Green herbs such as basil, chives, dill, mint, and parsley are usually eaten fresh—and in larger quantities—than other herbs such as oregano or thyme. For example, 1/4 cup of parsley is a reasonable amount to consume, whereas 1/4 cup of oregano is not. As a bonus, because these herbs are eaten fresh, they bring with them more health benefits than dried herbs or spices.
Green herbs contain varying amounts of carotenoids, insoluble fiber, and an array of vitamins and minerals. Notably, fresh mint, chives, and parsley offer some folate. A quarter-cup of chopped parsley provides more than 20 percent of the day’s requirement of vitamin C. Sorrel supplies a good amount of vitamin C as well, which, along with the herb’s oxalate content, contributes to its slightly sharp taste.
For a full listing of nutrients in common fresh green herbs, check the National Nutrient Database:
Types of green herbs
Many of the following herbs are available in supermarkets, though the unusual varieties are more often found in farmers’ markets or specialty produce stores.
Basil: Pasta with pesto—the entrancingly fragrant Genovese sauce made from fresh basil, olive oil, pine nuts, and Parmesan—is one of the glories of Italian cuisine. The most common form of sweet basil has large, pointed green or reddish-green leaves. There are numerous other varieties, including anise basil, cinnamon basil, and lemon basil, which got their names from their taste. Dark opal basil, also called purple basil, has a spicier flavor than traditional green basil. Thai basil—also called holy basil—has smaller leaves with purple markings and is often called for in Thai recipes. However, holy basil is quite pungent and is rarely eaten raw. Dried basil has lost quite a bit of the fragrance and pungency of the fresh herb, but it retains a delicate flavor that does well in sauces and soups.
Chives: Chives are the leaves of a bulb plant in the onion family. In fact, the word chive comes from the Latin word for onion (cepa). The slender, hollow, grass-green leaves have a very delicate but pronounced onion flavor. They are best used fresh, but frozen and freeze-dried chives can substitute if needed.
Cilantro: Mexican and Indian food—to name just two of many cuisines in which this herb is used—would not be the same without cilantro, also called coriander leaf or Chinese parsley. The leaves, which resemble flat-leaf parsley (and are in the same botanical family) are strongly aromatic. The root is also used in cooking, especially in East Asia, where it is an essential ingredient in many curry pastes. Cilantro’s distinctive flavor is not to everyone’s taste. For some people, even a touch of cilantro will overpower a dish’s flavor. Some researchers believe that there is a genetic component to an individual’s reaction to cilantro. The herb was used in ancient times as an appetite stimulant, and for cilantro aficionados, it still serves that purpose admirably. Dried cilantro is available but has very little flavor.
Culantro (saw-leaf herb): Culantro is an herb popular in Latin America and the Caribbean. It taste similar to cilantro, but is more pungent. The leaves of culantro are long, narrow, and serrated (they look like skinny dandelion leaves). You can use culantro the way you would cilantro.
Dill: Though native to the Mediterranean, dill as a seasoning is probably most connected with the cuisines of Scandinavia and Central Europe. Fresh dill leaves are used to flavor the salmon dish called gravlax, and dill seeds are what give dill pickles their distinctive flavor. Dill leaves are feathery fronds, which resemble the fronds of the fennel plant, a relative of dill. Dried dill (called dillweed) has very little flavor.
Garlic chives (Chinese chives): Garlic chives belong to the onion family, just like regular chives, but they look very different. Garlic chives look like large blades of grass, while regular chives are hollow and thin. They are more pungent than regular chives and have a hint of garlic in their flavor. Garlic chives can be green or yellow, though the yellow variety is simply green chives that have been deprived of light. Yellow chives have a milder flavor. Flowering garlic chives are chives that are allowed to form a bud, but are picked before they flower.
Garlic scapes: Garlic scapes have made a big splash in the farmers’ market scene as of late. They are the soft stems of not-yet-opened flower buds from hard-neck varieties of garlic. Crunchy and sweet, they make a terrific addition to eggs, pasta, and stir-fries.
Lovage: This herb looks just like celery leaves and also tastes like a more pungent celery.
Mint: There are 20 or so “pure” mint species, and thousands more hybrids, since mint is a prolific and aggressive plant. However, the three most common species are Mentha piperita (peppermint), Mentha spicata (spearmint), and Mentha suaveolens (apple and pineapple mint). The type of mint most commonly found in supermarkets is spearmint, also called garden mint. Peppermint is the strongest-tasting of all the mint species and the one used to make peppermint oils and candies. Most of the other mint varieties are the province of farmers’ markets, specialty produce markets, and the home gardener. Some of the more unusual varieties of mint include ginger mint, grapefruit mint, and eau de cologne mint. Mint leaves tend to be oval and either slightly pointed or rounded at the tip. They can be wrinkled or smooth, but they are all slightly serrated. Mint flavor is fairly well preserved when the herb is dried.
Parsley: This is the most common fresh herb in American supermarkets. There are two main types: curly parsley and flat-leaf (or Italian) parsley. Curly parsley is favored by restaurants for decorating plates. Flat-leaf parsley is the choice of most cooks because it has a much more pronounced parsley flavor. Parsley roots are a type of parsley known for its roots, and are cooked like carrot or parsnip. Although dried parsley is available, it has no flavor.
Sorrel (spinach dock): Sorrel, whose leaves look like arrow-shaped spinach, has a memorable tart flavor, which some have likened to rhubarb. Though sorrel can be treated as a salad green, its classic European use is as a purée that is turned into either a soup, or a sauce to serve over fish (traditionally salmon, whose rich flavor pairs beautifully with the tartness of the sorrel).
How to Cook with Green Herbs
Use basil, cilantro, dill, chives, parsley, and other fresh herbs to create tasty and healthful dishes.
Published April 14, 2016