Herbs 'becoming increasingly widely used'

July 15 2013

Though herbs have been a staple element of the Canadian diet for generations, these ingredients could be benefiting from a fresh surge in popularity as foodies find new ways of adding intriguing flavours to a variety of foods.

A new report from the Associated Press has shed light on the growing prominence of herbs in North American menus, with regular consumers and professional chefs alike looking to experiment with new uses for both fresh and dried herbs.

Such is the current popularity of herbs that many are choosing to grow their own - indeed, Lauren Devine-Hager, a product research and test-kitchen scientist with Jarden Home Brands, told the publication that nearly 70 per cent of home canners are now cultivating herbs.

She said: "When we ask people what herbs they're growing, they tell us that number one is basil, followed by chives, cilantro and dill. These are all great for adding flavour to meals without using much - if any - salt."

Running concurrent to this trend is a renewed sense of adventure among food lovers when it comes to devising recipes involving these natural ingredients. 

US-based food author Daniel Gasteiger observed that farmers' markets are regularly selling products that utilize herbs in innovative ways, such as herbal jellies that include fennel, thyme, rosemary and lavender.

The ingredients are also being incorporated into the field of infusions and mixology, with herb-mixed drinks beginning to catch on.

Mr Gasteiger explained: "I use vodka infused with herbs and garlic to flavour things like Dijon mustard and creamed noodles. You put a flambé on it to burn off the alcohol and it leaves the essence of the herbs behind."

Herbs also featured prominently in the recent McCormick Flavour Forecast for 2013, which highlighted oregano as one of the tastes to watch for the current grilling season, while many are also using ingredients such as cumin, basil and dill weed to create their own DIY condiments.

Trends such as these are also helping to drive demand for preserved and dried herbs in particular, with many chefs and consumers favouring these over fresh versions for a number of reasons.

Dehydrated herbs can be stored for longer and easily ground up together to create intriguing new seasonings and garnishes, while the fact that dried herbs are more concentrated than fresh ones often means they can provide a stronger and more compelling flavour.

Angelica Asbury, a culinary analyst with The Legacy Companies, told the Associated Press: "A recipe calling for a tablespoon of fresh basil would call for a half-tablespoon of dried basil."

As a result, many of the people currently cultivating a crop of fresh herbs at home are also investing in their own dehydration equipment, or alternatively preserving them using vinegar, oils, butters, alcoholic drinks, sea salt, soaps or jellies.

Indeed, Ms Devine-Hager estimated that at least one-third of home canners growing herbs are doing so with the intention of drying and storing them, suggesting that the benefits of dried herbs are not going unnoticed by consumers.