Herbs 101: How to use Basic Herbs in Vegan Cooking
Herb blog - How to use herbs in vegan cooking

Herbs 101: How to use Basic Herbs in Vegan Cooking

As a vegan, having delicious, nutritious food is very important. If you know how to use these 9 basic herbs in vegan cooking, you’ll have your bases covered. 

Herbs are little green bundles of flavour that add depth and freshness and enhance your vegan or plant-based meal plan. Even if you aren’t a vegan, you can use the below techniques to elevate your cooking.

If you want to make your dishes herbalicious, you need to have some idea of what to add, when, and in combination with what. For this reason, we are going to put the humble herb in the spotlight.

Just remember: pick only a few herbs for your dishes so you don’t overload your palate.

Click image to view a video on what to do with leftover soft herbs

The difference between a hard (woody) herb and a soft herb

Hard herbs have woody stalks and harder leaves. You can add them whole or dried at the beginning of cooking and the flavour will transfer all the way through and be released in the cooking process. Some hard herbs can be used fresh at the end as well.

Examples of hard herbs are parsley, rosemary, thyme, sage and bay leaves.

Soft herbs have more delicate leaves that bruise under pressure. The flavour of soft herbs is intensified as you add heat so you want to add them just before serving. If you add them too early, they will overcook and the flavour will not be as prominent or even undetectable.

Examples of soft herbs are mint, basil, coriander and chives.

Hard Herbs

1. Parsley

There are two types of parsley — curly and flat-leaf. The latter is less earthy and grass-like and has a prettier look and lighter flavour. Curly parsley is very old-fashioned as a garnish but its redeeming feature is that it’s a natural breath freshener.

How to use:

  • Parsley is commonly used as a garnish.
  • If you are using curly parsley, chop it up fine and add it to salads, coleslaws, soups, mince, patties or soy mince or blend it into a falafel mix.
  • You can use flat parsley whole as a garnish or as a herb in a salad.
  • You don’t generally eat the stalks of parsley but if you are making a sauce base, you can chop the stalks and add them for flavour, and to use them up. It also adds extra flavour if you’re using water instead of stock.

Parsley works well with pretty much anything, but these ones are what popped into mind first.
Plant-based: carrots, aubergine, tofu, potatoes, the list really does go on!
Meat: chicken, mince, fish, but any meats, really.
Sweet: pineapple, melon, mangoes
Complementary flavour profile: Parsley is the Switzerland of the herb world in that it is neutral and can pretty much go with any other herb.

Hot Tip: If you have a LOT of parsley, you can pop it on a plate, cover it with a paper towel and microwave in 30s blasts until it is dry. Then blitz or crumble it into a parsley powder and store it in an airtight container to use for garnishes or any of the above uses!

2. Rosemary

Rosemary can be used in sweet or savoury dishes and infuses really well in oils and butter. In some Mediterranean cultures, it is believed to bring luck to newlyweds.

How to use:

  • Leaves kept whole are for infusing or flavouring, finely chopping them is best when you want to consume the leaves.
  • You can finely chop the leaves and add them to the bases of stews, soups or mince.
  • Rosemary is great in cocktails with gin. 
  • You can chop the leaves finely and add them to roast potatoes after cooking.
  • You can add a whole sprig into melted butter or olive oil with pan-fried tofu or almost-cooked steak to give it a juicy rosemary flavour.
  • You can stick a sprig whole into a roasted chicken and remove it at the end.
  • Use the rosemary stalk to make a veggie skewer. Leave some leaves on and grill or roast for a quick, easy vegan meal.

Rosemary works well with the following:
Plant-based: Tomatoes, sweet potatoes, potatoes, mushrooms, aubergine, tofu, courgettes  
Meat: chicken, lamb, mince, beef
Sweet: stone fruits, chocolate
Complementary flavour profile: thyme, basil, parsley

Hot Tip: Leave your rosemary on the windowsill and allow it to dry until it is crispy. Remove the leaves from the stalks and keep them in an airtight container.

3. Thyme

Thyme is a versatile herb. It complements other herbs well and can be used in savoury or sweet dishes. It was used in the mummification process in ancient Egypt as well!  

How to use:

  • It can be added during cooking. If you are cooking in one big pot, you can put the whole sprig in and once it is cooked, remove the stalk. If you are adding it at the end of a dish, remove the leaves and then add.
  • You can also remove the leaves and add them fresh to drinks, like G&T, or desserts, such as peaches, sorbet or ice cream.

Thyme works well with the following:
Plant-based: Tomatoes, beetroot, onions, mushrooms, courgettes, lemon, aubergine, tofu
Meat: chicken, pork, mince/beef
Sweet: stone fruit, chocolate, red berries, chopped fine and baked in a shortbread biscuit, infused in syrup to drizzle over lemon cake
Complementary flavour profile: basil, rosemary or parsley

Hot Tip: Pick little thyme leaves and add them to a cake as a garnish, sprinkle them sparingly over a dessert or pop them into a gin and tonic to add a special twist to otherwise simple servings.

4. Sage

Sage gives dishes a beautiful, rich flavour but is a strong herb so should be used sparingly. You can also make a sage tea to use as a natural remedy for curing a headache.

How to use:

  • Sage usually needs to be cooked, but if you want the freshness, add it right at the end of cooking.
  • You can make sage butter to toss over pasta or protein by browning the butter slightly, squeezing in some lemon and adding some sage leaves.
  • Or do the above using extra virgin olive oil, but warm it slightly, turn off the heat and add the sage leaves to infuse.
  • You can stuff a chicken or a fish with whole sage before cooking.

