When and How to Swap Dried Herbs for Fresh in a Recipe
Only a few decades ago, dried herbs were frequently listed within the ingredients in recipes published in newspapers, magazines, and cookbooks. They were sold in jars and tins in supermarkets and grocery stores—as they still are—and lined the shelves and spice drawers in kitchens everywhere. At some point since then, however, widely published recipes made the switch from dried to fresh herbs. The result is that an entire generation of home cooks is confused about when, if ever, to cook with dried herbs, especially if they don't have access to their fresh counterparts. We're here to tell you that it's possible to produce delicious flavors from dried herbs—as long as you follow a few guidelines, that is.
First, it's worth pointing out that cooking with herbs—fresh or dried—is one of the best ways to take your cooking from ordinary to outstanding. Each herb has its own distinctive flavor, but many herbs can be used interchangeably depending on what's called for in your recipe. The strength of fresh herbs varies, of course. Some are more delicate and tender, like basil, cilantro, parsley, mint, tarragon, and dill. Others are classified as more robust, even woody—think rosemary, oregano, marjoram, thyme, and bay leaves.
When cooking with herbs, keep in mind that dried herbs are more potent than fresh, and this is due to the fact that their flavors become more concentrated as they dry. That potency translates to a mantra that's often used in home décor and fashion: Less is more. If your recipe calls for one tablespoon of chopped fresh herbs, start with one teaspoon of dried herbs. Taste as you go, and if it seems like something needs more oomph, increase the amount in small increments until you're satisfied.
As a general rule, dried herbs are generally better used while cooking, and fresh herbs make better garnishes than their dried counterparts. There are exceptions to that rule, of course. Slipping a whole sprig of fresh basil into a pot of simmering tomato sauce will impart fresher flavor than sprinkling in dried; the same can be said of parsley or cilantrom which will improve the flavor of the broth when added to a pot of beans. As a bonus, when you use a fresh sprig or two, you can usually remove it pretty easily after cooking, and that's something you can't do if they've been finely chopped and tossed in. But this is largely an aesthetic choice.
More than anything, if you hope to get the most out of a jar of dried herbs, the key is to use them, and use them often. One theory for the abundance of fresh herbs in recipes these days is not that they taste better than dried, but that home cooks let dried herbs sit in their cupboards for so long that they began to lose their signature flavors. As long as they're stored properly, in tightly sealed containers away from heat and light, you should get a couple of years out of the contents of your jar of dried herbs. Label them at the time of purchase, and replace them after a year or two, or when they no longer smell nice and herbaceous.