How to Teach the Delights of Cooking with Herbs

A quote from John Gerard in 1597 in which he wrote that basil, “taketh away sorrowfulness and maketh a man merry and glade,” is as true today as it was four centuries ago. Herbs bring a satisfying sensory experience to food. They add flavor, scent and visual appeal. They make the plain extraordinary.

Teaching people to cook with herbs should be more than a cooking class. Few other subjects can touch such a wide range of possibilities. Herboloby is a lesson of our world, societies and culinary journey through history. Herbs produce a variety of tastes from mild and pleasant like lemon thyme, to strong like rosemary and sage. Properly using the flavors of herbs brings cooking to a new level of skill and character.

Start with familiar flavors and relate them to well known foods that feature them. A good range of herbs to start with might include: parsley, mint, lemon balm, dill, fennel and basil. These can be tasted individually and in a sample food that features them. A suggested listing of foods to accompany a beginning cooking with herbs lesson follows below.

Contrast the difference between fresh and dried herbs. Note the depth of flavor in fresh herbs, but dried herbs are easier to store. Since the oil in herbs become more potent as they dry, remind the students to use two to three times more if fresh.

Relay interesting facts, lore, nutritional benefits and preparation tips about the individual herbs being featured. Possibilities are as numerous as herbs themselves. Suggestions might include: Chives are a hearty perennial rich in iron and known for it’s onion like flavor. Snipping herbs like dill and parsley with a scissors rather than a knife is a good tip. Chamomile tea was sipped by Peter Rabbit in the tales by Beatrix Potter

Remember to use herbs sparingly at first. There may be no other sure way to destroy new appreciation for their flavors and benefits than to be heavy handed. Each person’s taste preferences are their own and a gentle introduction to new flavors prevents them from being overwhelmed.

Another good way to teach people to appreciate herbs is to allow each student to create an infusion of their favorite herb in oil for their personal use, or as a gift. 

It’s a good idea to have a few easy to grow herbs in pots to show. Deliver a few choice gardner’s tips such as: clip the buds of basil to keep it from blooming and encourage foliage growth. This is a good time to discuss methods of preservation. Demonstrate laying fresh herbs on a drying rack, or chopped and frozen in ice cube trays with water.

If this is an alcohol appropriate setting, liqueurs that use herbs as their flavor base might be tasted. These could include basil in chartreuse, anise in amaretto and others.  

Here are suggested foods to accompany a beginning herb lesson. Be sure to include the recipes in a handout for the class.

     Herb cream cheese and yogurt dip with pita chips

     Minted iced tea or fruit slush

     Basil pesto or herbed butter with slices of crusty artisan bread

     Cilantro in a simple salsa with tomatoes, onion, avocado and taco seasoning

     Sage in an easy, savory cornbread stuffing

     Oregano and basil in tomato sauce over pasta or mini pizzas

You may wish to finish your cooking with herbs session with this lovely quote by Alice Hoffman in Practical Magic: “There’s a few things I’ve learned in life: always throw salt over your left shoulder, keep rosemary by your garden gate, plant lavender for good luck and fall in love whenever you can.”