Whether you’re researching a new smoothie recipe or wanting to try a new dish for dinner, you may come across the term “green herbs.” But what exactly are “green herbs,” and how are they any different from regular cooking spices?
We’ll uncover what green herbs are, the most common green herbs for cooking, and how you can start using green herbs in everyday meals.
First: What Are Green Herbs?
The most common meaning of green herbs is in reference to fresh (not dry) culinary herbs, such as basil or oregano. A recipe may state “green herbs” to describe freshly picked culinary herbs. Fresh culinary herbs may be described as “green herbs” because fresh herbs still have bright green leaves rather than faded green/brown when dried.
The meaning of green herbs also depends on the context. When green herbs are on a list of ingredients for a recipe, it means fresh culinary herbs, as described above.
However, in herbal medicine, green herbs refer to using fresh plant material in an extraction rather than dried plant material. For example, using freshly harvested chamomile flowers in an alcohol extract to make a tincture rather than dried chamomile flowers would be described as using the green herb in a medicinal preparation.
Even though chamomile flowers are white and yellow (rather than green), “green” denotes fresh, non-dried plant material.
Whether you’re looking at an ingredient list or following instructions for an herbal preparation, green herb means freshly harvested, vibrant plant material.
7 Commonly Used Fresh Green Herbs
Now that it’s clear what green herbs are let’s dive into some of the most common green herbs used in cooking.
If there’s one green herb to become acquainted with, it’s basil. Out of all the culinary plants mentioned in this list of herbs, basil may be the most commonly used fresh herb in the United States.
It has a delightful, pungent, and ever-so-mild spicey flavor.
Its aroma and taste as a green herb blend beautifully with various dishes, especially sauces. In fact, it’s often used fresh in tomato-based pasta and curry sauces in different cuisines, such as Italian, Indian, and Thai.
Fresh basil is also the main ingredient in beloved pesto and other green herb-based pâtés. And what’s more, there are several different types of basil, each with its own unique flavor profile.
Sweet basil is the most common variety in the United States, but there’s also spicy Thai basil, purple basil, and medicinal holy basil.
Thyme is an interesting-looking green herb with little leaves growing along a woody stem. To use it fresh, the leaves are stripped from the woody stem and added to soups, stews, sauces, and seasoning blends for chicken, lamb, and other meat-based dishes.
It’s often paired with rosemary, bay leaves, and sage in roasted vegetables and meat dishes.
Thyme is popular in French cuisine and is one of the main ingredients in traditional French spice blends, herbs de Provence, and bouquet garni.
It can be used fresh or dried, lending a distinct aroma and sweet-pungent flavor to dishes.
There are a few varieties of thyme to play around and experiment with, including French thyme, English thyme, and German thyme.
Oregano is a woody perennial herb native to the Mediterranean basin and western Asia. Like thyme, its leaves are stripped from their woody stems to dry or used fresh in cooking dishes.
Along with basil, oregano is one of the most common seasoning herbs used in the United States. However, it is more often used dried than as a green herb because dried oregano has a more robust flavor than fresh, which is attractive as the opposite is true for most other herbs.
Sometimes referred to as wild marjoram or pot marjoram, oregano is another herb frequently used in Mediterranean and Italian-inspired dishes. It’s often added to pasta sauces, pizzas and as a seasoning for garlic bread.
This bright, zesty green herb is one of the oldest known spices and is believed to be one of the earliest domesticated plants. This herb is even mentioned in the bible, in the Book of Exodus!
Despite its rich history and traditional use, it isn’t a universal favorite and can be one of those tastes you either love or hate. Some people describe the flavor as soapy, while others describe it as fresh and bright with hints of citrus.
Cilantro’s tender leaves are used fresh, and its seeds, called coriander, are dried and used as a seasoning spice. The green herb is most often used as a garnish for soups, stews, tacos, and more.
It is also commonly mixed into salsa to add a burst of citrusy flavor.
Savory, aromatic, and pungent rosemary is an essential ingredient for roasted meat dishes, especially lamb and chicken. It is often combined with other spices, such as fennel and sage, and sprinkled onto roasted potatoes and other root vegetables.
