Back to Culinary Herbs





It may be said that sweet or culinary herbs are those annual, biennial or perennial plants whose green parts, tender roots or ripe seeds have an aromatic flavor and fragrance, due either to a volatile oil or to other chemically named substances peculiar to the individual species. Since many of them have pleasing odors they have been called sweet, and since they have been long used in cookery to add their characteristic flavors to soups, stews, dressings, sauces and salads, they are popularly called culinary. This last designation is less happy than the former, since many other herbs, such as cabbage, spinach, kale, dandelion and collards, are also culinary herbs. These vegetables are, however, probably more widely known as potherbs or greens.


It seems probable that many of the flavoring herbs now in use were similarly employed before the erection of the pyramids and also that many then popular no longer appear in modern lists of esculents. Of course, this statement is based largely upon imperfect records, perhaps, in many cases only hints more or less doubtful as to the various species. But it seems safe to conclude that a goodly number of the herbs discussed in this volume, especially those said to be natives of the Mediterranean region, overhung and perfumed the cradle of the human race in the Orient and marked the footsteps of our rude progenitors as they strode more and more sturdily toward the horizon of promise. This idea seems to gain support also from the fact that certain Eastern peoples, whom modern civilization declares to have uneducated tastes, still employ many herbs which have dropped by the wayside of progress, or like the caraway and the redoubtable "pusley," an anciently popular potherb, are but known in western lands as troublesome weeds.

Relying upon Biblical records alone, several herbs were highly esteemed prior to our era; in the gospels of Matthew and Luke reference is made to tithes of mint, anise, rue, cummin and other "herbs"; and, more than 700 years previously, Isaiah speaks of the sowing and threshing of cummin which, since the same passage (Isaiah xxviii, 25) also speaks of "fitches" (vetches), wheat, barley and "rie" (rye), seems then to have been a valued crop.

Popular Spades
Popular Spades

The development of the herb crops contrasts strongly with that of the other crops to which reference has just been made. Whereas these latter have continued to be staples, and to judge by their behavior during the last century may be considered to have improved in quality and yield since that ancient time, the former have dropped to the most subordinate position of all food plants. They have lost in number of species, and have shown less improvement than perhaps any other groups of plants cultivated for economic purposes. During the century just closed only one species, parsley, may be said to have developed more than an occasional improved variety. And even during this period the list of species seems to have been somewhat curtailed—tansy, hyssop, horehound, rue and several others being considered of too pronounced and even unpleasant flavor to suit cultivated palates.

With the exception of these few species, the loss of which seems not to be serious, this absence of improvement is to be regretted, because with improved quality would come increased consumption and consequent beneficial results in the appetizing flavor of the foods to which herbs are added. But greatly improved varieties of most species can hardly be expected until a just appreciation has been awakened in individual cultivators, who, probably in a majority of cases, will be lovers of plants rather than men who earn their living by market gardening.

Until the public better appreciates the culinary herbs there will be a comparatively small commercial demand; until the demand is sufficient to make growing herbs profitable upon an extensive scale, market gardeners will devote their land to crops which are sure to pay well; hence the opportunity to grow herbs as an adjunct to gardening is the most likely way that they can be made profitable. And yet there is still another; namely, growing them for sale in the various prepared forms and selling them in glass or tin receptacles in the neighborhood or by advertising in the household magazines. There surely is a market, and a profitable one if rightly managed. And with right management and profit is to come desire to have improved varieties. Such varieties can be developed at least as readily as the wonderful modern chrysanthemum has been developed from an insignificant little wild flower not half as interesting or promising originally as our common oxeye daisy, a well-known field weed.

Not the least object of this volume is, therefore, to arouse just appreciation of the opportunities awaiting the herb grower. Besides the very large and increasing number of people who take pleasure in the growing of attractive flowering and foliage plants, fine vegetables and choice fruits, there are many who would find positive delight in the breeding of plants for improvement—the origination of new varieties—and who would devote much of their leisure time to this work—make it a hobby—did they know the simple underlying principles. For their benefit, therefore, the following paragraphs are given.


Besides the gratification that always accompanies the growing of plants, there is in plant breeding the promise that the progeny will in some way be better than the parent, and there is the certainty that when a stable variety of undoubted merit has been produced it can be sold to an enterprising seedsman for general distribution. In this way the amateur may become a public benefactor, reap the just reward of his labors and keep his memory green!

