If you’re cooking on a budget, or only cooking for one person, you might be tempted to just pass over the fresh herbs. After all, when money is tight, spending $1.50 on cilantro will only give you a garnish but spending $1.50 on lettuce will give you a meal’s worth of vegetables – or more! And for the single cooks, it’s endlessly frustrating to buy a huge bunch of something and then have 2/3 of it get slimy and gross in the fridge.
If money really is so tight that you can’t afford a few dollars on fresh herbs, then you’re probably making the right choice spending that money on other vegetables instead, and hats off to you for perseverance and determination for sticking with Paleo regardless! But in other cases, you might want to reconsider: fresh herbs have great health benefits, and there’s a way to cook them for every cooking style.
Health Benefits of Herbs
The problem with reports on the health benefits of herbs is that so many are overhyped. A lot of studies go something like this: first, the researchers purify some compound in the herb, standardize it, and concentrate it to levels that would be impossible to get from eating the fresh plant. Then they feed the purified, concentrated active ingredient to rats (or sometimes inject it straight into their bodies, or put it directly on tumor cells in a test tube), and notice that it has some effect. The researchers report this as something like “Composition and Antiproliferative Effect of Essential Oil of Origanum vulgare Against Tumor Cell Lines” (yes, that’s an actual study) but the media repackages it as “Oregano cures cancer!”
If you’re going to go around purifying your herbs and injecting them directly into your tissues, these studies will give you a decent idea of what to expect. But they don’t tell you about the health benefits of eating some oregano in your tomato sauce. So leaving out the unwarranted hype, what are the actual health benefits of herbs?
The antioxidants in herbs (and spices) might not make you cancer-proof but they do help protect your food from oxidative damage, even at levels that a normal person might reasonably eat. Just adding herbs to a meal or marinating sauce can help protect any fats they come into contact with.
Oxidative damage is a major problem because it makes fats in particular more inflammatory and less healthy, so preventing it is a major benefit. This is particularly great if you’re cooking anything fatty over high heat: marinate those chicken thighs before you grill them!
Food fraud is a big problem, and dried, jarred seasonings are some of the biggest targets. How would you like to find out you’re actually getting some chickory, bark, sawdust, grass, or other random contaminants with your jar of basil?
With fresh herbs, you can completely avoid that possibility, because it’s much, much more difficult to pass off bark or sawdust as a bunch of fresh basil than it is to sneak them in as fillers to the dried jar. So you’re protecting yourself automatically from the lion’s share of potential contaminants.
There are plenty of other proven benefits to herbal extracts or essential oils – for example, peppermint oil is quite an effective treatment for IBS and other digestive disorders. That’s powerful stuff, but in that case you’re using the herb as medicine, not as food. And this is an article about the benefits of putting peppermint in your salad, not the benefits of taking peppermint oil in purified form as a pill.
Herbal medicine is interesting and powerful, but it’s not the same thing as eating herbs in normal quantities as part of your meals. And if culinary use of herbs is what you want to study, the evidence for all the anti-cancer, anti-diabetes, anti-Alzheimer’s benefits is thin. It’s useless and misleading to say that oregano cures cancer in real live humans just because a purified extract killed isolated cancer cells in a test tube.
It may very well be true that the benefits of the extracts extend to the herbs, but without actual studies on herbs in the diet, it’s impossible to say for sure (especially since cooking the herbs changes their composition even more, with unknown effects on their benefits). So for now, we’ll leave the benefits at the antioxidants and food safety – and if you want to check out all the different uses of herbal extracts in supplements, there’s a cheat sheet for that!
Buying, Cooking, and Storing Herbs
How and where to buy
You can buy fresh herbs in the produce section of any grocery store, but if you have access to them, check out ethnic markets for much better deals and a fresher selection.
If you’ve got a sunny window (or better yet, a garden), you can also grow an herb garden yourself and save a lot of money – they’re very easy to take care of and the seeds are incredibly cheap. And as a bonus, you don’t have to worry about freshness, since you can just snip off what you need as you need it.
If you never use the whole bunch before it goes bad
It’s all about preservation! Fresh herbs are fragile, so if you don’t use the whole bunch in a week or so, you’ll need to find some way to keep them safe.
One foolproof way to save herbs is to freeze them in olive oil. Then just pop out the cubes of olive oil to use when you need a flavored fat for cooking. (If you’re making multiple flavors of frozen oil cubes, this is your advance warning to label the bags: you will not be able to tell parsley from basil on sight after freezing!)
Alternately, check the freezer section of your grocery store. Many of them carry convenient little pre-frozen packages of herbs (no oil, just the herbs) that you can pop out like ice cubes out of a mold.
Another tactic is to dry the herbs yourself: here’s a guide to that.
Using Fresh Herbs
What can you cook with fresh herbs? Well, everything!
- Make condiments. Fresh herbs will liven up the taste of everything from pesto to salad dressings to salsa. One recipe for inspiration: Salted Herbs (The Healthy Foodie).
- Add them directly to salads. If your greens are getting dull, try shredding some mint or parsley right into the mix. One recipe for inspiration: Persian Herb Salad
(The Little Plantation) – American readers, note that “coriander” in British English refers to the herb you know as “cilantro,” not coriander seeds.
- Rub them on meat. A few sprigs of rosemary over your fish, some fresh thyme rubbed into a chicken: there’s nothing to it. One recipe for inspiration: Skillet Rosemary Chicken (Paleo Leap).
- Put them in eggs. Garnish a frittata with fresh herbs, or just throw them into omelets in place of dried. One recipe for inspiration: Green Herb Omelet (Paleo diet Basics)
- Make tea with them. Mint is the obvious choice, but you can make herb tea with all kinds of herbs. One recipe for inspiration: Sage Tea (The Herb Gardener).
A few other recipes just to get you started:
- Grain-free Herbed Cauliflower Rice (Colorful Eats Nutrition)
- Herb-Infused Oils (Paleo + Life)
- Fresh Herb Soup (Seasonal and Savory)
- Spicy Chicken with Herb Sauce (Paleo Leap)
You can also substitute fresh herbs for dry herbs in recipes; a good rule of thumb is to use three times the quantity of fresh. So if a recipe calls for 1 tbsp. of dried oregano, put in 3 tbsp. of fresh.
Summing it Up
Herbs might not be the miraculous answer to every disease known to man, but then again, what is? They’re tasty, they’re great for protecting fats in your meal from oxidation, and they spare you any worry about food fraud – plus, they’re a great way to add flavor even on restrictive diets like an autoimmune protocol. What’s not to love?
So…what’s your favorite herb and how do you use it?