've lost their color, it's time to toss the old and get new dried herbs.

Dry herbs should be kept in a cool, dark place free from humidity. Storing them over the dishwasher or coffee maker is not a good idea. Air-tight jars or plastic containers work great.

Most fresh herbs, on the other hand, should be kept in the refrigerator, with the notable exception of basil. It is best to wrap herbs in a damp paper towel (avoid dish towels, as they can infuse a soapy, "off" aroma) and keep them in the vegetable drawer. Re-dampen as necessary. Depending on the herb, they will remain fresh for a week, maybe more if you're lucky.

To gain the maximum aromatic punch and the undeniable "fresh" quality from fresh herbs, they should be added in most cases toward the end of the cooking process. Dry herbs can be added earlier.