Spice Cabinet Smackdown: Dried Herbs Versus Fresh


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You’re in the kitchen, recipe in hand. Do you use dried oregano or fresh oregano? Dried thyme or fresh thyme? Onion powder or fresh onions?

With few exceptions, always go with fresh onions. But the answers to those other questions are murkier. For an herbaceous dose of truth, we turned to Serious Eats' Max Falkowitz, who for two years penned the publication's (now-retired) "Spice Hunting" column.

"There are certain uses of dried herbs that work exceptionally well, and some instances where you would never substitute dried for fresh," Falkowitz told us. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, since "they’re two totally different products."

When are fresh herbs better?

Just-picked herbs like rosemary and sage have a bright, resinous quality that can only be described as tasting “green,” Falkowitz explained. Use fresh herbs for that “green” quality and its accompanying bouquet, or if you’re whipping up a dish or sauce in a pinch; fresh herbs release flavor more quickly than dried herbs (which need time to rehydrate) do.

Some herbs, such as dill, parsley, and chives, should never be used in dry form. Their “green” qualities are their primary appeal, Falkowitz said, and “there’s no reason to use [dried versions] because all things that are essential to those herbs have been taken away.”

When are dried herbs better?

On the other hand, herbs originally native to hot, dry climates can be excellent when dehydrated. When dried, an herb loses its “green” qualities and its remaining aspects are concentrated, yielding a deeper, spicier flavor.

"Dried oregano will keep its deep herbal flavor for longer. It’ll flavor your sauce better [than fresh herbs]," Falkowitz explained. Sage, which Falkowitz likes for meat and some sauces, "stops smelling as green and starts smelling deep" in dried form.

Dehydrated herbs are also good for situations in which you want to limit excess moisture, such as a roast you’re marinating in order to eat it the next day. (And as we’ve said previously, there are some darn good spice mixes out there.)

The big catch with dried herbs is that they can’t be too old. Anything that’s been in your spice cabinet for more than eight months isn’t worth using, Falkowitz warned. (There are some exceptions; if stored properly, dried bay leaves can last for up to two years.)

But Falkowitz wants you to take his advice with a grain of salt. “There’s a lot of dried herb snobbery out there,” he said. “It all comes down to what people’s tastes are. Some people prefer the taste of onion powder to fresh onions, and I’m not going to change that.”

It’s a good point. Trust your own taste buds. You know them better than anyone else.

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