The Nutritional Wealth of Herbs
Herbs are nature’s fragrant alchemists. Treasured for centuries, herbs have not only made flavorful contributions to a multitude of cuisines but are also noteworthy for their remarkable health benefits. Did you know that herbs can be just as potent a nutrition source as vegetables? These versatile plants pack a powerful nutritional punch, offering a range of essential vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. They are the nutritional pixie dust of the plant world offering antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Let’s embark on an aromatic journey through the world of herbs.
What are the Health Benefits of Herbs?
Herbs are generally low in calories and their nutritional properties contribute to a balanced diet when used regularly in cooking. Different herbs have distinct culinary and medicinal properties that make them adaptable to be included in remedies, curatives, elixirs, and teas. Nadia Mahmud, Nutritionist at Roundglass says, “When herbs in all forms — dried, fresh, or infused — are added to your diet, their powerful bioactives help activate the antioxidant and immune pathways more than most vegetables. Since a little goes a long way, in both health benefits and flavor, try not to skip adding herbs to your meals.” Here are some of the herbs commonly used in cooking:
Basil: Known for its anti-inflammatory properties, basil provides a good dose of vitamin K, which supports healthy bones and blood clotting. It is also a good source of vitamins A and C, also containing small amounts of minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium.
Parsley: Nutrient-packed with vitamins A, C, and K, as well as minerals like iron, calcium, and potassium, parsley supports bone health, boosts immune function, and promotes healthy vision.
Rosemary: Rich in antioxidants, rosemary is a good source of vitamins A, C, and B6. It also contains minerals like calcium, iron, and potassium. Rosemary can support immune function, aid digestion, enhance memory, and reduce inflammation.
Thyme: Rich in vitamins A and C and essential minerals like iron, calcium, and manganese, thyme has antioxidant properties and can support respiratory health and immune function.
Oregano: This is an herb abundant in vitamin K and a source of vitamins A and C, as well as minerals like calcium, iron, and manganese. Oregano offers antioxidant properties and supports digestive health.
Mint: Along with its refreshing aroma and flavor, mint contains vitamin A and small amounts of vitamin C, plus trace minerals like iron and potassium and supports digestion.
Dill: Invigorating dill has antioxidant properties and can support digestion with its notable levels of vitamin A and vitamin C, as well as minerals like calcium and iron.
Cilantro: Cilantro, also known as coriander, is rich in vitamin K, with small amounts of vitamins A and C, and contains minerals such as calcium, iron, and magnesium. It can support bone health while offering a burst of fresh flavor in dishes. Cilantro also contains bioactives that can bind to heavy metals, supporting detoxification.
Sage: Savory-tasting sage has vitamins A, C, and K, as well as minerals like calcium, iron, and manganese. Its antioxidant properties can support cognitive function.
What are the Best Ways to Use Herbs in Cooking?
There is a bit of an artistic element when it comes to cooking with herbs. Their variety and versatility elevate the flavor and aroma of your food. To harness the full potential of herbs, try using them in these creative ways:
Fresh Herbs: Add fresh herbs towards the end of cooking or use them as a garnish to preserve their vibrant flavors and maximize their nutritional content. Basil, mint, cilantro, and parsley all lend themselves to aromatic garnishes for sauces, soups, slow-cooked stews, vegetable and meat dishes and more.
Infused Oils and Vinegars: Create herb-infused oils or vinegars to capture their essence and bioactive powers. Either will take dressings, marinades to the next level. Or simply use them as a finishing touch. Don’t be afraid to experiment with herbs like rosemary, oregano, basil, chives, and parsley.
Herbal Teas: Brew herbal teas using fresh or dried herbs for a soothing beverage that offers both hydration and health benefits. Peppermint, chamomile, mint, and rosemary among others lend themselves to a calming brew.
Herb Salads: Toss fresh herbs into salads to enhance their nutritional profile and provide a burst of flavor. Basil, mint, parsley, tarragon, dill, and chives are all flavor enhancers.
Seasoning Blends: Create your own herb blends to use as seasonings for meat, vegetables, or roasted dishes. Try different combinations until you land on your signature blend. Herbs are often turned into chutneys in India, with mint and cilantro being popular options.
Dried Herbs: Ground herbs offer concentrated flavors and are perfect for seasoning blends, marinades, and rubs.
Medicinal Herbs versus Culinary Herbs
Looking for antioxidants? You can turn to both culinary and medicinal herbs. While many herbs are suitable for both purposes, it's important to note the distinction. Culinary herbs primarily enhance the flavor of dishes, while medicinal herbs are utilized for their specific therapeutic properties. Some herbs, such as chamomile, straddle both categories, offering distinct flavors and medicinal benefits. Many ancient culinary traditions like Ayurveda, African herbalism, Middle Eastern cuisines, and wellness traditions of Japan and China include herbs for making elixirs, brews, and infusions.
How to Buy and Store Herbs
Herbs can be stored in a variety of ways; try growing herbs in your kitchen and harvest your own fresh supply. Ayurvedic chef Divya Alter grows eighteen culinary herbs on her balcony that make their way into her food. To make the most of your herbs, consider the following tips:
Fresh Herbs: Fresh herbs offer vibrant flavors and a higher nutritional content. Choose ones with vibrant color, firm leaves, and a fresh aroma. To maintain their freshness, wrap them in a damp paper towel and store in a sealed plastic bag in the fridge.
Dried Herbs: Drying herbs not only preserves their flavors, but also ensures a longer shelf life. They are convenient and versatile, suitable for long-cooked recipes. Opt for high-quality dried herbs, preferably organic. Store them in airtight containers away from direct sunlight and replace them every six months to ensure optimal flavor and potency.
Growing Your Own Herbs: Cultivating herbs at home is a rewarding experience. Choose a sunny location, provide well-drained soil, and water appropriately. Regularly harvest the leaves to encourage growth.
Cuisines Associated with Specific Herbs:
Different herbs are closely associated with various cuisines around the world. Here are a few examples:
Italian: Basil, oregano, thyme, and rosemary are staples in Italian dishes, including pasta sauces and pizza.
Thai: Thai cuisine relies on the aromatic qualities of herbs such as lemongrass, Thai basil, and cilantro to create distinctive flavors.
Japanese: Japanese herbs such as shiso (perilla), mitsuba, yomogi, and kuromoji play a significant role in both traditional cuisine and herbal medicine.
African: Africa’s rich herbal pharmacopeia offers a vast repository of traditional wisdom and natural remedies, and some have ritual and spiritual uses. Scent leaf (African basil) is used for its antioxidant properties.
Middle Eastern: Middle Eastern cuisines incorporate a rich variety of herbs, such as mint, parsley, cilantro, and thyme, not only adding delightful flavors but also providing numerous health benefits, such as improved digestion, antioxidant support, and enhanced immune function.
Indian: Mint, cilantro, and curry leaves are fresh herbs you’ll encounter in everything from curries to spice blends to chutneys for cultivating deeper, varied flavors. Herbs serve as colorful, fresh, and flavorful garnishes as well.
Herbs are nature's gift, providing both culinary delights and potent health benefits. By incorporating a variety of herbs into our diets, we can elevate our dishes while nourishing our bodies.
Roundglass teacher Krystal Mack demonstrates Comfort Botanical Tea Blend with herbs
- The culinary uses of herbs in different cuisines
- Medicinal and therapeutic benefits of herbs
- Nutritional content of herbs