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Desirable Herb Varieties, By Herb

[There are separate pages for Vegetable Types and Fruit and Berry Types.]

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Individual Herbs

About This List

We living today have privileges that once were beyond the proverbial dreams of avarice. The mightiest potentate of old could not dine on a variety of foods one quarter, perhaps one tenth, so broad as what anyone can now find on the shelves of most any supermarket--foods from Japan cheek by jowl on those shelves with things from Mexico, the whole world in a neighborhood store. In consequence, even the most conventional and unadventurous American nowadays cooks dishes from a broad spectrum of cultures and strikingly distinct cuisines. And what distinguishes those cuisines as much as and perhaps more than anything is the condiments--herbs, spices, flavorings--they commonly use in their cooking. (It has been remarked, accurately we think, that the folk of India are the master symphonists of flavorings.)

We ourselves enjoy cooking and eating dishes from everywhere, so it is quite important to us to grow a correspondingly broad spectrum of spices and herbs. Some, owing to tropical climatic requirements, are virtually impossible for us ("virtually" impossible means that one could probably grow anything anywhere given enough dedication, money, space, and time, but in some cases--from allspice to zedoary--it is simply not reasonably practical to do so). Some have flavors only trivially different from others. Some have more historical than practical culinary interest: as the world has shrunk, many once-popular herbs and spices have disappeared from the kitchen, replaced by better-tasting alternatives from elsewhere (who today grows or uses Alexander's?).

Our discussions of herbs and spices on this site will be restricted to cultivars and growing information, for there are many sites that give wide and detailed general information on the backgrounds, biology, and uses of most flavorings. A particularly outstanding one is Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages, which is fun to just browse, being both pleasant reading and quite informative. Another good herb-information site was the Saskatchewan Herb and Spice Association's "Herbs for the Prairies" pages (now available only through The Wayback machine's archives). A succinct list of "essential" herbs and spices--which we think no cook would subtract from, though some might add to it--makes interesting reading too (also now only in the archives). And there is the well-known Henriette's Herbal site, home of the continually updated Culinary Herb FAQ.

For anyone with even a shred of interest in food flavorings, the essential book--now, we are pleased to find, back in print--is Tom Stobart's wonderful Herbs, Spices, and Flavorings, also a delight to simply browse through. Stobart's book is all about the culinary qualities and uses of more flavorings from around the world than most people have ever heard of; but Stobart's book includes no information on growing, for which the chief resource (now regrettably only available used) is the aptly named Big Book of Herbs by professional herb grower Tom DeBaggio in collaboration with famed herb botanist Dr. Arthur Tucker.

The distinctions between herbs, spices, and other food flavorings is to some extent artificial, and different sources have somewhat differing definitions of "spice" and "herb". We here will take a "spice" to be a grown flavoring intended for use in a preserved (usually dried) condition, and an "herb" to be a grown flavoring preferably used fresh. Those are not universal uses, but neither are they freakish. (A few things could be said to fall into both categories--as we define them--such as bay leaves, which can be used fresh when available, but which, unlike most herbs, when dried retain good usefulness for a few months.)

Note the word "preferably": any supermarket will show you seemingly countless jars and tins of "herbs" that are dried, often powdered--but that is not the "preferable" way to use those herbs. Indeed, many are so much weakened or flat-out useless in such a state as to be a joke (any who buy dried chervil would be better off putting the money in some charity-donation jar and sprinkling green confetti over their food, and the same for most ground paprika, save that you would use brick dust instead of confetti). There are a few herbs that can be dried or, better, frozen without too much loss of quality--but even for those it is always best to use them as they historically were used: fresh-picked.


Spices

With one notable exception, saffron, the spices of culinary significance that we could grow in our climes are all dried seeds. But (leaving aside saffron for later discussion) does it make sense for us to grow any of these? We think not. Let us consider the main reasons we grow things in our own gardens, and see how they apply to spices:

  1. We want the best-tasting varieties: but most spice seeds are sold generically to the home gardener, and even those few with named cultivars are usually distinguished only by growth habit (such as "slow-bolting"); we simply do not have access to the spectrum of varieties from which one might make a selection based on flavor.

  2. We want to pick at the optimum moment for eating quality: but for dried seeds, there is no "optimum moment"--the plant dries down and the seed is harvested and threshed.

  3. We want the satisfaction of having grown our own: this is always valid, but with seed spices we need to balance that urge against the more-than-ordinary pains and efforts (protecting against shattering seed heads, threshing and winnowing the seeds, and so on) needed to grow something of which we only use a little and which is no better, and possibly worse, than what we can buy at retail.

  4. We want to save money: but the seed spices we can grow are not expensive at retail, as we will see in a moment.

On that last point, let's take a closer look. Without here examining how we identify "culinary significance" (save to again mention Tom Stobart's superb herb and spice book), the list of culinarily significant spices we feel could be grown hereabouts includes the following; for each--except saffron--we show the 2012 price for 1 ounce (a representative supermarket-jar quantity) of that spice, bought from a premium (which is to say, far from the least expensive) mail-order spice and herb company (Penzey's):

(Prices per ounce below calculated by pro-rating the price of the offering nearest in size, such as 1.1 oz or 0.9 oz., to an exact ounce.)

The culinarily adventurous might add to that list Ajowan ($3.32), Nigella (not priced), Angelica (not priced), and edible sumac ($3.12).

(All the seed-spice names in the actual list above are--despite our recommending against bothering with any but saffron--each a link to a page on growing that plant--none recently updated, but all probably as good as you need.)

