The first thing to get straight when talking about herbs is pronunciation of the word "herb." If "erb" with a silent "h" is your choice, you are correct. The word "herb" is pronounced this way in America and France. If you say "herb" with the "h" sound, you are also correct. Those in the United Kingdom pronounce it like this, and the Oxford Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Dictionary list both as options.
In general terms, herbs are relatively small, aromatic, edible plants. Some, like thyme, can be used as ground cover, and others like sweet basil can grow on stalks even up to three or four feet high. They have been used for thousands of years to enhance food flavors, to cure ills, to decorate gardens and homes and to make accessories like bouquets and hats.
This versatile genre of plants can be grown in spaces as small as a window sill or in acres of fields such as those growing commercial lavender in France. They thrive in the sun and like well-drained, sandier soil and drier conditions. Too much moisture allows rot to set in quickly. The Ohio Valley region is fortunate to have the summer sun and heat necessary to foster herb growth, and some herbs, with a little care, will be hardy enough to come back year after year.
Herbs gone wild are the hearty mint stalks that many gardeners consider invasive. They can, of course, be used to make mint jelly or add a refreshing flavor to a pitcher of cool water. Mint and basil are often used interchangeably in cooking.
Lavender flowers are edible and add a sweet, floral note to cakes and cookies and are also used in “herbes de Provence” for flavoring traditional French dishes.
Like mint and basil, oregano and marjoram are often substituted for the other. Oregano’s delicate white flowers can be used in floral arrangements.
Thyme is often used as a fragrant ground cover. Lemon thyme, seen here, has greener leaves and a bright lemon scent and taste ideal for chicken or fish. There are over 100 types of thyme, but most are ornamental plants.
Carol Lepic, a Belmont County Master Gardener, says that many of the herbs used in Italian, French and Greek dishes are apt to grow well here: parsleys, rosemary and basil, for instance. Others such as chives, mint, oregano and thyme will even grow as perennials in the right conditions.
To make the most of your investment of time and money growing herbs, and because fresh and dried herbs are expensive to purchase at the grocery store, drying what is left at the end of the season is a good way to preserve the flavors and utilize the plants over the winter in comfort foods, teas, aromatherapy, decorations and gifts. Luckily drying herbs is exceptionally easy, and they can be kept for up to one year before losing flavor or potency.
For maximum flavor, pick herbs in the morning when the plants are perky and not wilted. Oils in the plants are at their peak, according to herb experts, as the sun is drying the dew from the leaves but before the heat is too strong, sometime around mid-morning.
The simplest method of drying is gathering the stalks, stems or leaves - in the case of basil and bay leaf, for example - into small bunches and tying one end with twine to secure them together. Hang the bunches upside down (so the oils flow to and settle in the leaves) where air can circulate around them in a dark, dry area for several days until there is no moisture left in the plants.
It's important that the space be dry rather than damp because the object is to eliminate the moisture quickly to keep mold or mildew from the herbs. Drying herbs in the sun will evaporate the oils (flavor) and color from the leaves. Fully dried herb leaves should crumble, not bend, when crushed. Lepic hangs herbs to dry in her laundry room and uses an oscillating fan to circulate the air and expedite drying.
A faster but trickier process involves using the microwave or a conventional oven, but this isn't recommended because it cooks the herbs and will probably evaporate the oils. If using the microwave, place herbs in a single layer between two paper towels and heat on medium for a total of around three minutes, checking several times throughout, until the leaves are brittle.
If using a conventional oven, spread the herbs on a cookie sheet and bake at 150 degrees for up to three hours. Again, keep checking for dryness and shift the herbs around to keep them drying evenly.
Some people opt for a food dehydrator which does not cook the herbs or evaporate the oils.
Now that the drying process is over, what will you do with the herbs? For culinary use, dried herbs should be stored in tightly sealed glass jars or bottles and kept in a drawer or pantry. Again, the idea is to keep moisture out and flavor in. For this reason, dried herbs should be added to the food with a spoon or by hand, not sprinkled out of the bottle or jar. Steam from the pans could foster bacteria or mold growth once the bottle is resealed and put away.
While fresh herbs should be added to a dish near the end of the cooking process, dried herbs will need about 15 minutes to completely rehydrate, so they should be crumbled into the dish at the beginning or middle of the cooking process. Crumbling helps release the flavor, and, incidentally, dried herbs are more concentrated than fresh. Cooks use one-quarter to one-third the amount of dried if the recipe calls for fresh herbs.
Herbs can be used in any meal of the day. Try adding chives, tarragon or parsley to a breakfast omelet. Basil complements beef or chicken as well as corn, bell peppers, zucchini, green beans and eggplant. Dill, sage, tarragon and thyme are classic pairings for fish.
Lepic makes small dried "soup wreaths" from her garden herbs that include rosemary, oregano and thyme. A sprig of rosemary is bent into a small wreath then other sprigs of herbs are wrapped around it. The wreath is dropped into a pot of cooking soup to infuse the flavors.
Clearing off a window sill for your new spice garden? Small pots of rosemary, oregano and thyme would be easy to grow and easy to use in any number of dishes. Other easy to grow-and-dry herbs include chives, which add an onion-like flavor to soups and baked potatoes. Their purple flower petals are also edible but are hot and spicy-great for adding some zip to salads.
Cilantro is used in Mexican cuisine for a fresh flavor and some kick to salsas, guacamole and rice. Dried chamomile, lemon thyme and peppermint are favorites for old fashioned herbal teas-just add boiling water, steep and strain into a cup.
This recipe for "Bouquet Garni" is from The Spice and Herb Bible by Ian Hemphill. It's used in many traditional French country and Tuscan style slow-cooked dishes, but would be excellent for roast chicken or soups and stews. Two teaspoons of the dried herb version can be placed in a muslin bag and removed before serving or blended into a dish that serves four: 4 tsp of thyme, 2 tsp of marjoram (oregano can be substituted,) 1 tsp of parsley and 1 tsp of crushed bay leaves.