What are culinary herbs?
Herbs provide a feast for the senses and, as Jekka recently said, 'they are the high notes in the orchestra as the conductor makes the music swirl around the auditorium'. Culinary herbs are plants that can be used either fresh or dried to add flavour and seasoning to food. Today, they are distinguished from vegetables in that they are used in small amounts and provide flavour, rather than substance, to a meal. However, in the past, vegetables were herbs. The word vegetable, meaning a plant grown for food, was not derived until the 17th century. Previously edible plants were all known as 'Pot Herbs,' referring to the cooking pot over the open fire not, as commonly believed, that they are grown in a pot; for example, Pot Marigold and Pot Marjoram, thereby indicating the historical use of these two plants. It was only after plants started to be cultivated for both flavour and size that the term vegetable was developed, creating a new category of plants.
What is a herb, in the general sense, is often debated among both home gardeners and professional horticulturists; we tackle this subject in Jekka's blog "Jekka's tips for understanding herbs" and focus below on their culinary properties.
How do culinary herbs differ from spices?
Spices are parts of the plant, often of tropical origin, that are frequently dried. They are primarily used for flavouring, colouring or preserving food. Spices can be obtained from the root, stem, bulb, bark or seed. For example, Cinnamon comes from the bark of several tree species and Ginger comes from the underground rhizome of a plant. Spices can also be derived from plants more commonly known as herbs; for instance, Coriander seed is often referred to as a spice. Some commentators consider herbs to be just the leafy and green part of the plant, such as the leaves, flowers, or stems but this is not universally accepted.
Therefore, herbs are very versatile and can be considered a spice, vegetable or simply a culinary herb. For example, a plant such as Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare , is a herb where as Foeniculum vulgare ‘Florence’ may be viewed as a vegetable with its enlarged, flattened stem bases that form a bulbous structure that is eaten as a vegetable. At Jekka's, to save debate and get on with using them to flavour and aid digestion , we just call them herbs.
Jekka's favourite culinary herbs
Tips for harvesting and cooking with culinary herbs
- Know which parts of the herb are edible. Jekka’s tip is that if the leaf is edible then the flowers are likely to be edible but it always best to check with an expert.
- If you are serving edible flowers, make sure you know which bit is edible, sometimes it is only the petals.
- For best flavour and colour, harvest before the herb bolts and goes to flower.
- Cut herbs in the early morning when moisture and fragrance are at their peak, and try to harvest only what you will use that day.
- Jekka advises that when cooking with fresh herbs you should use three times the amount if the recipe calls for dried herbs.