Rosemary can be used as a fresh green herb or as a dried herb. Either way, rosemary’s flavor is significant and can easily overpower other flavors, so a little goes a long way.
Rosemary is a woody perennial in the mint, or Lamiaceae, family. However, it doesn’t resemble many of its mint relatives, as it grows as a bush, and the green leaves appear as needles along woody stems.
You can add sprigs of rosemary to savory stews or strip the leaves and add them to poultry blends. Or, try rosemary on its own as an herbal tea and treat yourself to a warming and medicinal beverage.
Garden sage is another culinary and medicinal herb originating from the Mediterranean area. Like rosemary, sage is a common ingredient in Mediterranean-style foods, such as lamb, chicken, fish, and roasted root vegetables.
I especially love its flavor in stews and soups, as it lends the food a hearty, warming, and comforting taste.
Sage can be used in various dishes as a green herb or dried spice. Its pale green and grayish leaves offer a bold and unmistakable flavor, which pairs well with heavy, rich, and creamy recipes.
Parsley, especially the commonly used Italian parsley, significantly resembles cilantro, so it’s easy to mistake one for the other. Parsley and cilantro belong to the same botanical family, Apiaceae or the carrot family.
Italian parsley (flat-leaf parsley) and cilantro have bright green, delicate, feathery leaves. However, their leaves are slightly different, which can help you tell them apart – flat-leaf parsley has pointed leaf margins, while cilantro has rounded leaf margins.
Other varieties, such as curly parsley, are easier to tell apart.
Plus, fresh parsley has a different flavor than cilantro. It offers a fresh, clean, peppery taste that helps deepen and enhance the flavor of other ingredients.
Parsley’s flavor is best when used as a green herb, and the chopped leaves are commonly added as a garnish to a variety of dishes, such as salads, pasta, tacos, rice, or stir-fries.
It’s also a green herb frequently used in smoothie recipes.
How To Use Fresh Green Herbs
Using fresh green herbs in recipes is relatively easy and straightforward. If you’re new to using green herbs, experience is the greatest teacher, so experiment with them!
Try different types of green herbs and try different amounts. Following a recipe makes things easier, but it’s also fun to play around on your own and see which green herbs suit your palate best.
That said, there are some valuable tips to help you get started. How you use fresh herbs depends on a couple of factors – the green herb you’re using and the recipes you’re using it in.
Not every green herb is used in the same way. For example, parsley and cilantro are best used as a garnish rather than being cooked with the food, as you might do with basil or rosemary.
For soup and stew recipes, add fresh green herbs when you add all your ingredients to the broth. You add them at this stage because you want the flavor of those herbs to be fully extracted into the simmering broth.
Examples of commonly used green herbs in soups and stews include rosemary, bay leaf, and thyme. This method also applies to slow-cooked meats, such as cooking chicken in a crock pot.
If you plan to use fresh herbs in a stir fry, such as basil or dill, you would want to add those green herbs at the last as you don’t want to overcook them.
I add fresh basil to my stir fries near the end of the cooking process when I add fresh garlic – when the onions and other vegetables are nearly cooked through.
Are All Herbs Green?
No – while most fresh culinary herbs are green, there are hundreds of plants and spices that are called herbs that are not green. Culinary and medicinal spices such as fennel, turmeric, licorice, and ginger are great examples of herbs that are not green.
Medicinal plants are also called herbs, and while most have at least some green on them (thanks to their leaves), the medicinal part used may not be green. For example, calendula is a medicinal herb, and the part of the plant used for medicine is its bright orange flower heads.
What Is the Most Commonly Used Green Herb?
Coriander, or cilantro, is the most used green herb in the world. Basil, cilantro, and oregano are the most commonly used culinary herbs in the United States.
What Green Herb Is on Garlic Bread?
The green herbs on garlic bread are oregano, basil, and sometimes thyme.
As an herbalist, my goal is to connect people with the healing powers of nature. Through my writings and herbal concoctions, I aim to guide others toward a healthier lifestyle using time-honored methods. With over four years of experience studying herbalism and organic gardening, I offer my knowledge to inspire others to explore the natural world, cultivate their own gardens, and rediscover their bond with the earth.