Which Herbs and Spices Are Commonly Used in Italian Cooking?
These flavors help define everything from pesto to porchetta.
Whether the classic recipes of Tuscany or those of Sicily, Italian cuisine is known for its simplicity. Fresh herbs are used when in season but dried herbs play an important role in enhancing flavors, too. They can brighten and complement other ingredients—and many of the herbs used in Italian food will be familiar to most home cooks already.
The warm, sweet flavor of basil is one of the essentials of Italian cuisine. It's the main ingredient in pesto, and it's also a natural with tomatoes, like in this Pappa al Pomodoro. Dried basil is an herb our team doesn't love; instead, they say to stick with fresh. Better still, grow your own on the patio like many Italian home cooks do.
Italian cooks use these dried leaves from the laurel tree to season meat and fish dishes, as well as soups, stews, and sauces. Their flavor doesn't jump out at you instantly, but adds another layer to long-cooked dishes—bay leaves release their flavor during slow cooking.
For some cooks, the vast majority of Italian dishes are not complete with a dash of peperoncini. In Italy, Calabrian cuisine in particular is known for its consistent use of this spice. In the U.S., it's generally sold as crushed red pepper flakes and typically made with cayenne or jalapeño peppers, if you can find imported Italian red peperoncino flakes don't pass them by. The flavor is fantastic; the heat is subtle but undeniable. Add a pinch to pasta sauces ranging from marinara to clam sauce; add a dash to pizza; use it to kick up sausage and peppers. The possibilities are endless.
Although we'd happily use fresh oregano if it's available, dried is equally useful and packs a surprisingly impressive punch. Oregano is strongly aromatic (its distinct scent is practically synonymous with many versions of tomato sauce) and has a pungent flavor that's a bit earthy and minty. It's traditionally used in southern Italian and Sicilian dishes, including everything from tomato-based pasta sauces to grilled fish. We also love it on pizza, like this grandma pie.
Perhaps the most frequently used herb in Italian cooking, parsley is a true team player, enlivening the flavors of everything around it. Although fresh parsley is sold in in both flat-leaf and curly varieties, Italians prefer flat-leaf (it's often labeled Italian parsley, actually) for its more robust flavor. Though the dried version is primarily made with flat-leaf, our food editors do not recommend dried parsley. Use fresh parsley in pasta dishes, sauces, and soups, including the famed minestrone; it's also an exceptional finishing herb for practically anything from a seafood salad to a lemony risotto.
Warm and woodsy sage is great in rich, non-tomato based dishes, such as gnocchi or ravioli in a butter or browned butter sauce, risotto, arancini, and roasted butternut squash. Sage also goes well with pork, beef, duck, and chicken dishes, and is especially well suited to fatty meats.
Dried thyme is used throughout the Mediterranean and is one of garlic and lemon's best friends. Italian (especially Southern Italian) cooks often use it in pasta dishes that include peppers and eggplant; it's also fantastic with roasted potatoes. And thyme does a great job with grilled and roasted fish, as well as chicken and other meat dishes, like these Tuscan-style ribs.