by Deborah C. Harding
Herbs can enhance the flavor of any meal. A plain salad or pot roast can be invigorated by the addition of fresh or dried herbs. Vegetables and fruits can become taste temptations through the use of herbs. Herbs can be baked into breads, cookies, and cakes to create something special and unusual. Herbs are truly a versatile culinary tool that no kitchen should be without.

Herbs can be purchased or grown and preserved for use several different ways.

Fresh: Fresh herbs can be purchased at most grocery stores. Herbs are also easy to grow in a garden or in pots on a patio or on a windowsill.

Dried: Dried herbs can be purchased at grocery stores or homegrown herbs can be dried.

Frozen: Pick herbs from the garden or take leftover fresh herbs purchased at the grocery store and freeze. Clean, whole sprigs or leaves can be thrown into a freezer bag and into the freezer for future use. Leaves can also be chopped and placed into ice cube trays filled with water. Use these cubes in soups or stews.

In oil: Some herbs can be blended with cooking oils, such as olive oil, to be used in cooking. Some of these herbal cooking oils can be purchased in specialty stores.

In vinegar: Herbal vinegars are very popular and can be found in any specialty store. They are very easy to make as well. Fill a jar ¾ full of herb leaves and top off with vinegar. Place plastic wrap over the opening of the jar before placing the cap on. Vinegar coming in contact with the metal lid will cause an undesired chemical reaction, so care must be taken to ensure they do not touch. Place the jar in a sunny windowsill for several weeks. Be sure to shake the jar at least once a day. Strain the vinegar through a coffee filter until it comes out clear and place in a bottle or jar with a fresh sprig of the herb. Experiment with different vinegars and herbs. These work well in marinades
and salad dressings.

There are also a few very important factors to keep in mind when cooking with herbs:

Use twice the amount of fresh herbs as dry herbs in any recipe. The drying process concentrates herbal oils, making flavor stronger in dried herbs. Most recipes list measurements for dry herbs unless otherwise specified. When using dry herbs, crush or crumble the leaves while adding them to your recipe. This will release the oils and their flavors.

In most cases, herbs should be added near the end of cooking time. Flavors tend to fade in herbs when heated.

Store dried herbs in a dark area away from heat. Do not store them above or near the stove. Bright light and heat dissipate the herbal oils, rendering them weak and tasteless. When home drying herbs, try to use dark jars for storage.