Edible herbs are such a mouthful—in more ways than one. While most of today’s gardeners are dazzled by the fashionable glitziness of flowers or the full-bellied functionality of a thriving vegetable garden, I am in another camp altogether. Don’t get me wrong, I grow a copious amount of flowers—particularly dahlias—and have an extensive vegetable garden, my first love are the herbs.
Lush foliage, deep greens married with delicious scents and flavors is a combination I just ache for. Herbs are rather easy plants to grow. Have a plethora of uses—even beyond the kitchen. And are just so dang gorgeous. Seriously, I don’t understand why herbs, particularly edible herbs are overlooked so often in the garden.
12 Common Edible Herbs
I fell my calling is to remedy this. While I am working on an extensive edible herb book (shameless moment of future self promotion), it won’t be ready anytime soon if the snails-rate I’m moving as a new mama is any indication. I simply have to share some of my favorite herbs that have been staples in my garden and kitchen cabinets for the past 20 years.
To ease y’all into the glory of edible herbs I’m going to highlight the most common ones I cannot do without. And why you should be growing these too! More growing details on these to come in my Herb 101 growing series later this year. (That’s my super subtle hint for you to check back regularly. Wink-wink!)
An oldie, but goodie, basil has so much to offer beyond bruschetta. You can grow this herb for use in salads, egg dishes, marinades, sauce, pesto, breads or anything Italian. When using basil in cooked dishes, add it at the end to keep the flavor fresh, as high heats can diminish the flavor. Dried basil holds its flavor better at high temperatures.
And basil is amazing easy to preserve and store! While you can dry or freeze your excess basil, freezing does hold its fresh taste better. I personally find it best to puree in oil—or even prepare a full pesto—then freeze in silicone trays. Pop out your basil cubes and store in freezer bags. You can even infuse your fresh leaves in oil and vinegar. And don’t get me started on basil as a flower. Those pale lavender flower spikes are real floral showstoppers. I especially love when friends and visitors ask about those gorgeous flowers I have on my dinning room table. Basil is really such a versatile herb.
For more details on growing this standout edible herb, check out my post, How to Grow Basil like a Boss!
No, I am not talking about actual celery. Celery leaf herb is a different animal. Resembling more a flat leafed parsley, rather than the celery bunches you see at the grocery store. These leaves and stalks are more tender, and taste so fresh! I prefer to use the tops of the celery leaf anytime I’m brewing broths and soups. The flavor is just brilliant! Add them to salads, or try mashed potatoes. It will change your world.
The leaves and stems dry well, so it’s super easy to preserve and crumble on anything you want to complement with a kick. Think salads, stews, egg anything and roasts. Also, if you’re a neglectful gardener and find your plants going to seed. Collect them, divide into mason jars and give them to your favorite home-chef friends. This seed can immediately infuse any dish with the fresh celery flavor in a snap. You will be very popular come holiday-time, I promise.
The chive is everywhere in the garden but rarely seen at the dinner table. I don’t know why this paradox exists, but it does. All parts are edible, the long, drinking straw-like leaves and their thistle looking flowers. Tasting of subtle onion, chives pair well with seafood, pork, rice, most vegetables and complements many salads, soups and breads.
Alternatively you can make an enticing chive flower vinegar that elevates any salad. Really impress your dinner guests by whiping up some delectable chive butter or drizzling chive oil as a bread dipping sauce. While I have dried and dehydrated my chives, frozen chives taste most fresh. And don’t forget garlic chives. Imagine the chive flavor … now add a oomph of garlic! Seriously, I do not need to say more.
Cilantro and Coriander
Cilantro is very polarizing in the garden and foodie crowd. People either love it or hate it. I’m in the love it camp. Summer salsa would not be the same without this spicy herb. But it can be used in so many more dishes. Consider giving your rice a cilantro boost or seasoning your latest stir-fry with this herb. Its magic! In addition to the typical topping of chili and other Mexican fare, infuse your dressings and marinades, add it to a pasta salad for some extra zest and don’t get me started on the chutneys you can create. To get that fresh salsa taste mid-winter, puree any leftover cilantro with oil and freeze the same way you would basil.
Now, here comes the kicker, when your cilantro plants go to seed, their seeds are actually coriander.
