A Survey of Common Herbs

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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Most of the herbs used in traditional European cooking are members of two plant groups, the mint family and the carrot family. The family members resemble each other to varying degrees, so in this survey I’ve grouped them together. The remaining herbs then follow in mostly alphabetical order.
Fresh herbs are usually harvested from mature plants, often as they’re beginning to flower, when their defensive essential oil content is at its peak. The oil content of Mediterranean herbs is higher on the side of the plant facing the sun. An interesting variation is to harvest them as young sprouts with just a few leaves, when their essential oil content can be very different. Fennel sprouts, for example, contain relatively little anise-like anethole, which dominates the flavor of the mature plant.