Recently I asked my enormous Instagram following what they’d like to see next on the old blogeroo, because crowd-sourcing ideas is an efficient way of not subjecting readers to yet another fruitcake recipe. I had a lot of fun replies, including ‘should I buy a rice cooker’ (answer: if you eat a lot of rice, yes) and ‘why don’t you make a rice dish using lots of cut up spaghetti’, to which I will always reply, “google what orzo is, you giant walnut.”
Anyway, there was one reply that stood out to me most: a keen reader and dear friend proclaimed that she was “sick of everything tasting like dried mixed herbs” and she wanted to know what to do about it. My immediate and facetious answer would be ‘stop using dried mixed herbs’ but that’d be exquisitely unhelpful – and she did specify that she’d appreciate a guide to using herbs properly, so here we are.
FIRSTLY: Why Dried Mixed Herbs Are A Bit Rubbish
Dried mixed herbs are exiled in my kitchen for a number of reasons. The primary reason I steer clear of them is because they represent a lack of agency in my cooking. When you add mixed dried herbs to a dish, essentially you’ve just let Mrs Sainsbury’s or Mr Schwarz – or in my case – Ms Lidl, decide exactly what your food is going to taste of.
And before you start pointing fingers at my curry recipes or quick-cook camping meals which use pre-made spice mixes and pastes, let me explain that specific seasoning mixes are different. You know roughly what you’re getting in terms of flavour profiles from a paste or mix (Tex-mex, Harissa, North Indian, Thai-style etc) and you’re probably happy to let Sir Patak or Old El Paso Had a Farm do the hard work of sourcing things like curry leaves, and then balancing and adjusting the ratios of aromatics for you. I tend to add more fresh chilli, ginger, smoked paprika and garlic anyway, to support or amplify what’s already there.
In contrast, mixed herbs doesn’t have a flavour profile which is attached to a particular cuisine – they’re not as specific as Herbs de Provence, or used in the same way as a bouquet garni. The proper sinew of the matter is that no one really knows what dried mixed herbs are meant to be used for, with each brand differing in terms of ingredients and ratios – which will significantly alter the finished dish depending on where you buy them. For example, Schwarz cites a ‘traditional’ combination of marjoram, basil, oregano and thyme, while Captain Sainsbos contains thyme, marjoram, oregano, parsley, sage and basil. Lidl, Ocado, Tesco and Waitrose all have different ingredients in their mixed dried herbs too, and we don’t know in what sort of quantity they’re added either. The only unifying factor is that they’re all plants, and they’re all green. But aren’t they all just meant to work fine in tomato-based dishes, or with cheese, or in any old soups and stews?
The answer is no. There’s just too much going on in dried mixed herbs to be of real use to anybody. Each individual herb has its own unique flavour profile which goes well with certain ingredients, and I really recommend you buy each of them separately and get sniffing and googling to find out exactly what it is you want to add to your dish. The Flavour Thesaurus by Nikki Sengit is an absolute bible for this sort of thing, if you’re properly interested.
Of course, I’m not saying don’t use lots of herbs together – they can compliment each other very nicely and we’ll get to that in just a tick. But adding more than 2 or 3 different dried herbs at random to a single recipe can be a bit of a waste of thyme: mixed dried herbs in a jar can contain up to 8 different herbs, all with vastly diverse characteristics. It’s like asking 8 really good artists to collaborate on one painting – everyone’s style will get lost and the whole thing will end up as a bit of an indistinguishable mess.
What to use instead of dried Mixed herbs
When you do come to use your herbs though, the general advice is to use fresh ones where you can. They’re more expensive, yes, and go off faster (keep them wrapped in kitchen roll in the top door of the fridge for longevity), but the difference in flavour between dried herbs and fresh ones is insane and I’m not just saying that to sound like a food-wanker. You can buy all sorts of herbs fresh nowadays – add any leafy fresh herbs like mint, coriander, and parsley at the very end of cooking, but woody fresh herbs such as rosemary (steal it from a garden alongside your bay leaves) and thyme can be chopped finely and added early on with the onions for a real flavour slap.
That said, I tend to use a full array of dried herbs too because I am not – sadly – made of money. The only things I refuse to use dried are parsley, mint and chives, which are insurmountably better when turgid and verdant. Or vergid and turdant.
The other thing to mention about dried herbs is to use them near the start of your cooking so that they rehydrate properly so their oils, which is where the flavour lives, become soluble again. And do use enough of them, will you. A ‘pinch’ or half a teaspoon won’t be remotely noticeable in a pan of liquid more than half a litre or so in volume so use those herbs like you mean it and taste as you go. If you add too much, just add another tin of tomatoes or some more of your base ingredients to balance it out. Sure, you’ll end up with more food, but I reckon you’ve dealt with bigger problems.
So, now you’re bored of all this chatter and actually want to know what to do now you’ve yeeted your dried mixed herbs into oblivion. Happily, the list below will sort you out to some extent.
FLISS’ VERY ROUGH GUIDE TO EUROPEAN FLAVOURING USING HERBS (NOT MUCH ON OTHER SPICES HERE, BUT THAT’S FOR ANOTHER TIME)
- MED-STYLE TOMATO DISHES (PASTAS, CHICKEN STEWS, VEG STEWS, CAPONATAS ETC)
Instead of mixed herbs, fry off your onions with a teaspoon or two each of dried oregano and basil together. When you add the liquid, add a bay leaf or two. Finish the dish with either fresh basil leaves or fresh parsley.
- ROASTED SOFT VEGETABLES (AUBERGINE, PEPPERS ETC)
Toss them in a generous amount of olive oil and salt, then toss with dried oregano or marjoram, dried rosemary and a few chilli flakes. Finish with a spritz of lemon juice and a touch of lemon zest.
- ROASTED ROOT VEGETABLES (POTATOES, CARROTS, ONIONS, SQUASH)
Toss them in oil and salt, then roll in dried rosemary and thyme, then wazz over some black pepper and scatter around a few cloves of garlic. Turn regularly in the oven. The same applies to soup made from roasted root veg.
- BOILED POTATOES
After cooking in lots of salted water, cover them in butter then serve with flaky sea salt, chopped fresh parsley, and chopped fresh mint
Pork stands up to sage incredibly well, so make sure to use lots of that if you’re making a roast or a stew or doing something naughty with sausages. Sage can be very overpowering without stronger flavours to back it up, but if you’re veggie or vegan, fried mushrooms with a touch of dried sage and a little thyme added to the oil or butter is an absolute winner. For the more cheffy among you, if you can get hold of fresh sage leaves, brown them off in some salted butter and add some chopped capers and black pepper for an absolutely killer sauce to serve with ravioli. Or a pork chop. Yas.
Also if you’ve ever wondered what to do with fennel seeds, toast them, grind them lightly then add them to a pork-based ragu.
- CREAMY STUFF (CHICKEN IN A WHITE SAUCE; BECHEMELS; CHOWDERS)
Fresh parsley is great when flecked through creamy stuff at the end, lending a grassy note and helping to cut through the fattiness. BY THE WAY DO NOT USED DRIED PARSELY BECAUSE IT TASTES LIKE CUPBOARDS. Ahem. Alongside parsley, a hint of nutmeg always complements cheesy stuff like béchamel nicely, and tarragon goes hand-in-hand with creamier chicken and leek dishes. You can use bay in all those applications too, as long as you remember to remove it at the end.
This list is obviously not exhaustive; it’s designed to start you off for some common dishes. And remember, the best seasoning is what tickles your dopamine receptors, so have a play around with flavours to determine what is is you like.