Jekka's guide to culinary herbs

What are culinary herbs?

How do culinary herbs differ from spices?

Jekka's favourite culinary herbs

Dill (Anethum graveolens)

Dill is from the family Apiaceae. The name Dill is said to have come from the Anglo-Saxon dylle or the Norse dilla, meaning to soothe or lull. This is reflected in its culinary use where it improves the appetite and digestion and is also a calmative. You can use both the seed and leaf in cooking, the only difference is the degree of potency as the seed has a sharper flavour. You can also eat the flower when it is in the green and before it sets seed; the flavour is stronger than the leaves but fresher than the seed. They can be added to pickled gherkins, cucumbers and cauliflower and make wonderful biscuits and breads.

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Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)

Chives are from the family Alliaceae and are one of the most ancient of all herbs being a favourite in China as long ago as 3000 BC; however, they were not cultivated in Europe until the 16th century. They are now considered one of the Fines Herbes of French cuisine. They are delicious freshly picked and snipped and should be added towards the end of the preparation of a meal so that the flavour does not disappear. Chives work well with eggs, fish, potatoes, salads, shellfish, and soups. They can be mixed into soft cheese or sprinkled onto grilled meat. Chives are also an excellent source of beta carotene and Vitamin C.

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Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium)

Chervil is one of our favourite culinary herbs that has recently become less popular but we hope will come back in vogue. It is from the family Apiaceae and produces flat, light-green, lacy leaves with Parsley like flavours with a hint of anise. It is one of the Lenten herbs, thought to have blood-cleansing and restorative properties. As one of the traditional Fines Herbes, it is indispensable in French cuisine and enhances the flavour of chicken, fish, vegetables, eggs, and salads. Add towards the end of cooking to avoid flavour loss. In small quantities it enhances the flavours of other herbs.

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French Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus)

Tarragon is from the family Asteraceae and is one of the top culinary herbs. Its flavour promotes appetite and complements so many dishes; such as chicken, veal, fish, stuffed tomatoes and, of course, it is the main ingredient in sauce bearnaise and the traditional ingredient of Fines Herbes. Its name, Dracunulus, means ‘little dragon’, which could be the result of the shape of its roots or, as we believe, its fiery flavour. For fans of French Tarragon, there is also Winter Tarragon (Tagetes lucida) for you to try.

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Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)

Chamomile is from the family Asteraceae and is found growing wild in Europe, North America and many other countries. The generic name, Chamaemelum, is derived from the Greek khamaimelon, meaning ‘earth apple’ or ‘apple of the earth’. It is most often used as an ingredient in herbal infusions and is widely consumed for settling stomachs and calming the nerves. Chamomile also helps reduce inflammation and treat fevers.

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Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)

Coriander is from the family Apiaceae and has been cultivated for over 3000 years, being found in the tombs of the 21st Egyptian Dynasty (1085 – 945 BC). It is one of the traditional bitter herbs to be eaten at the Passover. The leaves and ripe seeds have two distinct flavours; the seeds are warmly aromatic and the leaves have an earthy pungency. The seeds are frequent ground as a spice and added to curries, tomato chutneys, ratatouille, cakes and biscuits. The leaves are frequently used in Mexican, Chinese, Southeast Asian and Indian cuisines and, in particular, with vegetables and poultry dishes. It is also used as a garnish.

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Lemongrass (Cymbopogon flexuosus))

Lemongrass is from the family Poaceae and records show that it was used as a herbal infusion by the Persians in the first century BC. In the UK we use the stalk in cooking as that is the part that is widely available in this country owing to restriction on importing grasses due to pest and diseases. However, in the areas where it originates, the leaf is more commonly used and we recommend growing and using the leaf if you can. It is commonly used in Thai, Vietnamese and Caribbean cooking where the intense lemon flavour compliments curries, seafoods, garlic and chillies.

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Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

Fennel is from the family Apiaceae and grows wild in Europe and most temperate countries. The ancient Greeks thought highly of Fennel and used it as a slimming aid and for treating more than 20 different illnesses. The Romans ate the leaf, root and seed in salads and baked in breads and cakes. Similar to the Greeks, the Roman ladies ate it to prevent obesity. Today, it has a similar use, and added as a seasoning for fatty meats like pork, and stuffings for poultry and lamb. It is also delicious as a salad or vegetable dressing. To avoid confusion, the Fennel bulb, which is commonly found in supermarkets, is the variety called Florence Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce). It is served grilled or roasted and has a delicious aniseed flavour.

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Bay (Laurus nobilis)

Bay is an evergreen tree native to Southern Europe and from the family Lauraceae. Its botanical name is translated as Laurus meaning ‘praise’ and Nobilis meaning ‘famous’ or ‘renowned’ and reflects the respect given to it by the Romans. A Bay wreath is the symbol of wisdom and glory and the word laureate means to be ‘crown with laurels’, which is the reason behind Poet Laureate. Bay leaves are use in hearty stews and other long-simmering dishes and impart a slightly sharp, peppery, almost bitter taste. Add the whole leaves at the beginning of the cooking process and remember to remove them before serving. Fresh leaves are stronger in flavour than dried ones. Be warned, the priestesses of Apollo, the Greek god of prophecy, ate large doses of Bay as a narcotic before expounding Apollo’s oracles at Delphi; so use in moderation unless you wish to speak to the gods (or be sick).