The production of new varieties of plants is a much simpler process than is commonly supposed. It consists far more in selecting and propagating the best specimens than in any so-called "breeding." With the majority of the herbs this is the most likely direction in which to seek success.

Suppose we have sown a packet of parsley seed and we have five thousand seedlings. Among these a lot will be so weak that we will naturally pass them by when we are choosing plantlets to put in our garden beds. Here is the first and simplest kind of selection. By this means, and by not having space for a great number of plants in the garden, we probably get rid of 80 per cent of the seedlings—almost surely the least desirable ones.

Lath Screen for Shading Beds
Lath Screen for Shading Beds

Suppose we have transplanted 1,000 seedlings where they are to grow and produce leaves for sale or home use. Among these, provided the seed has been good and true, at least 90 per cent will be about alike in appearance, productivity and otherwise. The remaining plants may show variations so striking as to attract attention. Some may be tall and scraggly, some may be small and puny; others may be light green, still others dark green; and so on. But there may be one or two plants that stand out conspicuously as the best of the whole lot. These are the ones to mark with a stake so they will not be molested when the crop is being gathered and so they will attain their fullest development.

These best plants, and only these, should then be chosen as the seed bearers. No others should be allowed even to produce flowers. When the seed has ripened, that from each plant should be kept separate during the curing process described elsewhere. And when spring comes again, each lot of seed should be sown by itself. When the seedlings are transplanted, they should be kept apart and labeled No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, etc., so the progeny of each parent plant can be known and its history kept.

The process of selecting the seedlings the second year is the same as in the first; the best are given preference, when being transplanted. In the beds all sorts of variations even more pronounced than the first year may be expected. The effort with the seedlings derived from each parent plant should be to find the plants that most closely resemble their own parents, and to manage these just as the parents were managed. No other should be allowed to flower.

This process is to be continued from year to year. If the selection is carefully made, the grower will soon rejoice, because he will observe a larger and a larger number of plants approaching the type of plant he has been selecting for. In time practically the whole plantation will be coming "true to type," and he will have developed a new variety. If his ideal is such as to appeal to the practical man—the man who grows parsley for money—and if the variety is superior to varieties already grown, the originator will have no difficulty in disposing of his stock of seed and plants, if he so desires, to a seedsman, who will gladly pay a round price in order to have exclusive control of the "new creation." Or he may contract with a seedsman to grow seed of the new variety for sale to the trade.

Harvesting Thyme Grown on a Commercial Scale
Harvesting Thyme Grown on a Commercial Scale

It may be said, further, that new varieties may be produced by placing the pollen from the flowers of one plant upon the pistils in the flowers of another and then covering the plant with fine gauze to keep insects out. With the herbs, however, this method seems hardly worth while, because the flowers are as a rule very small and the work necessarily finicky, and because there are already so few varieties of most species that the operation may be left to the activities of insects. It is for this reason, however, that none but the choicest plants should be allowed to bloom, so none but desirable pollen may reach and fertilize the flowers of the plants to be used as seed producers.


Some readers of a statistical turn of mind may be disappointed to learn that figures as to the value of the annual crops of individual herbs, the acreage devoted to each, the average cost, yield and profit an acre, etc., are not obtainable and that the only way of determining the approximate standing of the various species is the apparent demand for each in the large markets and stores.

Unquestionably the greatest call is for parsley, which is used in restaurants and hotels more extensively as a garnish than any other herb. In this capacity it ranks about equal with watercress and lettuce, which both find their chief uses as salads. As a flavoring agent it is probably less used than sage, but more than any of the other herbs. It is chiefly employed in dressings with mild meats such as chicken, turkey, venison, veal, with baked fish; and for soups, stews, and sauces, especially those used with boiled meats, fish and fricassees of the meats mentioned. Thus it has a wider application than any other of the culinary herbs.

Sage, which is a strongly flavored plant, is used chiefly with such fat meats as pork, goose, duck, and various kinds of game. Large quantities are mixed with sausage meat and, in some countries, with certain kinds of cheese. Throughout the United States it is probably the most frequently called into requisition of all herbs, probably outranking any two of the others, with the exception of parsley.

