Cooking with fresh herbs takes recipes from uninspired to unforgettable. They magnify mojitos, bolster bolognese, and complete curries in ways that dried spices simply can’t replicate.
Nearly every culture uses herbs for cooking in one way or another, and there’s a good chance that some of your favorite dishes would be disappointingly bland without them. Across the globe, there are at least 40 different herbs used to elevate cuisine to mouth-watering craveability.
That’s enough herbal variety to make your head spin! To simplify the selection, we’ve dug up the 5 best herbs to grow for cooking, along with some tips for growing herbs, so that you can muddle, mix, and marry the most powerful flavors that nature has to offer.
We begin with potentially the most notorious (and contentious) of herbs. The refreshing flavor of this delicate herb speaks for itself… but it doesn’t always say what everyone wants to hear.
Infamously, whether or not someone enjoys cilantro seems to be genetically predetermined. With 4% to 14% of the human population perceiving its fresh flavor as soapy, this globally cultivated crop can leave a surprisingly bad taste in some people’s mouths.
If you’re one of the lucky ones that tastes this potent treat for what it is, then it’s likely that you can’t get enough of its signature tang. That’s fortunate, because there’s a refreshingly large number of ways to put cilantro to use:
- Culinary applications – Famous for its starring role in guacamole, cilantro is a key garnish in both Mexican and Southeast Asian cuisine. What bowl of pho or basket of birria is complete without a handful of the green sprinkled atop? Its uses aren’t limited to completing complex dishes, either. A few heaping spoonfuls sauteed with onion, garlic, tomatoes, and peppers creates a Caribbean sofrito that’s a welcome accompaniment to almost anything you can dip in it.
- Growth tips – Cilantro grows best in the full sun, but it’s also a hardy crop resistant to cold weather. Thus, it makes for a spectacular choice for indoor cultivation for those who love to run the AC. Its rapid growth cycle means you should be savoring its tangy taste about two months after planting. You’ll know it’s ready to go when its leaves have sprouted, and the plant has reached 4 to 6 inches in height.
The basil clan is an eclectic bunch that’s represented in many of the world’s most beloved cuisines. With 35 different cultivars to choose, each with their own characteristics, there’s a type of basil for whatever dish you want to spice up.
Different species are native to different areas of the world, and their different qualities mean both dried basil and fresh basil are key to a huge variety of dishes. In general, however, basil possesses strong, refreshing qualities that help balance a smooth and savory dish:
- Culinary applications – Among the many different varieties, Italian Basil is one of the easiest culinary herbs to plant indoors. Basil is steeped in Italian cuisine, much like local chefs steep the plant into their sauce. It’s so intertwined with national identity, in fact, that the Margherita pizza is rumored to include it to represent the green in the country’s flag. Though often overshadowed by its more popular Italian cousin, holy basil is a standout of its own that provides the backbone to many famous Thai dishes. Pluck off a few leaves and sprinkle them in the wok during the final moments of your stir-fry—your palate will thank you. You can even make your own herb butter or just add as a garnish, along with other tender herbs like Italian parsley, thyme, and bay leaf.
- Growth tips – Basil and the cold don’t get along, so don’t even think about growing it outside during frosty times of the year. In fact, inside is best to prevent major shifts in temperature and environment. Water in the morning to allow a whole day’s absorption in the sun and prevent root rot. Harvest the developed shoots and trim off any flowers that sprout (you can sprinkle them on a salad or add them to a salad dressing or vinaigrette if you’re feeling particularly fancy)
The profound earthy notes of oregano can be particularly overpowering, so it’s perhaps best used more sparingly than others on this list. Likewise, its robust body makes it much more attuned to cooking into dishes rather than sprinkling raw on top like many of its herbaceous brethren.
Still, under the right circumstance, the strong flavor can be an absolute joy to the senses. In fact, it has an antiquated reputation for awakening the senses and eliciting feelings of love when eaten. This sentiment was so strongly believed during the Classical period of Greece and Rome that spouses wore crowns of oregano during their wedding ceremonies.
Nowadays, it’s much more known for its potential to flavor a delicious meal than cook up feelings of affection:
- Culinary applications – Often basil or cilantro’s partner in crime, oregano likewise features heavily in Italian and Mexican cuisine. The classic New York slice defies authenticity without a sprinkle in the sauce. It appears in countless Mexican marinades as well. Infuse some fresh oregano into olive oil to add its signature flavor to more dishes than you previously dreamed possible.
