The Only Shortcut To Becoming a Good Home Cook

This is another column that originally appeared in early 2010. I'm providing some repeats for the new group of subscribers who began reading this blog recently. 

I've mentioned quite a few times in my newsletters that there are no shortcuts to high quality and interesting cooking. Yet, it doesn't have to be complicated and time consuming. You need to:
  1. Use Good, Reliable Recipes
  2. Find Fresh, High Quality Ingredients
  3. Use The Right Tool for the Job
  4. Be Organized
  5. Develop Solid Fundamental Techniques
But I lied. There is one shortcut to good cooking. It's fast. It's easy. It's inexpensive. Anyone can use this shortcut, even a child. The shortcut is:

       Use Fresh Herbs

You may say to yourself, "Of course that's true. I use fresh herbs whenever I cook nice or fancy." Or this might be news to you. Either way, you could also argue that fresh herbs are expensive and don't last long. Usually you only need a few sprigs and the rest goes to waste. So it's really just a way of buying your way to being a better cook.

In some sense this is right. A bag like this one costs $2.79 at my local store.

Yet, a plant like this costs $2.49 at a garden center and will last months, even if you just leave it in the original pot and water it once in a while. If you plant it in a garden, it may last for years. My main thyme plant is ten years old now.  

And finally, an herb garden like this can support your kitchen for a decade, with only occassional replanting of perennials, and inexpensive plantings of annuals.

Here's what you need to know about fresh herbs:
  • Simply using fresh herbs where they are called for in a recipe will dramatically increase the flavor of a dish.
  • Using fresh herbs where dried are specified is typically done by increasing from teaspoon quantities to tablespoon quantities.
  • Buy potted herbs at a garden center - even if you only use them for cooking and never plant them. The small container plant will stay alive in your kitchen or on your back porch for months. And it will KEEP GROWING, funny how they do that. This way you won't continually replace expensive store bought herbs.
  • Plant an herb garden. In the south, rosemary, oregano, thyme, sage, marjoram all survive the winter. Chives, parsley, mint and cilantro do well in pots all year. Some annuals (cilantro) need to avoid the extreme southern heat, but are ideal in a garden in the north. Basil does well everywhere in the warm seasons. A bay tree (which might start as a twig) in an attractive pot can be taken in during a northern winter. I haven't bought bay leaves for 10 years now. Herb gardens need little attention, as most herbs thrive in bad soil, so it's a very simple gardening proposition.
I promised you a shortcut, and now it sounds like you have to plant a garden. Not really. You can simply grab a package of fresh herbs from the store, or pick up a simple plant and use it tonight in the kitchen. 

One of the best ways to use fresh herbs is on pasta. A mix of two or three finely chopped herbs, along with some olive oil, good parmesan and salt and fresh ground pepper make a surprisingly sophisticated dish, with lots of flavor. Last night I used thyme, tarragon and mint. It was delicious.  


  1. I am totally in agreement about the fresh herbs. I lost a few plants in the serious heat and drought last summer, but I'll be replanting. My main problem: the way things grow in Arkansas! Oregano is invasive; I cut it back constantly and use it to make pesto or instead of parsley for cod in green sauce. The rosemary is 3'high and equally wide; small children have disappeared after venturing too near. The thyme is a dense, heavy mat...and mint! We'll just have to move away if I want to escape it. (Only the mint goes dormant in winter, despite the cold and even snow.) Let's hear it for herbs!

  2. Elaine,

    One way to control mint and oregano, is to plant them in the ground, but inside what we used to call a coffee can. Come to think of it, there are aren't many things that come in that size anymore. I've not yet planted in a "coffee plastic". It probably would work just as well.

    The idea is that if you originally plant the herb in the coffee....container.....and sink the container so that the top rim is right at ground level, then the roots will be bound to the container and not travel across the garden to take control of a wider area.



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