Italians insist upon fresh ingredients in their food, and their herbs are no exception. There are a variety of fresh herbs common in Italian cooking. Most people are familiar with the little bottles of dried herbs from the grocery store, but if you haven’t prepared food with fresh herbs, you really need to give it a try.
What’s the distinction between an herb and a spice?
Spices are made from the seeds, root, fruit or barks of aromatic plants, while the herbs primarily consist of the leaves and stems. Herb plants contain oils which are very fragrant and add the distinctive aroma and flavor that Italian food is known for.
A few of the most common herbs are basil, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage and thyme.
Basil is a member of the mint family, and like all mint herbs, it is extremely fragrant when picked fresh. Basil leaves blacken when exposed to metal, therefore it is common in Italy to tear the leaves by hand before throwing the basil into a sauce or onto a dish. Basil is the primary herb for the famous pesto sauce.
Oregano is another popular herb in both Italian and Greek food. Most people are familiar with this herb in tomato based pasta sauces and with meats.
Italian Parsley, also known as flat-leaf parsley, is readily available in most grocery stores and is easy to distinguish it from the curly variety frequently used as a garnish. Italians favor this parsley for cooking because it has a much better flavor, while the curlier variety is best saved for garnishing your dish.
Rosemary is another widely available herb and resembles a little branch from an evergreen tree. This is one of the most fragrant of all the fresh herbs and it will retain its flavor and aroma when dried. It’s excellent with vegetables and is often cooked into the dough of breads like focaccia.
Sage has long, broad leaves and is the herb which flavors the traditional Italian Saltimbocca dish. Sage is also very fragrant so be sure you don’t use too much and overwhelm your meal.
Thyme is another herb of the mint family, but in contrast to the other mints, it has tiny leaves that can easily be thrown whole into your sauce or dish. I use this herb frequently because its mild flavor goes well with everything and won’t overshadow the rest of your dish.