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  • Writer's picturedeborahreinhardt

10 Tips for Growing and Using Culinary Herbs

Fresh herbs, essential to a home cook’s arsenal of ingredients, can be successfully grown using these tips from the St. Louis Herb Society.

culinary herbs
My AeroGarden produces just enough culinary herbs to use in a variety of dishes and drinks.

When admiring beautiful and abundant herb gardens, I’m green with envy. I like to cook with herbs, whether fresh or dried, but when I try to grow a small assortment, I have only limited success. Sure, there’s that small patch of oregano in my backyard, but then this stuff is pretty hard to kill. Mom’s pantry always was stocked with a variety of dried herbs, but Dad grew vegetables and flowers, not herbs, in the backyard.

However, earlier this year, I invested in an AeroGarden with six hydroponic herb pods, which gives me a steady supply of dill, basil, parsley, mint, and thyme. I love having this in my kitchen (note that this isn't a sponsored post).

But there’s always room to grow my culinary knowledge, so when the Saint Louis Culinary Society and the St. Louis Herb Society teamed up for a virtual class about cooking with herbs, I signed up in a flash. The hour with Herb Society member Mary Hammer, who has amazing herbal gardens (I’m not using the term lightly here), flew by. There was so much good information, I knew I had to share it with all of you.

“For the most part, they (herbs) are easy to grow,” Mary said. Here are 10 tips for growing and using culinary herbs in your kitchen.

  1. Herbs need six to eight hours of sun, whether you’re growing the plants outside or indoors. Spend a bit of time assessing your home or yard to find the best sunny spot and plant your herbs accordingly.

  2. Good drainage is essential, whether growing the herbs in the ground or in pots. Mary said raised beds are perfect for growing herbs, but if using pots, be sure there are adequate drainage holes in the container’s bottom.

  3. A loose, compacted soil is best for herbs. Mary said the soil should look like chocolate cake. At this time of year, it’s best to buy plants that are established; look for compact (not bushy) herbs, preferably without any blooms.

  4. When harvesting, use a sharp knife, not scissors, to cut herbs. Remove any leaves near the bottom that could touch water in storage.

  5. Never cut more than a third of the plant.

  6. To store fresh herbs, be sure to rinse the cuttings and shake excess water off the leaves. Keep in a clean container filled with water (remember, no leaves in the water as this promotes bacteria growth). Change the water daily. Fresh basil hates cold, so don’t store this herb in the refrigerator, so keep it in a glass on your counter.

  7. Wrap parsley or cilantro in damp paper towels and place inside a plastic zip-top bag inside the refrigerator.

  8. Keep dried herbs away from heat sources (such as your stove). To ensure freshness, rub the herbs in your hand before adding to your dish; if it doesn’t have any fragrance, throw the herbs out. My friend Kathy in North Carolina successfully dries herbs from her garden in the microwave. She cuts all stems off and places leaves between paper towels. This is microwaved on a safe plate for a minute. If not fully dried, she zaps the herbs in 10- or 20-second increments. I did this with oregano and it worked very well.

  9. Use any leftover herbs you’ve cut to make herbed butters. Herbs also can be frozen in water or in oil.

  10. Remember to label everything. Chopped and dried herbs look a lot alike.

Wondering what you should grow? Start with parsley, the 2021 Herb of the Year (so named by the International Herb Association). Flat-leaf is best for cooking; curly parsley is usually saved to garnish a finished dish.

Mary also mentioned basil (so many varieties here, but perhaps start with sweet Genovese), chives, dill, French tarragon, garden sage, and mint. “I don’t know if you can have an herb garden without mint,” Mary said with a chuckle, adding it’s best to grow this herb in a pot because it spreads so rapidly.

And English lavender is lovely not only in the kitchen, but it works beautifully dried for potpourri and sachets. Inspired by Mary's comments, I bought lavender plus a few other herbs to grow in outdoor pots near the patio. So far, they are looking great, and I recently used some of the lemon thyme and sage in recipes.

The St. Louis Herb Society, now in its 80th year, has a couple of cookbooks to its credit, but I recently purchased Herbal Cookery: From the Kitchens and Gardens of the St. Louis Herb Society. There also are a number of recipes on the society’s website, including these Baked Peppers with Herbs.

red, orange and yellow bell peppers
Look at these beauties! I almost felt bad about cutting them up.

Featuring beautiful, colorful bell peppers and plenty of fresh herbs, this dish is easy to make and super delicious. I’m adding this to my go-to arsenal of vegetable dishes. It can be an appetizer served with a baguette or a good Italian bread, a side to serve along with grilled meat or fish, or a brunch dish. I ate these with an egg for breakfast.

For this dish, you’ll need:

  • red, yellow, and/or orange bell peppers

  • fresh parsley and thyme

  • garlic

  • tomato sauce

  • cheese (cheddar, gouda or Gruyere)

The peppers are cleaned and cut into 2-inch chunks. But don’t toss the pepper tops; trim the flesh off the stem and dice so you can add peppers to scrambled eggs or a salad the next day.

I also used a little less than the recommended amount of parsley, although I had to augment the amount of fresh parsley on hand with the dried herb, which worked out just fine. And because I didn’t have tomato sauce in the pantry, I blended half a can of diced tomatoes with salt and pepper to make the sauce.

By adding the minced garlic and finely chopped herbs to the olive oil, it was easy to evenly pour the mixture over the peppers. I also drizzled the tomato sauce on top of the herbed peppers before topping everything with three ounces of grated Gruyere.

The peppers and tomato sauce bake together so sweetly while the herbs bring the dish together; the cheese, really, is just showing off here.

Truly, I haven’t been this excited about a vegetable recipe in a very long time.

Many home gardeners plant peppers, and they’ll soon be showing up at farmer’s markets in the area. When they are paired with herbs and cheese, something special happens. Give this recipe a try and let me know how it turned out for you by leaving a comment below!

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