The first step in cooking with fresh herbs might be the one you take out your back door.
On the deck or balcony or in a handkerchief-sized patch of ground near the kitchen, you can plant and harvest any of the 40 or more herb varieties readily available at most garden centers.
Grocery stores have been stocking fresh herbs for two decades -- and have long outgrown the simple bunch of curly parsley once offered. But it is at garden centers that cooks will find herbs such as cinnamon basil, lemon grass or celery leaf -- herbs that are easy to grow and offer a flavorful dimension to cooking that doesn't add salt, fat or calories.
"That's the beauty of having your own garden," said Richard Stuthmann, director of instruction at the Baltimore International College culinary school. For the second year, he and his staff have planted an extensive herb garden with which students will experiment.
"We can work with borage, verbenas and hyssops -- herbs the commercial market doesn't have, but the greenhouses do."
Author Rosaline Creasy writes that for years she felt as if she were cooking "in black and white." Then she added some fresh chives to potato soup and fresh basil to spaghetti sauce and suddenly felt as if she were "cooking in full color and stereo."
Homegrown herbs are much more flavorful and much less expensive -- most seedlings sell for $4 or less -- than the plastic packets from the supermarket produce section.
A few pots on the porch, planted with favorites, are a great place to begin. Thomas Jefferson was the gardener who taught us that it makes sense to plant close to the kitchen for easy harvest. And cooks are more likely to use herbs if they are close by.
When choosing the herbs to plant, consider what you enjoy cooking -- and how much you like to weed.
We've put together suggestions for three types of herb gardens, with ideas for how what you grow can enhance what you cook.
Most herbs enjoy the hot, dry climate of their Mediterranean origins, except basil, which is a thirsty plant. But the most common mistake gardeners make with their potted herb gardens is forgetting to water. Remember, clay pots dry out faster than plastic or glazed pots.
Plant in too small a pot and your herbs will quickly become pot-bound. Too big, and the roots may rot because the plant can't absorb all the water. A rule of thumb is to double the size of the pot the herb arrived in: a 4-inch pot of herbs should be transplanted into at least an 8-inch pot.
Choose a potting mixture that has both fertilizer and moisture-retention particles.
Feed your herbs every other week with Miracle-Gro, which is absorbed through the leaves. Or add a slow-release fertilizer, such as Osmocote, when transplanting your herbs and it will last for three months. Many organic herb gardeners like to fertilize with fish emulsion, but it is smelly and can change the taste of the herbs if you get it on the leaves.
Always harvest the young leaves, which are more succulent. Even when you are not cooking with your herbs, pinch them back to a leaf joint from time to time to encourage growth and prevent flowering. Though attractive and edible, the flowers drain strength and flavor from the rest of the plant.
Fresh herbs can keep in the refrigerator for about 10 days.
Sturdier herbs, such as parsley, rosemary, bay leaves and thyme, can be used early in cooking. Tender herbs, such as basil, chives, cilantro and tarragon, should not be added until the last few minutes of cooking. But chilled foods, like salads and cold soups, require that all herbs be mixed in several hours in advance so the flavors can meld.
Dried herbs are more concentrated than fresh herbs, and powdered herbs are more concentrated than crumbled. For example: 1 / 4 teaspoon powdered equals 3 / 4 teaspoon to 1 teaspoon crumbled or 2 to 4 teaspoons fresh.
If you want fresh herbs in winter, bring your plants indoors before the first frost, put them in the sunniest window and mist them regularly to keep the air moist.
Thyme, oregano, sage, lavender, mint, rosemary and lemon balm are likely to overwinter in our climate. Parsley will, too, but it is a biennial. Dill will not, but it may reseed.
Freeze individual herb leaves on a cookie sheet, then toss them into a freezer bag and label them. Basil should be blanched before freezing. Freezing preserves more flavor than drying.
Alternately, mix herbs in butter or oil or blanch them in boiling water and freeze in ice-cube trays.
[Compiled by Susan Reimer from books, interviews and online sources]