Italian cooking is impossible without herbs. One cannot imagine tomato sauce without basil, roast pork without rosemary, or stewed beans without sage. When it comes to herbs, fresh herbs should be used as much as possible except for a few rare exceptions. Dried herbs also tend to have a concentrated, stronger flavor, so you generally need less of a dry herb than you would a fresh one. A good rule of thumb is to use one teaspoon of dried herb for every tablespoon of fresh herbs the recipe calls for. It is recommended however, to use fresh whenever the recipe calls for it if at all possible.
Luckily, growing fresh herbs is extremely easy, particularly if you start out with small plants bought from a nursery or garden center. Although such plants as parsley and basil grow well from seeds, others are much tougher to get started so the convenience of purchasing herb plants is both value and time saving in the long run. If you live in a small apartment and have no access to a garden, and think you can’t grow your own herbs, you should consider a container garden, which will grow well even on a balcony. I personally keep an attractive container of my most commonly used fresh herbs on a patio table right outside my kitchen door, allowing me the ability to cut a handful of them whenever they are needed for a specific dish.
Storing fresh cut herbs is easy, but they will generally last only a few days. Usually the best method of storing herbs I find, is to wrap them first in a slightly damp paper towel and then store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.
When it comes to herbs used in Italian cooking some just stand out from the rest as being necessary. The following are essential fresh herbs I am never without in my kitchen;
Parsley (Prezzemolo): It is usually recommended that you use flat leaf Italian parsley in Italian cooking, and reserve the curly variety as a garnish. Parsley can be washed and stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. It is a fresh addition to almost any dish, and is also great as a mouth freshener as it masks the odor of garlic.
Basil (Basilico): I think this herb more than any other is associated with Italian cooking. It is a fundamental seasoning ingredient in tomato sauces, soups and salads, and who could forget the wonderful pesto sauce? It is an aromatic herb, and shouldn’t be washed but instead wiped with a damp paper towel before using. Basil is very perishable and should be used within a day or two after cutting.
Oregano (Origano): This herb is particularly prized in southern Italy and widely used to season pizza, sauces and vegetable dishes. It stores well in the refrigerator, and is one herb that in my opinion is fine to use dry.
Rosemary (Rosmarino): Rosemary has been used in ancient times for it’s medicinal purposes but has become a mainstay in modern Italian cooking as a seasoning for roasts, potatoes, breads and vegetable dishes. Although when first picked it has a very strong aroma, after cooking it mellows quite a bit. It will store well for up to a week in the refrigerator.
Sage (Salvio): Sage is often seen in Northern Italian dishes, particularly in Tuscany. Sage is often used in combination with rosemary to flavor roasts, by itself to season specific cuts of veal, pork and liver. The larger leaves are often dipped in a light batter, fried in oil and served as an antipasto, which is great with wine. The famous veal dish Saltimbocca gets it’s specific flavor from sage as well. Sage stores well in the refrigerator.
Thyme (Timo): Thyme is a very powerful herb so should be used sparingly. It is great to season meats, stuffing’s, marinades and some seafood. The easiest way to use fresh thyme is to simply pull the small leaves off the stiff stalks, using just the leaves in your cooking.