For almost as long as we’ve been cooking, we’ve used herbs to flavor our food – but herbs are far more than a tasty seasoning to mix with mashed potatoes or sprinkle into soup. Here is everything you need to know about the culinary benefits of herbs.
What Are Herbs, Exactly?
Herbs are savory or aromatic plants used to provide nutrition and flavor to food. In general, the term refers exclusively to flowering or leafy parts of plants – other parts of a plant, such as fruits, berries, or bark, are considered spices instead.
Herbs have been used for nutritional purposes well before the first century, and have been a staple of Chinese medicine for as long as records exist. In Western history, the Hippocratic system in Greece made extensive use of them as well.
Neither tradition is hearsay or ancient mysticism – many herbs have well-documented health benefits when consumed in the proper amounts. Like most medicine, it is possible to take too much – not easy, unless you’re consuming a concentrated extract, but possible all the same. As such, you should always research the herb before using more than a sprinkle.
Allergic reactions to herbs are rare (and usually mild), but they do exist.
How Are Herbs Used For More Than Flavor?
Medicinal use of herbs depends on the herb in question. One of the most popular techniques is extracting the essential oil of the herb, then consuming that with a meal, in a bath, or through steam inhalation.
Alternatively, people may create a tea from the herbs. For injuries, healing herbs used in herbal compresses offer a variety of benefits.
It’s best to think of herbs like any other medicine – you need the right dose in the right form to get the effect you want. Deviating from this could stop it from working… or worse, actively hurt you.
You may want to use herbs as part of a larger superfood blend. For example, a few drops of herbal oils in a smoothie can provide outstanding results
Here are some of the most popular organic herbs spices and how to use them as healthy seasonings in your food.
Isn’t it nice when a name tells you what something does? Feverfew is an herb that looks much like white dandelions, but it offers significantly more benefits. Its most common uses focus on ailments of the head, from migraines to fever to tinnitus. Some people take Feverfew to treat nausea or vomiting since it’s believed to have numerous calming properties.
Unlike most herbs, Feverfew is rarely used in food – the taste is considered offensive by most people. However, it does have some positive effects when mixed with ginger, which helps to mask its flavor and provides additional medicinal benefits.
How To Use: Feverfew should be taken in a processed form for up to 4 months as a treatment. If unprocessed, the leaves can result in loss of taste, mouth sores, and swelling in various areas of the mouth. Do not use Feverfew if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant. While it has medicinal uses, it’s more potent than many herbs, and overdosing could cause a miscarriage. Do not use Feverfew along with a blood thinner.
If you use Feverfew to treat migraines, slowly reduce the dose rather than suddenly ceasing. About 10% of people experience a negative reaction (often called ‘Post-Feverfew Syndrome’), and it’s better to avoid the risk.
Thailand’s Holy Basil shouldn’t be confused with the more widespread Sweet Basil (itself a fairly good herb to use). This strain of the plant is a little spicier than its cousin, and many cooks recommend soaking it for a short time, then mixing it with a fresh strain of Sweet Basil.
It’s especially common as a seasoning in stir-fry. Restaurants often pair it with shrimp, scallops, pork, and chicken, and you’ll definitely notice its presence.
Medicinally, Holy Basil has demonstrated antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. It also provides antioxidants, and even more importantly, it can help to reduce stress. Together, these effects help to stabilize the body and make it one of the best herbs to add to dishes.
How To Use: Holy Basil is generally at its best when added to stir-fried foods. Alternatively, you can get Holy Basil extracts – but make sure it’s a complete extract that uses alcohol, distillation, and supercritical methods. Limiting the extract to one method can result in missing some of the important nutrients in Holy Basil, undercutting its effectiveness.
Lavender is a famously purple herb, instantly recognizable when used decoratively or at the tables. It’s part of the mint family and is often used as a replacement for rosemary. It pairs well with fennel, oregano, thyme, sage, and savory. Like many herbs, the dried version of this plant is stronger, so you won’t need to use as much with food. Even without drying, lavender is fairly strong, so only add a little bit.
Medicinally, lavender is concentrated into an oil. Research suggests a positive impact with antiseptic and anti-inflammatory uses, as well as positive impacts on restlessness, insomnia, depression, and anxiety. Some people use it to treat digestive problems or pain. Currently, it is not approved for any medicinal use, but research is ongoing to see if benefits can be isolated.
How To Use: Lavender is best as an oil, where 2-3 drops are sufficient for rubbing onto the skin. It’s safe to take one or two drops orally, but avoid excessive consumption.
Peppermint is most-often associated with certain holiday treats… but this herb is strong and flavorful throughout the year. It’s especially popular for dealing with nausea and irritable bowels, where it’s shown a consistent benefit in studies. Pregnant women, in particular, may want to use peppermint aromatherapy.
In cooking, peppermint leaves can be infused into honey, added to chocolate treats, dropped into salad dressing, or placed as sprigs in iced drinks.
How To Use: If you’re not sprinkling leaves in, use it as essential oil. Steamers are an excellent choice for this. Do not use the oil without diluting it – peppermint extract is quite strong and can burn your skin. A drop or two is all you need for most meals and drinks.
One of the most popular herbs of all time, Rosemary is a fragrant, somewhat woody herb characterized by the long, slender leaves used in cooking. It’s particularly popular with mashed potatoes, where it can be mixed in to add extra flavor.
However, in culinary amounts, Rosemary has little or no medicinal benefit. It still tastes great, making it worth using, but the last thing you want to do is think you’re getting health benefits when you really aren’t.
When used medicinally, Rosemary offers benefits for the memory, as well as a wide variety of anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antiseptic properties. Some studies suggest that it can help inhibit cancer growth, and research is ongoing. (Note that preventing growth is not the same thing as eliminating any cancer that currently exists – there is no suggestion that it is a cure.)
How To Use: Rosemary tends to show the best results when used as an oil. It can be added to hair lotions, infused into wines, made into tea, or added to steamers. Do not consume rosemary oil through your mouth. Doctors generally recommend no more than 4-6 grams of the dried form per-day.
Sage is widely considered to be an ‘essential herb’ thanks to its savory, peppery flavor. By the Middle Ages, it was frequently recommended by experts for use as a tonic, and herbologist John Gerard observed at the time that it was particularly good for the mind.
Modern studies of sage lean in that direction, with indications that sage is excellent at improving memory and brain functions. The research is not fully conclusive yet – due, in part, to inherent difficulties measuring this sort of thing – but sage is considered a promising treatment for Alzheimer’s. All in all, there’s a lot to love with this herb.
How To Use: Sage has a powerful flavor, especially when dried, so you won’t need too much. Add a sprinkle to fatty meats and poultry or mix into pasta and potatoes.