One of the best tips I have for both saving money on food and eating healthier is to grow your own herbs. I say it all the time and I just can’t stop saying it!!! Herbs add so much flavor, and fresh herbs have a different taste, texture and color than dried. With the flavor punch they pack, you can cut back on the less healthy ways to add flavor; salt, sugar and fat. But fresh herbs are SO expensive in the typical grocery store. Here are some of the many herbs I grow and how I use them (with links to more fresh herb recipes than you’ll ever need!), tips for growing herbs if you don’t have a yard, as well as some tips for affordable ways to buy herbs.
I grow several different varieties of lavender in my garden. It’s beautiful and attracts lots of bees and butterflies. I find the scent intoxicating and am always cutting sprigs to place around my house for an all natural air freshener. I also love putting it into lemonade and baked goods. Lavender also survives our winters well!
Parsley is a garden necessity for me. It’s hard to grow in pots because it gets so stinking big, so I just grow a couple plants in my garden each spring. Parsley is a perfect garnish because it is lot like salt in enhancing the flavors of other ingredients. I’ll use it on top of soup or in a casserole topping. But my favorite way to use it is chimichurri sauce! The winter kills my parsley but it grows so fast that I just plant a few seeds in the early spring and have some more in no time.
I love basil because of its sweet scent that always makes me think of summer. Basil is good in pots and will almost certainly need slug bait if grown in ground because they love it as much as I do! I love to use it in my chicken roulade and fresh spring rolls, but it’s even simpler to just toss some basil leaves with fresh tomato slices and olive oil for a summer snack. While basil is popular in dishes from many cuisines, it’s most often associated with Italian cooking.
I also grow Thai basil, and find that for my area it does better in pots. I like thai basil because it’s got a slightly more floral scent and flavor that’s great in Asian cooking. I use it in salads and soup all the time. Make sure with both kinds of basil that you pinch of any flowering tips that start to grow. This will encourage your basil to bush out and make it last for many more meals, the flowering really halts their growth. Basil is an annual so you will have to grow new plants each year.
Mint is a tricky one. When we bought our house the entire back wall on one side was covered in mint. This is fine with me and I haven’t tried to tame it yet. But if you’re planting it for the first time I definitely recommend using a huge pot. Mint has roots that shoot sideways underground to grow lots and lots of plants. It’s quite the weed and has taken over a lot of gardens. I love using it with strawberries in salads or desserts as well as savory Asian salads, it’s also great for making your own mojitos! Their are so many varieties of mint but whenever I’ve grown spearmint or chocolate mint I find myself just going back to using the plain old basic mint.
Dill is probably most popular for making pickles. I use it not just for cucumber pickles but also pickling things like asparagus and green beans! I also love it with salmon and in potato salad. You can use the dill leaves and stems, but many people don’t realize the flowers are edible too! I love putting them in salads.
Sage is a soft velvety herb that adds a heady scent to any dish and pairs really well with brown butter. It has beautiful flowers and is another bee magnet. I love sage with potatoes, in pasta and to season poultry. I’ve grown sage in both pots and in the ground. It survived winter very well in the ground and gave me a great flavor source year round. I found it did well in pots for a while but eventually outgrew them. I plan to make it a part of my permanent edible landscaping.
I love oregano on homemade pizza and have had to keep myself from buying a million different varieties just because they smell good. I’m not even sure what variety this is but I like the flavor and it survives winter in the ground really well. I’ve divided it into multiple bushes that I’ll space out in my edible landscaping project. Oregano is also great for making a compound butter to go on meat.
Rosemary is a very hardy herb that can grow into giant bushes given enough time. You can definitely grow rosemary in pots but I prefer growing it outside to give it lots of room to spread. I love it in meat and often use it for steak marinades or to make flavored oils for salads or drizzling on top of a meat dish.
I think of thyme as the lacy herb. Its delicate tendrils wind around each other and whenever I use whole stems of it I feel like it’s hugging my food. There are a lot of varieties of thyme and I’ve found they grow fantastic in pots as well as in the ground (and survive the winter!). I love putting thyme in soups or salads and often use the flowering varieties to garnish appetizers.
This was supposed to be a top ten post but I had to add number 11 which I just started growing. Cilantro is a staple in Mexican cooking and a necessity for homemade salsa or pico de gallo. It’s also popular in Thai cooking. You may notice that a lot of various ethnic cuisines came be made simply by using the right herbs! I grow cilantro from seed in the ground, but it also grows very well in pots. I’m pretty sure it won’t last the winter (just like parsely) but this is my first year growing it.
I have several other fun varieties like mint or thyme “carpets” that do well being walked on, and certain thymes that grow well in rocky areas, but above are the ones I use regularly in the kitchen. A lot of these herbs originate in dry areas, so you don’t have to water them daily. But herbs in pots do need a little more care. You don’t want your soil soaking but you do want to try and keep it from drying out. Pots with a hole in the bottom and a saucer under them to hold water are ideal. You also want to use potting soil, not dirt from your garden which doesn’t hold moisture as well.
If you notice your herb plant getting droopy, give it a good soak and it should perk back up by the end of the day. If it doesn’t, it’s possible that your pot is too small. Turn the pot upside down and gently wiggle the whole root system out. If it comes out in the exact shape of your pot and you can see a tangle of roots all around the dirt, you need a bigger pot and more dirt. If you decide to transplant it to the ground, soak the root ball in water for an hour first and then give the roots a little massage before planting.
Now I know some of you are thinking, I don’t have a green thumb, I have a black thumb, I kill everything! Well, so did I. I had an herb graveyard for quite some time. The hardest thing to remember for potted herbs is watering them. I like to keep mine near the kitchen or bathroom sink, wherever there’s light from a window, so that I’m right by a water source. Another option is keep them in a window you look at regularly so you notice if they’re drooping. Keep the watering can there or by your sink to remind you. If you do kill an herb or two (or six!), don’t panic. They’re usually just a couple dollars each and even cheaper in a gardening or hardware store. If you just got three meals out of it that’s still less than you would have paid in most grocery stores.
If you just don’t want to attempt growing your own herbs, parsley and cilantro are usually cheap in any grocery store, but they’re often even cheaper in Latino grocery stores. I find mint and dill cheaply in Russian grocery stores, and Thai basil and other fun herbs like shiso are easy to get at a good price in Asian grocery stores.
Lastly, I’m not at all against dried herbs. I use them all the time! If you want to buy dried herbs, make sure you buy them in the bulk spice section. A lot of grocery stores have one. It’s SO SO SO much cheaper than buying the little bottles!!!
Okay, you’ve heard the many ways I love to use fresh herbs, I want to hear some of YOUR favorite ways! Feel free to leave tips or links to recipes in the comments.