Fresh and fragrant, grassy and green, herbs are filling produce bins and sweeping into your local farmers’ market. But in addition to being delicious, did you know herbs offer a number of health benefits? Those delicate leaves are laced with antioxidants with powerful disease-fighting properties that have been shown to help prevent cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and even Alzheimer’s. Antioxidants are anti-inflammatory, and polyphenols, a specific type of antioxidant found in many herbs, are also anti-microbial, warding off cold and flu bugs, along with other infections.
Herbs are low in calories, and all of that flavor and aroma might also help to keep you from overcompensating with too much fat, salt, or sugar. So stop thinking about them as just a dainty sprig or a garnish. Get big flavor and benefits by dropping a handful of these 10 herbs into whatever you’ve got cooking.
- Basil Sweet and mild basil, like many herbs, boasts antioxidants and essential oils. Layer whole leaves in a classic caprese salad, between juicy tomatoes and milky fresh mozzarella. Or whirl it into a gorgeous green pesto, perfect for tossing with pasta or drizzling over grilled fish or veggies.
- Chives Slender chives have a delicate onion flavor, and like onions, they contain allicin, which has been linked to heart health. Snip and sprinkle into chicken, fish, or egg salad, and serve a scoop on whole-wheat toast or alongside baby greens.
- Cilantro Noodle soups, brimming with buckwheat or egg noodles, aren’t complete without a pile of cilantro leaves. Drizzle with sesame oil, hit it with hot sauce, and breath deep before diving in. Or tuck and roll a trio of cilantro, basil, and mint leaves into fresh salad rolls, filled with tender shrimp and slivered veggies.
- Dill Delicate dill weed is a classic companion for fish, but also delicious in soft-scrambled eggs, rolled around a goat cheese log, or in a yogurt dip with fresh veggies.
- Mint has essential oils that soothe and aid digestion. Muddle the fresh leaves with lemon zest to make a tisane, or fresh tea. With one sip, you’ll be convinced it’s just what the doctor ordered.
- Oregano is one of the hallmarks of Italian, Greek, and Mediterranean cuisine. Pulse oregano, lemon, and capers to make a zesty marinade for grilled chicken, fish, eggplant, or zucchini.
- Parsley Dark green and spiky parsley leaves contain amazingly high levels of vitamins C and K. Try salads that skips over lettuce, like tabbouleh, which relies on finely chopped parsley as an ultra fresh and flavorful base. Serve it with grilled lamb, eggplant, or a dollop of hummus.
- Rosemary has many medicinal qualities, from reducing inflammation to improving memory. The evergreen needles impart wild woodsy flavor, so pair bold with bold, like gamy roast lamb.
- Sage has some of the same benefits as rosemary, and an equally distinctive flavor. It partners well with turkey, pork, or winter squash, and the leaves crisp and brown beautifully in a hot pan.
- Thyme tops the list of herbs high in minerals, and packs a surprising amount of calcium and iron (because you only eat a small amount, it can’t compete with milk or steak, but gram for gram, thyme is much higher!). Classic roast chicken is even more enticing when you slip a serious amount of finely chopped thyme, marjoram, or savory right under the skin. Thyme’s also good friends with saucy sautéed mushrooms.
Fresh herbs are perishable, so use them within a few days. From a nutrition perspective, it’s fine to use dried herbs, as drying can actually concentrate the antioxidants. For most recipes, you can substitute 1 teaspoon dried herbs for 1 tablespoon fresh. But from a foodie perspective, chefs are almost always going to insist on fresh for unrivaled flavor.
Written by Becky Duffett