- Growth tips – Oregano is a fan of hot, sunny days, so position pots in a spot where they can soak up UV rays. It's a thirstier plant, but do be careful not to rot the roots by overwatering. You can harvest as desired once the sprouts develop, but keep in mind that the fresh flavor is optimal before the flowers start to bloom.
Okay, so technically, most cooking culinary herbs are part of the mint family. The Lamiaceae crew is a massive collection with thousands of subspecies. Some of them you know well, including our friends basil and oregano.
The cooking herb generally referred to as mint, however, is in a class of its own (metaphorically). No other herb flavor is so ubiquitous, even if actual mint leaves rarely make an appearance in most final products.
Chewing gum, candies, and creme de menthe are but a fraction of the foods that either use mint in their production or attempt to replicate its flavors.
The real deal, fresh-off-the-plant leaves have no comparison in the consumer world, however. They can be used in a plethora of dishes as well, from cocktails to oxtails:
- Culinary applications – Muddle a few sprigs with sugar to release their juices and create a flavorful base for the most classic of summer drinks, the mojito. Mint’s bright, invigorating pop pairs famously with heavy meat dishes such as mutton, and a chiffonade of leaves will lighten up even the beefiest of stews. If you’re more of a dipper, add some finely chopped mint, a squeeze of lemon, and a bit of grated cucumber to a dollop of greek yogurt and you’ll have a divine tzatziki for all your meats and veggies.
- Growth tips – Plant mint in a deep pot loaded with nutrient-rich soil. It’s quite the thirsty crop, so don’t skimp on the waterings. When your plants begin to flower, oil retention is at maximum capacity. That means the plant should be at its most aromatic and flavorful, and it's ready to harvest for use in your favorite recipes.
This recognizably fragrant culinary herb packs a powerful punch that has far more uses than the standard jar of pickles. Dill is quite unique in flavor, toeing the line between sweet and grassy. It’s certainly prominent and tends to feature as the main star in dishes rather than taking a backseat.
Dill is not only powerful in flavor but potently packed with curative properties as well. It has been used in traditional medicines for over two millennia and is particularly noted for its ability to soothe sour stomachs. Its flavor, however, is what makes it a real winner amongst kitchen herbs:
- Culinary applications – Pickling fans know the unmatched kick dill brings to their brines. Past the pickles, however, it pairs particularly well with seafood. Salmon baked up with a few dill stalks, and slices of lemon on top is an unbeatable, health-conscious classic. Simmer a bunch with heavy cream and butter to produce a far richer companion to any fish, especially flakey white varieties.
- Growth tips – Designate a large planter for dill as it tends to spread its branches quite far. It can grow so tall, in fact, that you may need to stick a stake in alongside the stalk for support as it matures. Leaves can be harvested as needed without disturbing the plant, so long as the center stem remains intact. The yellow flowers are edible, too, making salads a feast for the eyes.
Get Your Home Herb Garden Growing Strong With Greendigs
Herbs are the magical touch that brings cooking to new levels. They shine through in dishes with freshness and fragrance unparalleled by other ingredients. And you won’t get herbs any fresher than those you grow and harvest right in your very own home.Once you've mastered harvesting your herbs, the next step is learning how to store fresh herbs properly to retain their color, aroma, flavor, and vibrancy for longer.
For building a long-lasting herb garden, Greendigs is your trustworthy source to buy herb plants online. We provide healthy, robust specimens that you can keep growing in your kitchen, living room, or anywhere else that the sun hits just right.
Herb plants not only brighten up your cooking—they brighten up your life with the charm and vitality they provide to a space.
Liven up your home and get growing with Greendigs.
McCormick Science Institute. Culinary Spices. https://www.mccormickscienceinstitute.com
National Library of Medicine. Deciphering the high quality genome sequence of coriander that causes controversial feelings.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/
World Crops. Cilantro. https://worldcrops.org/
New York Botanical Garden. Basil: Knowing and Growing. https://libguides.nybg.org/
Royal Horticultural Society. Basil. https://www.rhs.org.uk/
Herb Society of America. Oregano and Sweet Marjoram. https://www.herbsociety.org
Royal Horticultural Society. Oregano. https://www.rhs.org.uk/
University of Michigan. Diverse Mint Family a Boon to Kitchens and Cultures around the World. https://mbgna.umich.edu/
New South Wales Department of Primary Resources. Mint growing.https://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/
Plant Grower. Dill.https://www.plantgrower.org/
Royal Horticultural Society. Dill. https://www.rhs.org.uk/