More than 70 different herbs have been identified and categorized according to their cooking, aromatic, ornamental or medicinal use. Botanists define an herb as any plant that produces seeds but does not form a wood stem; however, herbs can also be defined as any part of a plant that can be used for medicinal, cooking or spiritual purposes. Many herbs are listed in more than one category.
Here is a review of the different types of herbs:
- Cooking herbs – Parsley and sage are among the most popular culinary herbs, but other common herbs for cooking include chives, thyme, savory, marjoram, oregano, mint and basil.
- Aromatic herbs – Common aromatic herbs include mint, marjoram, lavender, rosemary and basil. These herbs can be dried and used intact, or their oils can be extracted to produce perfumes or other scented products.
- Ornamental herbs – Thyme, mint, lavender, rosemary and chives are often used for decoration in gardens because of their flowers and/or foliage.
- Medicinal herbs – Herbs like chamomile, feverfew, milk thistle and St. John’s Wort should be used carefully. Although some may have healing properties, others can be harmful. The Food and Drug Administration has no control over these substances, so their content can be adulterated or include something other than what is listed on the bottle. Since there is no control of the potency of the herb, dosages may be incorrect.
History of some popular herbs:
- Basil originated in India and Iran. People from Greece and Egypt once thought that if a leaf of basil was buried with them, it would be their passport to heaven.
- Marco Polo is credited with bringing chives to Europe from China. It was once believed that hanging bunches of dried chives around the house could ward off disease.
- Coriander and cilantro are basically the same herb. We call the leaves cilantro and the seeds coriander. Coriander was one of the first herbs grown by the colonists in America.
- Hippocrates, an ancient Greek physician, usedoregano both as an antiseptic and to treat breathing and stomach problems.
- In ancient times, wreaths of marjoram crowned the heads of newlyweds to symbolize love, honor and happiness.
Cooking with herbs
Adding herbs and spices to a dish can add flavor while reducing salt and fat. Grocery stores carry an endless array of herbs and spices, including low-sodium mixtures like Mrs. DashTM.
In a recipe, you will use more of a fresh herb than a dried herb since the flavor is less concentrated. Generally, for each teaspoon of dried herb you will substitute 3 teaspoons of fresh herb. For a dish that serves four, start with 1/4 teaspoon of each dried herb or 3/4 teaspoon of each fresh herb and then adjust according to your taste.
Herb gardens were once an essential part of the American home, but this practice faded with the introduction of the modern grocery store. However, in recent years, herb gardens have regained popularity and growers enjoy the fresh herbs in cooking or just for their pleasant appearance and scent. If you are thinking about starting an herb garden, some popular choices that will provide a wide range of flavors include:
- Rosemary, oregano and sage – some of the most flavorful herbs
- Basil, dill, mint, thyme and tarragon – best when used as an accent
- Chives and parsley – good for blending with other food