Fresh Herbs 101: Tips and Recipes from Dreena Burton

Pizza with pesto; photo courtesy of Dreena Burton

Pizza with pesto; photo courtesy of Dreena Burton

Start using fresh herbs in your cooking and you’ll wonder why you didn’t start sooner! Still, ranging from fragrant leafy bunches to needly, woody stalks, fresh herbs can be mysterious and even intimidating for home cooks. Let’s get to the basics of fresh herbs – varieties, how to use them, and how they differ from dried herbs.

The most common fresh herbs include:
Basil: Basil might be my favorite herb. It is leafy, tender, and beautifully aromatic. The most common variety we see in stores and use most often in cooking is Sweet Basil, though you can seek out other less common types such as Lemon Basil and Thai Basil. The flavor of (Sweet) Basil is slightly peppery with an anise or licorice note. It pairs wonderfully with tomatoes, bell peppers, many pasta (and Italian) dishes, and of course is usually the main ingredient in pesto sauces (although other herbs can also be used in pestos). Basil is one of the more fussy herbs, as it is more perishable (preferring a temperature in between room and refrigeration), and can easily bruise and blacken. After buying, you should refrigerate it, however. If you buy a small package, simply store it as is. But, if buying larger amounts (like bags for making pesto), then lightly wrap the leaves in a large towel/paper towel and then into a plastic bag to refrigerate. Use the basil within a few days, or it will blacken and spoil. To use, trim or pinch the leafy portions away from the heavier stalks.  When using in cooking, it is best to add it to finish dishes or for very brief cooking, as longer cooking destroys the flavor (and color). Generally, dried basil is not a good substitute for fresh, unless a recipe specifies that substitution.

Parsley: Another tender, leafy herb, parsley is available in two common varieties: Italian (or Flat-Leaf) and Curly-Leaf. Curly-Leaf is the variety you often see as small side garnishes on restaurant dinner plates. Personally, I’m not a fan of curly parsley, much prefer the texture of flat-leaf parsley, but the flavors are fairly similar. Parsley is a fairly sturdy herb, even though it’s leafy. It doesn’t bruise easily, and keeps in the refrigerator quite well for several days (store in a plastic bag). As with basil, the stems are stronger in flavor and also tougher, so use the thicker (lower) stalks for vegetable stock or stews, or use them for juicing – or simply compost/discard. The leafy portion is the best part for cooking, and you can chop the upper tender stalks that hold a lot of the leaves. Try to think of parsley past it’s use as garnishing herb, and more of a leafy green. Try it in pestos, minced into salads, or even added to smoothies (yes, I do so)! It is a nutrient-dense leafy green, rich in iron and vitamin K. Who knew, right?! Dried parsley, like dried basil, is not a good substitute for fresh.

Cilantro: The love or hate leafy herb! Cilantro looks a little like Italian parsley, but with softer, more delicate leaves. It is somewhat more perishable than Italian parsley, and its flavor is quite different. If you don’t like the flavor, you might think it tastes “soapy”. On the other hand, if you love cilantro, you might describe its flavor as lemony/pungent/floral. Cilantro is sometimes called coriander, though it should not be confused with, or substituted for, the spice of coriander seed. Coriander seed (used whole or ground) has a lemony essence, but with a warmer, nuttier flavor, which is different from the flavor of fresh cilantro leaves. Do not substitute dried cilantro for fresh. This tender leafy herb is usually used to finish dishes, or added for brief heating through at the end of cooking, so its vibrant flavor is not diminished. Use the tender leafy stalks and trim away from the lower heavier stalks. Cilantro is often featured in Indian, Mexican, and Asian dishes.

Dill: Dill, or ‘dill weed’, is a tender, leafy herb, though it generally isn’t sold in larger quantities as you see with basil, parsley, and cilantro. It works beautifully with potatoes, in salads, and in creamy dips and dressings. Use only the leafy portion, tear or chop away the soft, feathery leaves from the tough stalks. Dried dill can sometimes be used in place of fresh dill, but only where the dried dill will be cooked into the dish. Dill seed is often used in recipes, and the flavor is quite similar to the leafy fresh herb – and more aromatic and flavorful than dried dill – so it may be preferable to use dill seed in some recipe applications rather than dried dill.

Chives: Chives resemble small, thin green onions, but aren’t as strong in flavor. Their hollow shoots have a mild onion flavor, lovely for sprinkling on soups, pastas, salads, and more. You can either chop or slice them, or use kitchen shears to more roughly ‘snip’ them into dishes. If you don’t have chives, you can substitute the very upper portion of green onions. This is a better substitute than dried chives – just use a little less as the flavor is stronger.