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Mint (Mentha)

In Jekka’s Herbetum we grow over 40 varieties of Mint from the family Lamiaceae We go into more detail about Mint in ‘Jekka’s Guide to Mint (Mentha)’. Mint has a variety of uses and can be used in sweet or savoury dishes. For example, it is used in vinegars and jellies, in our Mint Fiesta Herbal Infusion, to make a Mint vinaigrette or found in the first edition of our Six O’Clock Gin. In general, Mint is a great digestive and is also calmative and a natural antiseptic. Warning, it is invasive so best grown in a pot.

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Basil (Ocimum basilicum)

Basil is from the family Lamiaceae and is native to India, the middle East and some Pacific Islands. It only came to Western Europe in the 16th Century with the spice trade. Today it is frequently seen in Italian cooking like pizzas, salads, sauces, and pesto. Basil has a unique flavour and should be used with discretion otherwise it will dominate other flavours. It is a unique culinary herb in that its flavour increases upon cooking and therefore, for best results, you should add at the end of cooking. The added advantage of having a pot in the kitchen is that it is a natural fly repellent. Basil has health benefits as an antioxidant and is a defence against low blood sugar. 

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Oregano & Marjoram (Origanum)

Oregano is from the family Lamiaceae and is covered in detail in ‘Jekka’s Guide to Oregano (Origanum)’.  Oregano and Marjoram aid the digestion, acts as an antiseptic and as a preservative. It is used for flavouring and is a staple herb of Italian cuisine although was not commonly used in the UK until the popularity of package holidays established its use on pizzas and in tomato dishes.

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Parsley (Petroselinum)

Parsley is from the family Apiaceae. It is a hardy biennial and suitable to be grown in a container.  It has had a mixed history, the Greeks associated it with Archemorus, the Herald of Death, and decorated their tombs with it. It was the Romans who consumed Parsley in large quantities and today, it is wildly used as a garnishing herb. However, we advocate using it for flavour, it is mildly bitter and enhances the taste of other foods and herbs and is best added at the end of cooking. All Parsleys are a good source of Vitamins A and C, they are also high in iron and contain antiseptic chlorophyll. As an added benefit, Parsley can aid in digestion.

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Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Rosemary is one of our favourite herbs and is described more in ‘Jekka’s Guide to Rosemary (Rosmarinus)’. It is from the family Lamiaceae and is steeped in myth, magic and folklore. It is one of the most useful of culinary herbs combining well with meat, especially lamb, casseroles, tomato sauces, baked fish, rice, salads, egg dishes, apples, summer wine cups, cordials, herbal infusions, vinegars and oils. You can also use the upright varieties as flavourful barbeque sticks.

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Sage (Salvia)

Sage is from the Lamiaceae family and there are over 750 species all over the world. The word Salvia is derived from the Latin Salveo, meaning ‘I save’ or ‘I heal’, because some of the species have been highly regarded medicinally. It was highly valued in the past, the 17th Century Dutch merchants found that the Chinese would trade three chests of China tea for one of Sage leaves. However, today, it is not so widely used, potentially because it has been misused as it has a tendency to overpower a dish. Used with discretion, it adds a lovely flavour, aids digestion of fatty foods and, being antiseptic, it kills off any bugs in the meat as it is cooked. Sage is great for seasoning meats, sauces, and vegetables and has long been used with sausages due to its preservative qualities.

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Winter Savory (Satureja montana)

Currently one of our favourite culinary herbs. Winter Savory is from the family Lamiaceae and has been employed for food flavourings for over 200 years. Romans added it to their sauces and vinegars and brought it to northern Europe as it was also an invaluable disinfectant strewing herb. Winter Savory, as with the other Savorys, stimulate the appetite and aid digestion. The flavour is hot and peppery and compliments fish and poultry with its intense flavour; though it loses some of this intensity during the cooking process. Traditionally served with beans for both its complimentary flavour and the fact that it eases indigestion and flatulence.

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Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana)

Stevia, also known as Sweet Leaf from the family Asteraceae, is native to South and Central America where it has been used for hundreds of years. The extract from the leaf of Stevia, called ‘stevioside’, is 300 times sweeter than sucrose. It is now being widely used as a natural sweetener and a sugar substitute with zero calories. The leaves can be used fresh or dried and have a very, very sweet slightly liquorice flavour. We recommend testing the sweetness prior to adding to recipes.

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Thyme (Thymus)

Thyme is another ‘must-have’ in the kitchen and is described more in ‘Jekka’s Guide to Thyme (Thymus)’. It is from the family Lamiaceae and is a genus that is very diverse in appearance coming from many different parts of the world. It has been used for a long time both for its culinary and medicinal properties. Thyme aids digestion and helps break down fatty foods. It is one of the main ingredients of bouquet garni; it is also good in stocks, marinades and stews. It has strong antiseptic properties and therefore kills harmful bacteria in food.

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Tips for harvesting and cooking with culinary herbs

See our herb-based recipes

Jekkapedia: Culinary Herbs

Whether you are starting out, an avid chef, a plant enthusiast or garden designer our collection is likely to have something to inspire you. We are growing a virtual Herbetum called Jekkapedia enabling you to browse and learn at your leisure.