With it warm and spicy flavor, it only echos that of cilantro. Toast your seeds top bring out a more sweet, earthy, floral bouquet. Then grind. Save the seed whole, then use a mortar and pestle to grind when needed. Waiting to mash into a powder will allow your spice to hold its potency longer. Coriander is a common ingredient in spice rubs, chilies, curries and most latin and Indian dishes.
Dill is wasted as a garnish in my humble opinion. Fresh feathery dill from your garden will blow your mind. With its anise-licorice like flavor dill leaves balance many spring and summer plates. As a newly minted Mainer (you don’t get the full title till your 3 generations in) I’ve learned the value of freshly harvested dill in seafood. Spectacular! Dill goes particularly well with potatoes and cucumbers, so any summer salads or soups involving those will be a hit. Yogurt takes the flavor well too, making it finally possible to perfect that greek tzatziki you’ve dying to prepare.
The huge yellow umbel flowers brighten up any room in the house, and then there’s the seed.
As a huge fan of dill pickles, I horde my dill seed heads for pickle making, but they are tasty in other brines such as carrots or beets as well. They combine nicely with root vegetables, hearty eggplant and in braised dishes. Toss a couple seeds on top of your latest bread making endeavor, or make a cottage cheese dill bread for cheesy, melty pockets of delicious dill flavor.
Celery on steroids. That is how I describe lovage. This amazing, large, herb goes a long way in the kitchen. As a heavy celery user I often can’t grow enough, so I substitute lovage. I love it because of its bright snappy flavor, ease of growing and its a perennial!
You can use everything—the stalks, leaves, and seeds—to impart its brilliant celery flavor to any dish. Chop up for salads, soups or stews. Lovage is also particularly yummy in pork, poultry or potato dishes. Store dried leaves and stalks for winter flavoring. And to really blow all your friends minds, harvest the hollow stems and use as a celery straws for Bloody Mary’s at your next brunch!
Mint is an escape artist in the garden, but beloved in the kitchen! Prevent mint from running amuck in your garden by planting in 1-2 gallon nursery pots. Sink the entire pot into the ground, harvest regularly and you’ll keep the mint contained. Traditionally mint has been used for lamb, poultry, pastas, and many mixed drinks, especially mojitos and mint juleps.
I use mint for flavored waters, teas and a homemade lemon-mint granita (similar to a shaved ice). Just another reason every garden should include some edible herbs. Don’t forget that your mint stems make gorgeous, minty-scented flower foliage. Favorite culinary—and floral—varieties from my garden include apple mint, chocolate mint, pineapple mint, orange mint, peppermint, basil mint (cause you know I love my basil flavors), and Kentucky colonel spearmint.
I freeze washed leaves whole, then bust them out as needed. There are so many varieties that they’ll give your drinks and kitchen table a refreshing pop.
Oregano & Marjoram
Although they look similar, oregano and marjoram differ in flavor. Oregano is pungent and zesty, while marjoram has lighter, more floral undertones. Marjoram can be substituted for oregano in a pinch, but oregano with its stronger flavor holds up better in longer cook times. Oregano is my go-to herb for anything Italian.
In season I use fresh chopped leaves, and dried crumbled leaves during the cold months. Generously drop into salads, sauces, vegetable mixes and meat marinades to add that robust, spicy to your dishes. Stick with ‘Greek’ oregano for culinary uses, it has the finest flavor by far. Oregano and marjoram can dried, dehydrated or frozen for year round seasoning. A final perk, their delicate purple and lavender flowers attract pollinating bees, butterflies and birds! Now aren’t you impressed with these edible herbs?
I’ve tried many varieties, however I keep coming back to ‘Giant of Italy’ as my preferred culinary parsley. Huge leaves packed with excellent flavor make this a winner in the kitchen. Stick to the flat-leaf varieties since the curly types impart more window dressing for your dinner plates than actual flavor.
Although billed as a biennial, parsley should be grown and handled as an annual if your objective is culinary-related. Parsley is a good addition to almost any meal, fresh or cooked. Pasta, stews, soups, roasts, fish, poultry, stuffings, vegetable mixes, butters and vinegars are all especially good companions for this herb. Hang on to that fresh flavor beyond the growing season by drying, dehydrating or freezing your leftover parsley. You can even preserve the excess as butter blends or in vinigarettes.