Thyme: Fresh thyme is a stalkier, more hardy fresh herb. It is usually found in small packets in your grocery store, though it’s one herb that typically grows quite well in a home garden or on a windowsill. Fresh thyme is another of my favorite herbs. If you don’t care for dried thyme, give fresh thyme a chance – the flavor is much more pleasant. The flavor of fresh thyme is more subtle and buttery than dried thyme, and so while dried thyme can be substituted for fresh in many recipes, it isn’t quite the same. If substituting, be sure to add at the beginning of cooking to allow the flavors to develop and open. Fresh thyme can be added a little earlier in the cooking process (as opposed to leafier herbs like basil and cilantro), but it is sometimes also added towards the end of cooking to keep the flavors vibrant. It accents potato and mushroom dishes beautifully, as well as bean, nut, and fall dishes like stuffings and nut roasts. To remove the leaves from the stalks, hold the stalk in one hand, and then run your fingers down the length of the stalk in the opposite direction of the growth of the leaves. If you have very young thyme (you will know, because the stalks will be very tender like a green, not woody), you can use both the leaves and the stems. No need to strip the leaves from these tender stalks, just chop both to use in recipes.

Oregano: If you’ve ever used ‘oil of oregano’ you are well acquainted with the strong, pungent flavor of fresh oregano! Mind you, the flavor in the fresh herb is far more muted than that medicinal oil, so don’t be put off from trying fresh oregano! Oregano is probably used more in dried form than fresh. It’s added to tomato sauces for pizza and pastas, and in soups and stews. Instead of using dried oregano to simmer in cooked sauces, next time try a little fresh oregano added at the end of cooking/simmering – or to lightly sprinkle over fresh pizza! (Just a little, as oregano is definitely more pronounced than leafy herbs, but it’s wonderfully flavorful.) To use the leaves, strip them away from the woody stalks. Then chop as fine or coarse as you like.

Rosemary: Rosemary is probably the strongest-tasting herb of all mentioned here, and a little goes a long way. It is a very sturdy, hardy herb with leaves resembling pine needles. With that sturdy structure, you can immerse a full stalk of rosemary into soups, stocks, casseroles, and them remove them before serving (much like you would a bay leaf). The leaves can also be stripped from the stalks and chopped to add to dishes. Because rosemary is such a strong, pungent herb, it does benefit from some mellowing through cooking. Dried rosemary is a very good substitute for fresh, though will not have the aroma and flavor intensity. The general substitution equation when replacing dried herbs with fresh herbs is 1/3 of the amount in dried (ex: 1 teaspoon of dried oregano for 1 tablespoon of fresh oregano). As detailed above, for herbs like basil, parsley, and cilantro, the dried forms are not a substitute for fresh. If a recipe calls for those fresh herbs, use them fresh, don’t substitute dried. If a recipe calls for dried basil, dried parsley, etc, that’s fine – the recipe has been designed to use the dried form. But where a salad dressing might use 1/4 cup of fresh parsley, for instance, don’t substitute the dried. The ‘hardier’ herbs like rosemary, thyme, and oregano are often more forgiving. Many recipes involving longer cooking times use dried forms of these herbs, because it allows the herbs to release their flavors and develop more body. Now for a few recipes that are truly special because of fresh herbs!

‘Raw’ Ranch Dressing from Let Them Eat Vegan

Raw "Ranch" Dressing; photo courtesy of Dreena Burton

Raw “Ranch” Dressing; photo courtesy of Dreena Burton

This dressing is creamy and rich, and takes any green salad from ordinary to extraordinary!  Also  try massaging it into hardy greens like kale.  To make it entirely raw, omit the Dijon mustard and replace the red wine vinegar with lemon juice or apple cider vinegar.

