Intro to French Herbs + Viable Substitutions

So, do the French use flat-leaf (Italian) parsley or curly parsley? They use both—whichever is at its freshest best. Photo by TonalLuminosity via Flickr.

Note: This is the second of three installments on the topic of French pasta. Here’s the first installment. 

Why French Pasta Tastes So Good, Part 2 of 3: The Herbs

Italians prominently feature basil and oregano; French cooks use those herbs, too. But what makes French pasta, well, French is the use of favorite French herbs, such as parsley, chives, tarragon, and chervil, and herb blends, such as herbes de Provence and fines herbes.

Here are the herbs most commonly used in French cooking in general, and pasta in particular. I’ll also tell you whether it’s possible to substitute dried for fresh, in a pinch, and how to do so:

Parsley. Parsley is my favorite French herb—it just adds so much bright, green freshness. I never substitute dried parsley for fresh parsley—the dried version tastes like dust. If I don’t have fresh parsley (a rare event), I leave it out completely. Fortunately, fresh parsley is inexpensive, so I tend to buy a bunch every few days when it’s not growing in the garden. As you’ll see in the following entries, I use it often—combined with dried herbs—to stand in for a fresh herb.

Chervil. I’ve never found that the dried version can capture the delicate, subtle nature of this herb, which tastes similar to parsley but with a hint of anise. However, since I always have fresh parsley and dried tarragon around, I sometimes substitute that combination for the chervil. For each tablespoon of fresh chervil called for, I use 1 tablespoon of fresh parsley and a pinch of crushed dried tarragon. Or, I simply substitute fresh parsley for the chervil.

Chives. Rather than using dried chives, a much better substitute is the tops of scallions, thinly sliced. Or use parsley. It won’t hit the oniony angle, but it will bring a pleasing jolt of freshness.

Sage freezes remarkably well. Rinse, pat dry, and freeze bunches in freezer bags; break off what’s needed for soups, stews, and long-simmering dishes. However, if your recipe calls for whole fresh sage leaves (above), you’re going to have to spring for fresh. Photo by Onejen via Flickr.

Dill. The dried version will capture this herb’s dill-ness, but not its fresh greenness. Therefore, if you don’t have fresh dill, use an equal amount of fresh parsley called for in the recipe (to capture that greenness), plus a pinch of dried dill.

Mint. Dried simply doesn’t cut it. In this case, I simply substitute fresh parsley for fresh mint; no, it doesn’t showcase the minty angle, but it’s much better than no herb at all. If I happen to have fresh basil, I substitute a mixture of half parsley and half basil for the mint. It’s not exactly mint, but it is a worthy stand-in.

Rosemary.Because fresh rosemary is more about its piney aromatics than it is about the fresh, vivid greenness you get from other herbs, you can successfully (if not perfectly) substitute dried rosemary for fresh rosemary in just about anything that will be cooked. When substituting dried for fresh, use one-third the amount called for.

Fresh tarragon is beautiful in salads and other raw preparations, but if you’re going to cook it, dried is just fine. Photo by Fluffymuppet via flickr.

Sage. I’ve never found dried sage a remotely acceptable stand-in for fresh. Again, parsley can come to the rescue. For each tablespoon of sage, I substitute 1 tablespoon of fresh parsley plus a pinch of dried marjoram or rosemary. When a recipe calls for whole sage leaves, there is no acceptable substitute.

Tarragon. Always use fresh tarragon in salad recipes and whenever it will not be cooked very long, as in quick pan sauces. In most other cases, however, dried tarragon will do the trick in a pinch, as its anise flavor will be revealed after a bit of cooking. When substituting dried for fresh, use one-third the amount called for.

Thyme. Use fresh if you can, but the dried version does release a pleasant perfume when cooked. Go easy, however, as it can be powerful. I use about one-sixth of the amount of dried thyme when substituting it for fresh—1/2 teaspoon dried for each 1 tablespoon fresh. Otherwise, its perfume can be overpowering.

Other posts you might enjoy:

Pâtes aux Lardons (or Why French Pasta Tastes So Good Part I)
Totally French Seafood Pasta with Tarragon
Asparagus! Broccolini! Goat Cheese! Pasta!  

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1 comment to Intro to French Herbs + Viable Substitutions

  • Thank you for the tip in regards to freezing sage! I found myself with a large bunch and was wondering what to do with it.
    It is often by trial and error that we find out how well each herb fares in an altered form i.e. dried or frozen. This primer on the qualities of different herbs and their alternatives is very useful indeed.

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