The Idiot’s Guide to Herbs

(or, How to Spend $20 and Look Like a Kitchen God)

“A man can live on packaged food from here ‘til Judgment Day if he’s got enough rosemary.” –Shepherd Derrial Book, “Firefly”

If you’ve ever taken your courage in your hands and ventured into the baking aisle at your local grocery store – otherwise known as the domain of the PTA and of Church Basement Ladies – you’ve probably seen the overwhelming selection of spices. Intriguing, you think. Perhaps I should invest in some of these? Supposedly they make food taste good.

Used properly, herbs and spices are the key to unlocking the potential of your kitchen (and quite possibly, your girlfriend’s pants. Dude – seriously. If she thinks you can cook…need we continue?). Here, we present a list of 7 starter choices to begin your collection. You won’t stop here. Trust us – we know.


Best used fresh; when it’s dried or older, basil loses a lot of its flavor. Add it to pasta dishes, pesto sauce, or fresh vegetable dishes. If you’re making something Mediterranean, you will probably need basil.


An Italian classic. It cooks well, unlike basil, and is most often used dried. Add oregano to pasta sauce from a jar to help it actually taste like something. Oregano goes with meat, fish, or vegetables.


Ground and dried thyme is an ingredient for almost any dry rub (that’s a mix of a few different herbs or spices to rub on meat before cooking).  Fresh thyme is also easy to find; thyme comes in a thick stem with lots of little leaves. If a recipe asks for a “sprig” of thyme, they want the stem too.





Rosemary is very good especially with pork dishes and potatoes. It can be used dried or fresh, and is easy to find.


Fresh sage comes in a medium-sized, fuzzy leaf, and the dried and rubbed form looks like dryer lint. Sage is also very good with pork and most other types of meat – you probably know the flavor of sage, if nothing else, from Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing.





You can easily grow parsley in your backyard. In addition to being commonly used as a garnish, parsley has a nice, mild pepper flavor that complements a wide variety of dishes. Fresh parsley can actually be easier to find than dried, as it’s more commonly used.



Bay leaves are medium-sized and have a really sharp, bitter taste. They’re most commonly used as a slow flavoring: drop a bay leaf or two in a stew or soup and let it simmer, but take it out before serving. Bay leaves are easy to find fresh or dried.




A bouquet garni is a fancy French word for a bundle of fresh herbs tied together with string (literally, “garnished bouquet”). The bouquet garni is typically used in soups, stews, and other slow-cooking dishes. It can work well in a Crock-Pot. To make a bouquet garni, all you need are a handful of fresh herbs: there’s no standard recipe, but most use parsley, thyme, and bay leaf to start. Basil, sage, and rosemary are also common.

Well! If adding a little oregano and basil to your spaghetti sauce didn’t help you score, we suggest more wine. Next month, we’ll either talk about different kinds of pepper, or we’ll do a walk-through on fabric care and what the settings on your washer actually mean. Do you have a preference? Weigh in on the comments below!