Garden Hoes of Various Styles
Garden Hoes of Various Styles

Thyme and savory stand about equal, and are chiefly used like parsley, though both, especially the former, are used in certain kinds of sausage. Marjoram, which is similarly employed, comes next, then follow balm, fennel, and basil. These milder herbs are often mixed for much the same reason that certain simple perfumes are blended—to produce a new odor—combinations of herbs resulting in a new compound flavor. Such compounds are utilized in the same way that the elementary herbs are.

In classes by themselves are tarragon and spearmint, the former of which is chiefly used as a decoction in the flavoring of fish sauces, and the latter as the universal dressing with spring lamb. Mint has also a more convivial use, but this seems more the province of the W. C. T. U. than of this book to discuss.

Dill is probably the most important of the herbs whose seeds, rather than their leaves, are used in flavoring food other than confectionery. It plays its chief role in the pickle barrel. Immense quantities of cucumber pickles flavored principally with dill are used in the restaurants of the larger cities and also by families, the foreign-born citizens and their descendants being the chief consumers. The demand for these pickles is met by the leading pickle manufacturers who prepare special brands, generally according to German recipes, and sell them to the delicatessen and the grocery stores. If they were to rely upon me for business, they would soon go bankrupt. To my palate the dill pickle appeals as almost the acme of disagreeableness.


The flavors of the various herbs cover a wide range, commencing with fennel and ending with sage, and are capable of wide application. In one case which came under my observation, the cook made a celery-flavored stew of some meat scraps. Not being wholly consumed, the surviving debris appeared a day or two later, in company with other odds and ends, as the chief actor in a meat pie flavored with parsley. Alas, a left-over again! "Never mind," mused the cook; and no one who partook of the succeeding stew discovered the lurking parsley and its overpowered progenitor, the celery, under the effectual disguise of summer savory. By an unforeseen circumstance the fragments remaining from this last stew did not continue the cycle and disappear in another pie. Had this been their fate, however, their presence could have been completely obscured by sage. This problem in perpetual progression or culinary homeopathy can be practiced in any kitchen. But hush, tell it not in the dining-room!

Dried Herbs in Paper and Tin
Dried Herbs in Paper and Tin


Culinary herbs may be divided into three groups; those whose foliage furnishes the flavor, those whose seed is used and those few whose roots are prepared. In the kitchen, foliage herbs are employed either green or as decoctions or dried, each way with its special advocates, advantages and applications.

Green herbs, if freshly and properly gathered, are richest in flavoring substances and when added to sauces, fricassees, stews, etc., reveal their freshness by their particles as well as by their decidedly finer flavor. In salads they almost entirely supplant both the dried and the decocted herbs, since their fresh colors are pleasing to the eye and their crispness to the palate; whereas the specks of the dried herbs would be objectionable, and both these and the decoctions impart a somewhat inferior flavor to such dishes. Since herbs cannot, however, always be obtained throughout the year, unless they are grown in window boxes, they are infused or dried. Both infusing and drying are similar processes in themselves, but for best results they are dependent upon the observance of a few simple rules.

Herb Solution Bottle
Herb Solution Bottle

No matter in what condition or for what purpose they are to be used the flavors of foliage herbs are invariably best in well-developed leaves and shoots still in full vigor of growth. With respect to the plant as a whole, these flavors are most abundant and pleasant just before the flowers appear. And since they are generally due to essential oils, which are quickly dissipated by heat, they are more abundant in the morning than after the sun has reached the zenith. As a general rule, therefore, best results with foliage herbs, especially those to be used for drying and infusing, may be secured when the plants seem ready to flower, the harvest being made as soon as the dew has dried and before the day has become very warm. The leaves of parsley, however, may be gathered as soon as they attain that deep green characteristic of the mature leaf; and since the leaves are produced continuously for many weeks, the mature ones may be removed every week or so, a process which encourages the further production of foliage and postpones the appearance of the flowering stem.

To make good infusions the freshly gathered, clean foliage should be liberally packed in stoppered jars, covered with the choicest vinegar, and the jars kept closed. In a week or two the fluid will be ready for use, but in using it, trials must be made to ascertain its strength and the quantity necessary to use. Usually only the clear liquid is employed; sometimes, however, as with mint, the leaves are very finely minced before being bottled and both liquid and particles employed.

