Are you preparing some tasty dish that requires fresh herbs and you have only dry ones? What is the difference between dry and fresh herb? Are dry herbs more potent? Are fresh herbs, more nutritious than dry ones? What should you buy? These and more questions are answered in this article with expert opinions, science, videos, and hands-on recipes from the experts.
Hence, what are the differences between dry and fresh herbs? Dry herbs are obtained by significantly reducing the water content in fresh herbs through a different variety of processes. This will cause dry herbs to have:
- Generally (not always) more robust flavor
- Different vitamin content
- Lower oil content
- Significantly different culinary use
Ignore this difference, and you can easily ruin your favorite recipe. To avoid wasting time (and money), let’s try to understand together what dry herbs are when you should (and should not) use them.
Dry herbs have in general (some exceptions, on this more later) way more potent in flavor than fresh herbs. That’s why many people might state that three grams of the fresh herbs are “equivalent” to one gram of dry herb. This is a generic rule of thumb. If you use it in preparing your dishes, you might be fine most of the time.
However, this is only half of the story and a partial lie that you might hear around.
Indeed, dry herbs are not only more intense in flavor. But their taste is different from their original fresh counterpart. Ignore this fact, and all your effort in preparing your bolognese sauce, your herb-flavored chicken, or other countless recipes will be vane.
Some recipes require dry herbs, while others can be done only with fresh herbs. A chef knows that, and now you will know that too.
What is a Dry Herb?
Dry herbs are produced through dehydration of fresh herbs. They can be produced from the comfort of your home by placing them inside paper bags, hanging on a wall, while others are adopting faster solutions like drying them through heat in large ovens (or dehydrators).
Despite the process adopted (oven, red light dry, sun-dry, shade-dry, this study for more), the principle is always the same: stripping the water from the fresh herb.
This explains why dry herbs have a stronger, more potent taste. They are simply more concentrated. Indeed, water, “dilutes” the flavor of herbs. A similar result is obtained when dehydrating techniques are applied to other food. Think about dry tomatoes, coconut, or any other dried fruit. Their taste is way stronger than their fresh counterpart.
How much water herbs lose when dry? Water, in particular for herbs, is a significantly high percentage of their weight. It can reach up to 90% of its fresh weight (for basil). That means that 100g of herb leaves, once dry, will weight only 12-13g (not all water is lost during the drying process as discussed in this study or this one).
Here the catch
This is only half of the story! When herbs are dried, their water content is not the only aspect that changes. Something else happens: oil and vitamin content change!
Do dry herbs and fresh herbs have the same amount of nutrients? No, nutrient and water content are affected as well during the dry process.
Vitamin: As demonstrated in this experiment from the University of Nitra, vitamin C in many herbs reduces significantly. For parsley and celery, such reduction is about 80% of their original content. This means, that of 100g of parsley, around 15g are left after drying and. Those 15g have retained approximately 20% of the original vitamin C content of the original fresh version.
Beta Carotene: this essential element, naturally abundant in fresh herbs, is used by human bodies to produce vitamin A. However, the drying process also affects its content in herbs. From this experiment conducted from the University of Maharashtra, it was demonstrated that mint loses from 30 to 60% of its beta carotene content. Even worse with coriander, where up to 70% of its beta-carotene content was lost.
Iron: this mineral, essential for the correct functioning of our blood oxygenation system, can be found in many herbs. However, the dry process significantly affects its content. This study from the University of Kumasi, show a drop of up to 80% depending on the drying process.
Essential oils: these, also called volatile aroma, determine the taste of your herbs! Less of these oils (each herb has many of them) will alter its taste dramatically. As demonstrated in this study from the University of Carretera, the concentration of oil in spearmint changes dramatically and, more importantly, in different proportions. Some oil drops of 30% while others disappear entirely (for more, check table 2 in this study).
This is the key to understand that, in reality, a dry herb is not a concentrated version of its fresh counterpart. It does not have only a more intense flavor of its fresh counterpart. This is supported by science.
Think about cakes. If you reduce by 30% the amount of sugar but remove altogether the flour, the cake (or whatever comes out) it will taste totally different. The same happens with dried herbs. If the different herb oils drop in varying proportions, the taste will change.
Here comes the real question
When should you use dry herbs in your recipes? Fresh herbs are better than dry in essentially most of the recipes. Their more vivid and milder taste is a guarantee of success. Hence, if you have fresh ones, just go for it without any hesitation. However, dry herbs, in a few cases, can be even better than their fresh counterpart. Also, remember that some dry herbs, on the opposite, should be avoided at all costs.