If you haven't tried it, growing spice plants for their seed is rather a pain in the, ah, elbow: the procedures necessary to capture the seed are rather tedious and not always fully effective. So, when one considers the time and effort needed to produce good seed spices versus costs like those above, it becomes clearer why we recommend against devoting garden space, and the nontrivial harvesting effort, to these plants.

Very obviously, saffron--as we said above--is a powerful exception. This unique great spice is so prized worldwide that it is worth literally several times more per pound than pure gold. If you've ever bought it at the supermarket, you'll have seen that the usual spice jar is not filled but instead contains a tiny plastic packet with some minimal number of saffron threads in it--and it's still expensive (we've seen it kept under lock and key). The reason it is so killer expensive is not any difficulty in growing the plant itself, which is just a variety of autumn crocus, but the stunning amount of hand labor involved in production on a commercial scale; for the home gardener, though, harvesting enough for household use and even generous gifts (thoroughly appreciated by any cook) is no great effort, so little being needed. (There is a complete discussion on the page here about saffron.)


Herbs

With herbs, the situation is exactly reversed: we want to grow all the kinds we can, ideally year-round, because a leaf fresh-picked off the plant is the highest-quality herb possible, yet often hard--sometimes impossible--to simply buy.

If we grow herbs outdoors, we get the benefit of true freshness for only a fraction of the year. True, our home-grown and home-dried (or fresh-frozen) herbs will still doubtless be better than those tins of sawdust at the supermarket, but the ideal is year-round availability.

We ourselves are fortunate (well, "luck is the residue of design") in that we have a sizeable indoors area well suited for growing herbs (and a few other things) in any season. But it doesn't take much--one scarcely needs a full-blown greenhouse or anything like it--to provide a place somewhere where many herbs will flourish year round. A sunny windowsill will even do, though most houses are drier indoors in the winter than many herbs--which normally like damp air--will be happy with, but even straggly basil plants in January beat dried basil leaves.

Incidentally, here is some excellent general advice about growing herbs indoors, all well worth heeding, appeared on the Lingle's Herbs web site (link is to archived copy).

In the discussions of the herbs we list below, we more or less assume indoor growing for each, but most or all of the information will still be useful even for those limited to growing their herbs outdoors. About all you need to determine above what we give is the best date to sow your herb seeds, and whether to do transplants or not (matters largely irrelevant to indoor growing).

The culinarily significant herbs that we think would grow well hereabouts are these, listed by growth habit (each herb name is a link to a page here about growing it):

Outdoor growers hereabouts will have no problems concerning the annuals listed above, and Parsley will overwinter OK; as to the winter hardiness of the perennials listed (for our climate), our best guesses are: Bay, no, but one can bring it inside in a tub for the winter if there's room for it somewhere; Chives and Garlic Chives, assuredly; Lovage, very certainly; Mint, dangerously so; Mitsuba, probably; Oregano, if it's the good Greek kind, no (though the "common" sort, less satisfactory culinarily, might make it); Sage, marginal; Rosemary, maybe (there are now a couple of fairly winter-hardy cultivars, but it's a close thing); Tarragon, yes; and Thyme, yes (in fact, those last two need some winter exposure to remain healthy).

But all of the listed plants, except just possibly lovage, can be successfully grown in containers indoors (if you have the space).

And Some Day . . . we would like to at least experiment with (in alphabetical, not priority, order):

The names above are each a link to a page--not from this site--about the plant. It's amazing how many interesting and culinarily useful flavorings have descended in the public mind to the status of faddy medicinals. Melilot, for example, which has many fine culinary uses (its close relative, blue melilot, Melilotus cærulea, is mandatory in Switzerland to give the characteristic color and flavor to their famous sapsago cheese), is almost impossible to find discussed anywhere save as an "herbal remedy" or "herbal medication". Pfui.


Purchased Flavorings

This site is about growing things, but since flavorings enhance the eating of what we grow (and since we had done the work for ourselves anyway) we thought we'd add a few thoughts on what culinary flavorings it's good to buy for the kitchen. These will be things that are either impossible to grow here, or that--as we remarked above--it would be ridiculously inefficient to grow here. For each flavoring, we list the preferred form for obtaining it; these things are best bought from mail-order specialists, not one's local supermarket (though those with access to ethnic groceries can probably get some there). We don't endorse any particular suppliers; some of the better-known names are listed on Gernot Katzer's wonderful flavorings web site, on his Sources page.

Note that only about one-fourth of these flavorings are in powdered form (and of those a couple, spice mixes, could be made up oneself from the ingredients). This is not food snobbery or faddism: most spices and herbs flavor by means of so-called "essential oils" in them, and those oils are notoriously volatile (that is, they evaporate very quickly). Once we cut, say, a cardamom seed open, much less crush it to powder, those volatile oils for which we paid our hard-earned money start literally vanishing into thin air, and hurriedly vanishing at that. In very little time, our dearly bought flavoring is but a shadow of itself. We thus put off the cutting or the grinding to powder of our flavorings till the very last possible moment, the moment we actually need to add them to our dish.

The corollary of that is that it behooves every cook to have a spice grinder; an ordinary, inexpensive electric coffee grinder will do admirably, but don't try to use the same grinder for coffee and for spices! (Or you can, if time weighs heavy on your hands, use a mortar and pestle, as is still the norm in the kitchens of many parts of the world.) And commonly used flavorings, traditionally salt and pepper, should have their own dedicated grinders, brought to table with the food. (Pepper grinders are common, but you can find salt grinders, or matched sets, if you look around a little, and rock salt or, better, sea salt is commonly available as crystals.)

Finally, there are those flavorings that are clearly neither spice nor herb, but are invaluable in the kitchen (listed alphabetically):


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