  • ½ cup raw cashews
  • 2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 ½ tsp red wine vinegar (great flavor, but can use more lemon juice or apple cider vinegar)
  • 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil (optional, can substitute water)
  • 1 tbsp raw tahini
  • ¼ cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
  • 2 tsp fresh chives, chopped
  • 1/8 tsp garlic powder (see note)
  • 1/8 tsp onion powder (see note)
  • ¼ tsp Dijon mustard (omit for raw version)
  • 1/2 tsp (scant) sea salt
  • 1/8 tsp freshly black pepper to taste
  • 1 tsp raw agave nectar or pure maple syrup
  • 1/2 cup water or non-dairy milk (or more to thin as desired)


Using a standing blender or an immersion blender and deep cup or jar, puree all the ingredients until very smooth (it will take a couple of minutes). If you want to thin the dressing more, add water to your preferred consistency. This dressing will thicken some after refrigeration. You can thin it out by stirring in a few teaspoons of water, or keep it thick and use it as a dip for raw veggies.  Makes about 1¼ cups. Ingredients 411:

  • I prefer a faint seasoning of garlic and onion in this dressing. I use just 1⁄8 teaspoon of the onion and garlic powders to lend a hint of flavor but not overwhelm the dressing.
  • If you like more seasoning, feel free to use more onion powder (or extra chives), and more garlic powder (or even a tiny clove of garlic). Alternatively, you can omit both powders, if you prefer.

Savvy Subs and Adds: Try 2 tablespoons of fresh dill to replace some or all of the parsley. Lemony-Cashew Basil Pesto from eat, drink & be vegan

Lemony Basil Cashew Pesto Pasta; photo courtesy of Dreena Burton

Lemony-Cashew Basil Pesto; photo courtesy of Dreena Burton

Traditional pesto takes on new life with this recipe. Cashews provide a buttery, creamy contrast to the tangy lemon juice and intense fresh basil. When basil is abundant, make double or triple batches, since this pesto freezes wonderfully.

  • 3–3½ tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 large clove garlic
  • ¾ tsp dry mustard
  • ¾ tsp sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 tbsp water
  • 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil (optional, for oil-free version add 1-2 tbsp extra water)
  • 1 cup + 1–2 tbsp raw cashews (see note)
  • 2½–2¾ cups (packed) fresh basil leaves and tender stems
  • ½–¾ lb (225–340 g) dry pasta of choice (see note)
  • olive oil (for finishing, optional)


In a food processor, combine lemon juice, garlic, mustard, salt, pepper, oil, and water, and purée until fairly smooth, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Add cashews and basil and purée until fairly smooth (may leave some texture). Cook pasta according to package directions. When almost done, remove about 1/2 cup of pasta water and reserve. Drain pasta (do not rinse) and toss with pesto, using as much pesto as desired (see note).  If pasta seems too dry, add some pasta water, 1 tbsp at a time, until moistened to preference.  Season with additional salt and pepper if desired, and finish with a drizzle of olive oil.

Cooking Notes: 1) Use brown rice, quinoa, or other gluten-free pasta for a gf dish; use spelt, kamut, or other wheat-free pasta for a wheat-free dish. 2) Raw almonds may be substituted in part or entirely for cashews, just add extra water or oil to moisten when puréeing. 3) You can make this pesto in advance and refrigerate in a sealed container until you’re ready to cook the pasta. 4) This pesto also makes a dynamite sandwich spread or pizza sauce (or dollop on pesto as a pizza topping). 5) I like a lot of sauce on my pastas, but you may prefer less; use up to1 lb (450 g) pasta and add extra cooking water or oil to help distribute the pesto through the pasta. A few more recipes to get you acquainted with glorious fresh herbs!:

Presto Pistachio Pesto; photo courtesy of Dreena Burton

Presto Pistachio Pesto; photo courtesy of Dreena Burton

Presto Pistachio Pasta: This recipe combines creamy, sweet raw pistachios with bright and lively fresh parsley. It creates more of a sauce than a thick pesto, and is very refreshing and light for summer days. It is from my Plant-Powered 15 ebook. Mediterranean Bean Burgers: These burgers highlight the unique flavor of fresh oregano. They are a reader fave, perfect for your end-of-summer BBQs! White Bean Hummus with Fresh Basil and Thyme: This recipe has been featured on Forks Over Knives. Adding fresh basil and thyme to creamy white beans results in an irresistible dip! Festive Chickpea Tart: Holiday season is not that far off, when you get to menu planning, try out this recipe – the fresh thyme is outstanding. though dried thyme can always be used in a pinch. White Bean Rosemary Soup with Jumbo Croutons: A true comfort soup for the fall. Fresh rosemary adds such a delightful flavor, and the soup is not at all difficult to make.

Dreena is the author of four bestselling vegan cookbooks and a newly released “Plant-Powered 15” ebook. You can connect with her on facebook, twitter, pinterest, and her online kitchen!

This article is part of August’s Vegan Mainstream Cookbook Club. If you haven’t joined the club yet, visit this page and get involved!


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