Do you want to know which herbs are good in their dry version and which one not?
Rosemary, oregano, thyme, and sage perform pretty well in recipes even adopted dry, as a replacement of fresh herb. The 3 to 1 ratio still applies (1g of dry herb for every 3g of fresh). This is because the main compounds that give them their characteristic flavor do not evaporate during the drying process, making them a decent substitute for their original counterpart.
Pro tip: use the above herbs if possible in recipes where there is a decent amount of liquid (soup, for instance). Indeed, this will allow such herbs to require a bit of water and release even better their flavor.
Parsley, chervil, cilantro, basil should be avoided at all costs in their dry form. These herbs, when dry, lose a significant fraction of those oils more responsible for their intense flavor. This means that dry basil will be tasteless as well as dry cilantro. Do not believe me? Just read the comments from many in this interesting Reddit post.
When dry herbs perform better than fresh in cooking? The only cases when dry herbs are more suitable than fresh are oregano in chili con carne and thyme in steak.
The video below involves three people tasting and comparing two identical stakes prepared in the same way. The only difference is the herb used. Once cooked with fresh thyme, while the other with dry thyme.
The result was quite clear. A steak cooked with dry herb was found way tastier than its fresh counterpart. This is also intuitive due to the stronger flavor of the dry version.
Fresh herbs, as quite delicate, should be added generally towards the end of a dish, especially if this requires a long cooking time. Why? Because fresh herbs lose their flavor quickly (the volatile compound) or, even worse, they can burn quickly.
Here the tip
Not all fresh herbs are equal. For instance, basil and cilantro sometimes are added after the dish is finished. The residual is sufficient to release the flavor. Often is also eaten raw as in the famous Italian Insalata Caprese below.
Other herbs, the more woody ones, like rosemary, can tolerate heat for way longer, so they can be added from the beginning like in a tasty bolognese sauce as shown in the video below.
Dry herbs, on the opposite, should be added generally at the very beginning, especially in a plate with lots of liquid (think of soup, for instance). Forget that, and you will end up with a dish with a subtle stale/dusty flavor.
What are my best recipes to make with fresh herbs? Well, there are hundreds of recipes with fresh herbs that I do not know. However, as a good Italian, here my top 3 easy recipes where you can deploy your fresh herbs. You can also find the best Youtube video (from the great Gennaro) explaining step by step (with tricks) on how to prepare them.
These are chicken breast, pancetta, pepper, salt, and fresh sage. These small bites, done with fried chicken stripes that wrap fresh sage laves, took around 30 minutes from start to finish. It will be a great addition to your meal. You might want to add a dressing (done quickly with oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, parsley). You can find detailed guidance from Gennaro below.
It is one of the easiest pasta to do, suggested in the warm season. Fresh basil leaves are here a great addition to the lemon taste. The recipe is easy, and it does require only: pasta, oil, grated cheese, lemon, and salt. It requires around 15 minutes. Check also the tricks explained here for cooking.
This is a still very easy recipe, nonetheless an explosion of flavor. In Italy indeed, the second dish (we usually have three) is more elaborated. Here you need chicken, pepper, oil, garlic, salt, chili, and fresh rosemary, thyme, and sage, with a splash of white wine. It requires around 40 minutes. As Gennaro explained, this is to guarantee the best flavor.
When to harvest fresh basil? Basil should be harvested before the plant starts flowering. Indeed, the flowering process will change the basil leaves’ taste, make them bitter and lose most of their oil responsible for their characteristic taste.
How to store fresh herbs? Many techniques are available to store fresh herbs. Drying and freezing are by far the most common and can be used at home without any special machine, if not a freezer or (not necessary) an oven. Another option is to use such fresh herbs in dishes (like pesto) that can be frozen after.
Endless Fresh Herb Supply? Four Easy Steps
Have you tried a few recipes with fresh herbs, and you have been hooked; however, you do not want to buy them in a supermarket? Perhaps you do not use them all at once, or you just forget (happens to me all the time).
What about having all the herbs you need at home, growing in some pot indoor? This will allow you to have, whenever you want, an endless supply of fresh herbs that (believe me or not) are also way tastier.
The good news? You can do them just caring and multiplying the potted herbs (or even cutting) that you can buy with a few cents at the supermarket. Check the article below discover how!
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