Wondering how to substitute dried herbs when a recipe calls for fresh? The Never Cook Naked Guys weigh in.
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Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: Here’s a question that always pops into my mind. Recipes say that dried herbs should be used more sparingly than fresh. But my first inclination is to think, Hmm, wouldn’t you expect something dried to lose its flavor?—Skeptically Inclined
Dear Inclined: Don’t think dry, as in the Sahara. Think concentrated, as in a good sauce reduction.
See, herbs are stocked with essential oils that carry the plant’s volatile compounds. But as you know, herbs, like most living things, contain even more water than oil—leafy green plants can consist of up to 95 percent water.
As herbs are dried, that water evaporates, leaving the heavier oils (and their aromatic compounds) behind. The leaves shrink, the essential oils turn more concentrated in terms of overall volume and mass, and the taste becomes more pronounced. In other word, the herbs are less watery.
However, over time, a dried herb can come to taste nothing like its living kin. Dried herbs have a surprisingly short shelf life—9 to 12 months, on average. Any longer and they take on a dusty, tea-like tang. Witness the bottles from the year of your birth still sitting on your mom’s spice rack.
There’s a general rule among culinary pros about using half the amount of a dried herb as a substitute for a fresh one. If you’ve got exceptionally fresh dried herbs—herbs you’ve dried yourself, or those from a reputable stand at a farmers’ market—you should use a third as much as the recipe calls for.
How does that work out in real life? Remember that 1 tablespoon = 3 teaspoons. If the recipe calls for “1 tablespoon fresh rosemary,” and all we’ve got on hand in the dead of a New England winter is dried, we’ll use 1/2 tablespoon (or 1 1/2 teaspoons) dried rosemary as a substitute. However, if the recipe also calls for “1 tablespoon fresh thyme,” we’ll use 2 teaspoons dried thyme as a sub.
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Originally published March 7, 2013.