Tarragon, mint and the seed herbs, such as dill, are perhaps more often used in ordinary cookery as infusions than otherwise. An objection to decoctions is that the flavor of vinegar is not always desired in a culinary preparation, and neither is that of alcohol or wine, which are sometimes used in the same way as vinegar.


When only a small quantity of an herb is to be dried, the old plan of hanging loose bunches from the ceiling of a warm, dry attic or a kitchen will answer. Better, perhaps, is the use of trays covered with clean, stout manilla paper upon which thin layers of the leaves are spread. These are placed either in hot sunlight or in the warm kitchen where warm air circulates freely. They must be turned once a day until all the moisture has been evaporated from the leaves and the softer, more delicate parts have become crisp. Then they may be crunched and crumbled between the hands, the stalks and the hard parts rejected and the powder placed in air-tight glass or earthenware jars or metal cans, and stored in a cool place. If there be the slightest trace of moisture in the powder, it should be still further dried to insure against mold. Prior to any drying process the cut leaves and stems should be thoroughly washed, to get rid of any trace of dirt. Before being dried as noted above, the water should all be allowed to evaporate. Evaporation may be hastened by exposing the herbs to a breeze in a shallow, loose basket, a wire tray or upon a table. While damp there is little danger of their being blown away. As they dry, however, the current of air should be more gentle.

The practice of storing powdered herbs in paper or pasteboard packages is bad, since the delicate oils readily diffuse through the paper and sooner or later the material becomes as valueless for flavoring puroses as ordinary hay or straw. This loss of flavor is particularly noticeable with sage, which is one of the easiest herbs to spoil by bad management. Even when kept in air-tight glass or tin receptacles, as recommended, it generally becomes useless before the end of two years.

Paper Sacks of Dried Herbs for Home Use
Paper Sacks of Dried Herbs for Home Use

When large quantities of herbs are to be cured a fruit evaporator may be employed, the herbs being spread thinly upon wire-bottomed trays so that an ample current of air may pass through them. Care must be taken to keep the temperature inside the machine below 120 degrees. The greatest efficiency can be secured by placing the trays of most recently gathered herbs at the top, the partially dried ones being lowered to positions nearer the source of heat. In this way the fresh, dry, warm air comes in contact first with the herbs most nearly dried, removes the last vestige of moisture from them and after passing through the intervening trays comes to those most recently gathered.

Hand Cultivator and Scarifier
Hand Cultivator
and Scarifier

Unless the evaporator be fitted with some mechanism which will permit all the trays to be lowered simultaneously, the work of changing the trays may seem too irksome to be warranted. But where no changes of trays are made, greater care must be given to the bottom trays because they will dry out faster than those at the top. Indeed in such cases, after the apparatus is full, it becomes almost essential to move the trays lower, because if fresh green herbs, particularly those which are somewhat wet, be placed at the bottom of the series, the air will become so charged with moisture from them that the upper layers may for a time actually absorb this moisture and thus take longer to dry. Besides this, they will surely lose some of their flavoring ingredients—the very things which it is desired to save.

No effort should be made to hasten the drying process by increasing the temperature, since this is likely to result as just mentioned. A personal experience may teach the reader a lesson. I once had a large amount of parsley to cure and thought to expedite matters by using the oven of a gas stove. Suffice it to tell that the whole quantity was ruined, not a pinch was saved. In spite of the closest regulation the heat grew too great and the flavor was literally cooked out of the leaves. The delicate oil saturated everything in the house, and for a week or more the whole place smelled as if chicken fricassee was being made upon a wholesale plan.

Except as garnishes, herbs are probably more frequently used in a dry state than in all other ways put together. Perhaps this is because the method of preparing them seems simpler than that of infusion, because large quantities may be kept in small spaces, and because they can be used for every purpose that the fresh plants or the decoctions can be employed. In general, however, they are called into requisition principally in dressings, soups, stews and sauces in which their particles are not considered objectionable. If clear sauces or soups are desired, the dried herbs may still be used to impart the flavor, their particles being removed by straining.