Rosemary, my old friend. As a home cook who uses rosemary all year long, it’s an important herb to include. Don’t buy seed if you plan to grow rosemary for the kitchen. The plants won’t be true to seed, meaning they don’t maintain the desired characteristics, particularly flavor. Grow seedlings and plants started from cuttings, these are essentially clones of the parent plant. Also, you want to grow the upright, shrub species. While the trailing prostrate rosemarys look gorgeous cascading from window boxes and planters, the taste may not live up to expectations.
Starting with a purchased rosemary from a reputable nursery ensures you get the exact, tasty flavor you’re looking for. Tuscan Blue, Arp, Gorizia and Spice Island are four of my favorite rosemary varieties to cook with in the kitchen. Gorizia probably tops my list because each stem is laden with so many thick, aromatic leaves with a delightfully sharp rosemary taste. I air dry mine in bundles, then strip the stems bare. Store the leaves whole in canning jars, keeping them out of light. Grind and chop just before use for the freshest rosemary flavor.
Cooking with rosemary is such a treat. As a seasoning it can enrich almost dish. Rosemary a versatile in meat and vegetable recipes including steak, poultry, lamb and pork. I especially enjoy the taste with roasted potatoes and other root vegetables. And don’t get me started on how good chopped rosemary is in freshly baked bread. Use rosemary in moderation. Due to its strong taste and concentrated flavor,—especially when dry, it’s important to sample as you cook. Avoid long cook times as rosemary will continue releasing oils and flavors, which can overwhelm your palette, even becoming bitter.
I have no idea why French tarragon isn’t a more sought after herb. It is simply fabulous! Like rosemary, tarragon must be started from cuttings for flavor. When looking to enrich your kitchen with tarragon, you want French Tarragon. This is a significant point. Russian tarragon (which is available as seed) tastes like cardboard. No kidding. However, one of the many benefits of purchasing French Tarragon is, its perennial! Once you a plant in the garden, it will continue to supply you for years to come. I divide mine every 3 years to renew the plant and sustain its delightful flavor.
Blending well with acidic flavors such as lemon and vinegar, French tarragon enhances salads, soups, dressings and marinades. Every couple weeks I harvest several stems and steep them in a high quality white vine vinegar and use it to make the most delicious tarragon-potato salad. Also pairing well with eggs, tarragon goes very well in quiches, omelets and frittatas. Two words: béarnaise sauce. Fresh tarragon leaves can be used in your own fine herbes blend, sprinkled over salads or used as a garnish. Your choices with tarragon are endless!
While I do dry tarragon, I recently discovered freezing stems whole makes for freshly-picked flavor. Simply wash, allow the stems and leaves to dry completely, then pop into a freezer bag and forget about it till you need some tarragon. It crumbles nicely into any dish you can dream up, transporting you to summer in garden with its airy tarragon aroma.
So many varieties, so little thyme. While there are dozens of thyme varieties that look gorgeous in the garden and radiate delicious scents, most of them do not taste good in food. The best thyme varieties for flavor are: French, English and Lemon thyme. Sometimes German thyme is lumped in this group as well. All are low, shrubby growers. French thyme has narrow, blue-green leaves that are top-shelf when it comes to flavor. The english variety is more vibrantly green with rounded leaves. English thyme is a good substitute when I’ve run out of the French variety in the kitchen. Use thyme to flavor everything from poultry and eggs to cheese and tomatoes. I make a mean thyme-tomato soup come winter. Lemon thyme is best paired with seafood, poultry, mixed vegetables and stuffings. With its variegated coloring, it makes a gorgeous garnish.
Another perennial, thyme will keep your kitchen regularly stocked. Remember that the flavors will be highest right before flowering. Harvest then! Once thyme begins to flower, let it finish. Cut back heavily and be rewarded with a second—or third flush. My preferred preservation method is drying or dehydrating based on taste. Dried thyme also makes a great gift for garden-loving or your home-cook friends around the holidays.
All these edible herbs! I haven’t even scratched the surface of what you can grow in your garden to cook in your kitchen. Check back later in the season for the next installment of Edible Herbs: Part II!