Kitchen Essentials with Chef Jacob: Dried Herbs

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Over the years working in kitchens I have learned a few things that can be useful to cooks at home too. Having the right kitchen tools is akin to a mechanic having a well-stocked tool box. Sure, a good mechanic can do a lot with a roadside emergency kit, but in the garage, with the tools of the trade, it is a whole other thing. The same goes for chefs.

Dried herbs are one of the most basic tools a chef uses to build flavor in dishes. Dried herbs get a bad rap with some foodies, who swear by using fresh herbs to flavor their favorite recipes. It’s true that fresh herbs can add a wow factor to your meal, but don’t be so quick to rule out your favorite herb’s dried counterpart. In addition to packing a large amount of flavor in a smaller portion, they’re economical, versatile and more accessible than most fresh herbs.

* Economical — Dried herbs are far less expensive than fresh and they last a lot longer. Fresh herbs are great too, but sometimes a little packet of fresh goes for more than $3 for a small package, and the leftovers die in your crisper drawer. That only has to happen one time to make dried a better deal.
* Versatile — Dried herbs hold up well to high heat and heavily acidic foods. If you use fresh herbs at the beginning of a dish that’s going to be sautéed, braised or simmered for a long time, the herbs will break down and can even become bitter. Dried herbs can take the heat and allow flavors to blend as the food cooks.
* Accessible — Dried herbs are always in season. There’s no such thing as not being able to get dried dill for your tatziki sauce in February. Dried herbs give us the opportunity to use the flavorings we want to use whenever we want to use them.

There are a couple of down sides to choosing dried herbs over fresh. The spice aisle has lots of really great things, but you have to buy a whole jar of the spice. If you need just a few bay leaves why should you have to pay for a whole bunch at once? You really want to buy just what you can use. There was a spice rack in Rachael’s grandmother’s kitchen that hung there for about thirty-five years, right above the stove where heat, moisture and time could have their way with the contents. The day it came off the wall for the last time some of those jars still had their original contents inside. Technically it is true that spices last a long time, but I wouldn’t have reached for that spice rack on a schoolyard triple-dog-dare.

How can you save money and avoid a “Mamaw’s spice rack” situation in your kitchen? Buy only what you need and will use, of course. Rachael likes trying new herbs, spices and blends from the bulk food section at the grocery. I’m a huge fan of Tampico spices sold in pouches in the Mexican food aisle. They’re high quality, inexpensive and sold in small enough packages that you can use them up and replace them before they ever have a chance to get old.

There you have it: dried herbs are a useful and important part of your kitchen arsenal. I’ll leave you with a few pro tips for making the most of your dried herbs.

Dried Herbs: Pro Tips

* Store ‘em right – seal ‘em tight! Dried herbs do best in airtight, light proof containers away from the heat of the oven moisture of the cook top.
* Use dried herbs at the start of a meal and fresh herbs to finish & garnish.
* Never dump dried herbs directly from the jar into the pan. Adding dried herbs by hand gives you the opportunity to crush them up to release the flavor and keeps the container away from the steamy pan to protect your herbs from moisture. This also protects from the cooking bloopers that can happen when you forget there’s no shaker-top on the spice jar and accidentally dump 4 tablespoons of herbs into your pan.
* Herbs can be toasted to bring out aromatic oils. To do this, add your herbs to a cold, dry pan and heat to medium while moving and swirling the herbs in the pan. You’ll know it is done when the herbs are fragrant. Important: If you decide to do this, you must watch your herbs like a hawk. No multi-tasking. No goofing off. Herbs can tell if you look away even for a moment and they will burn to spite you.

Do you have ideas for storing and using dried herbs? Maybe you have a favorite spice blend or local spot to get great spices. Continue the conversation by commenting below.

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