The method of preparing dill, anise, caraway and other herbs whose seed is used, differs from that employed with the foliage herbs mainly in the ripeness of the plants. These must be gathered as soon as they show signs of maturity but before the seeds are ready to drop from them. In all this work especial care must be paid to the details of cleaning. For a pleasing appearance the seed heads must be gathered before they become the least bit weather-beaten. This is as essential as to have the seed ripe. Next, the seed must be perfectly clean, free from chaff, bits of broken stems and other debris. Much depends upon the manner of handling as well as upon harvesting. Care must be taken in threshing to avoid bruising the seeds, particularly the oily ones, by pounding too hard or by tramping upon them. Threshing should never be done in damp weather; always when the air is very dry.

In clear weather after the dew has disappeared the approximately ripe plants or seed heads must be harvested and spread thinly—never packed firmly—upon stout cloth such as ticking, sailcloth, or factory cotton. A warm, open shed where the air circulates freely is an admirable place, since the natural temperature of the air is sufficient in the case of seeds to bring about good results. Usually in less than a week the tops will have become dry enough to be beaten out with a light flail or a rod. In this operation great care must be taken to avoid bruising or otherwise injuring the seed. The beating should therefore be done in a sheet spread upon a lawn or at least upon short grass. The force of the blows will thus be lessened and bruising avoided.

For cleaning herb seeds sieves in all sizes from No. 2 to No. 40 are needed. The sizes represent various finenesses of mesh. All above No. 8 should be of brass wire, because brass is considerably more durable and less likely to rust than iron. The cloths upon which the herbs are spread should be as large as the floor upon which the threshing is to be done except when the floor is without cracks, but it is more convenient to use cloths always, because they facilitate handling and temporary storing. Light cotton duck is perhaps best, but the weave must be close. A convenient size is 10 x 10 feet.

After the stalks have been removed the seed should be allowed to remain for several days longer in a very thin layer—the thinner the better—and turned every day to remove the last vestige of moisture. It will be even better still to have the drying sheet suspended so air may circulate below as well as above the seed. Not less than a week for the smallest seeds and double that time for the larger ones is necessary. To avoid loss or injury it is imperative that the seed be dry before it is put in the storage packages. Of course, if infusions are to be made all this is unnecessary; the seed may be put in the liquor as soon as the broken stems, etc. are removed subsequent to threshing.


As garnishes several of the culinary herbs are especially valuable. This is particularly true of parsley, which is probably more widely used than any other plant, its only close rivals being watercress and lettuce, which, however, are generally inferior to it in delicacy of tint and form of foliage, the two cardinal virtues of a garnish.

Parsley varieties belong to three principal groups, based upon the form of the foliage: (1) Plain varieties, in which the leaves are nearly as they are in nature; (2) moss-curled varieties in which they are curiously and pleasingly contorted; and (3) fern leaved, in which the foliage is not curled, but much divided into threadlike parts.

The moss-curled varieties are far more popular than the other two groups put together and are the only ones used especially as garnishes with meat dishes in the hotels and restaurants of the large cities. The plain-leaved sorts cannot be compared in any way except in flavor with the varieties of the other groups. But the fern-leaved kinds, which unfortunately have not become commercially well known, surpass even the finest varieties of the moss-curled group, not only in their exquisite and delicate form, but in their remarkably rich, dark-green coloring and blending of light and shade. But the mere fact that these varieties are not known in the cities should not preclude their popularity in suburban and town gardens and in the country, where every householder is monarch of his own soil and can satisfy very many æsthetic and gustatory desires without reference to market dictum, that bane alike of the market gardener and his customer.

Several other herbs—tansy, savory, thyme, marjoram, basil, and balm—make pretty garnishes, but since they are not usually considered so pleasant to nibble at, they are rarely used. The pleasing effect of any garnish may be heightened by adding here and there a few herb flowers such as thyme or savory. Other flowers may be used in the same way; for instance, nasturtium.

There is no reason why herbs so used should not be employed several times over, and afterwards dried or bottled in vinegar if they be free from gravy, oils, fats, etc., and if in sufficient quantity to make such a use worth while. Other pretty garnishes which are easily obtained are corn salad, peppergrass, mustard, fennel, and young leaves of carrot. But surpassing all these in pleasing and novel effects are the curled, pink, red and white-leaved varieties of chicory and nasturtium flowers alone or resting upon parsley or other delicate foliage. So much by way of digression.