Sage works well with the following:
Plant-based: broccoli, sweet potatoes, onion, spinach, aubergine, tofu
Meat: chicken, pork
Complementary flavour profile: thyme, parsley, bay, garlic & onion

Hot Tip: Sage infused with water, honey and lemon makes a lovely and healthy tea. You can dry sage leaves in the same way you dry rosemary and keep them for cooking or tea.

Bay Leaves

5. Bay Leaves

Bay leaves are used purely for flavour during cooking. It’s a good idea to take them out before serving unless an unsuspecting guest doesn’t realise you’re not supposed to eat them. Bay leaves can be used in savoury or sweet dishes. If you can find fresh bay, the flavour is far superior, but if you don’t have a friend with a bay tree, using dried bay leaves is just fine. 

How to use:

  • Use bay leaves whole when cooking stews.
  • You can also infuse them in oil to make a bay leaf oil.
  • Infusing bay in your cream/milk of choice adds a warm earthy flavour to your custard or ice cream, which goes great with stone fruit  

Bay works well with the following:
Plant-based: aubergine, tofu
Meat: chicken, mince, beef
Sweet: Stone fruit 
Complementary flavour profile: thyme, parsley

Soft herbs

Be gentle with soft herbs as they bruise easily and if chopped like crazy, they tend to go black and then, if not used right away, can go off quickly. So, a simple cut through your chives or tearing mint and basil just before use ensures they keep their colour and flavour.

6. Mint

Mint is a good herb to add freshness to a dish due to its cool menthol aftertaste. It has been used for centuries to treat digestive issues and was regarded as a symbol of hospitality in Ancient Greece.

How to use:

  • You would usually use mint fresh because when you cook it, it can go bitter 
  • Add it to wraps, salads, coleslaw and many Asian-inspired dishes
  • If your mint is large or a bit dry, tear it up into smaller pieces
  • Mint also goes well in hot or cold drinks and desserts

Mint works well with the following:
Plant-based: carrots, peas, avocados, cucumbers, chilli, lemon, aubergine, tofu
Meat: lamb, fish
Sweet: chocolate, coffee, berries, stone fruit, citrus, banana and melons
Complementary flavour profile: coriander, basil

Hot Tip: For a delicious cake topping, here is an easy vegan recipe for a mint syrup. Put equal parts sugar and water in a pot and bring to a boil. Once it becomes stickyish, turn off and while still hot, add fresh mint leaves and leave overnight. Pick out the leaves in the morning and you have a fresh, minty syrup drizzle over your sponge cake. You can soak the sponge in it too. 

7. Basil

There are two types of basil that are commonly used: sweet basil (or Italian basil) and Thai basil, which has a slightly more distinct aniseed flavour. Basil is rich in Vitamins A, B6, C and K as well as iron, magnesium and manganese.

How to use:

  • Basil is best served fresh and added when you are about to serve a dish
  • You can also blend it with oil to make a pesto
  • It’s great in salads, wraps, stir-fries and soups
  • Basil is definitely a great addition to desserts too

Basil works well with the following:
Plant-based: tomatoes, courgettes, avocados, cucumber, aubergine, tofu
Meat: chicken, fish
Sweet: berries, plums, figs, apricots
Complementary flavour profile: thyme, rosemary, mint, coriander

Hot Tip: Make a vegan dip or cream cheese by blending tofu, basil, extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, lemon and nutritional yeast until smooth. No one will know it’s tofu!

8. Coriander (Cilantro)

Coriander divides people: you love it or you hate it. And if you love it, you’ll be happy in many Mexican, Moroccan or Asian restaurants as these cuisines use it widely. It is one of the oldest herbs that we still use today, dating back to 5000 BC.

How to use:

  • Coriander is best used raw in salad, wraps and sandwiches or added at the end of cooking to dishes, such as stir-fries
  • For curries, you can add the coriander stalks at the beginning to add flavour to the base and then add the leaves at the end for freshness and additional flavour
  • It is great for curry pastes, salsas and dips
  • Coriander is a beautifully aromatic herb to add flavour to a broth, along with mint and basil
  • You can also blend it with oil to make a pesto

Coriander works well with the following:
Plant-based: avocados, cucumber, chilli, aubergine, tofu, carrots, but it’s really awesome with any raw veg 
chicken, fish
mangoes, melon, apples, pears
Complementary flavour profile: mint, basil

9. Chives

Chives are part of the onion family and are more of a garnish-style herb. Historically, they have also been used for fortune-telling and to protect homes from evil spirits.

How to use:

  • You would usually only use chives fresh
  • You can chop them into long pieces or loosely into rings
  • Chives are a good flavour addition to eggs, herb oil, fish, tomato salad, as a soup garnish or in a tofu cream

Chives works well with the following:
Plant-based: eggs, tomato, tofu cream, aubergine, tofu, green beans, beetroot
Meat: chicken, fish
Complementary flavour profile: any other soft herbs

Final Note

If your head is spinning from all this herb talk or you’re just too pooped to cook and you’re in the local area of Port Elizabeth, pop into our store at 25 Westbourne Road, order online or check your local Spar in the Eastern Cape and try one of our prepared delicious, nutritious, made-with-love plant-based frozen meals. You can view the menu here.

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