If You're Not Using All Your Herb Stems, You're Missing Out
Yes, even rosemary and thyme's hard stems are worth saving.
Though you’ve probably used your fair share of herb leaves when cooking in the past, it might surprise you to know that herb stems are just as flavorful. Not every herb stem is edible or usable in the same exact way, but tossing them out can be a huge missed opportunity when it comes to adding new dimensions of flavor to all your dishes. Here’s what you need to know the next time you find yourself with a bunch, or two, of your favorite herbs.
There’s a Big Difference Between Soft and Hard Herb Stems
Herbs can be sorted into two very broad categories: soft- and hard-stemmed. Soft stems are flexible and juicy, and include parsley, basil and cilantro among them. Hard stemmed varieties — like thyme, rosemary, mint and tarragon — range from being thick and tough, to woody and stick-like.
While there are some universal uses, each category of herbs is unique and should be utilized in different ways based on the texture of their stems.
Soft Stems: Sautéing, Blending, Pureeing and Eating Raw
As stems grow from root to leaf, they become thinner and more tender. This means that about the top one-third of the stem — give or take — is tender enough to chop up with, and use the same way as, the herb leaves. Not only are these soft stems juicy and a touch crisp, they also provide extra texture and flavor and can be blended easily and smoothly, making them a smart addition to pesto or salsas.
The bottoms two-thirds of the stems are thicker and can be a little more fibrous, though they soften and become tender very quickly if you heat them. You can add them to sautéing onions or garlic at the beginning of a recipe or stir them into a pan sauce right before serving.
Soft herbs are also great for flavoring sauces and broths, like tomato sauce or chicken broth. They can withstand long or short simmering without disintegrating, though they will collapse and lose their shape the longer they simmer. They should be strained or pulled out with tongs before serving, so if you’re using more than a few herb stems, you’ll want to tie them together with a piece of kitchen twine for easier removal later on.
Hard Stems: Flavoring, Smoking and Skewering
Since hard herb stems aren't edible, they land squarely in the "flavoring" category. But even within that, there is a big variety of uses. When added to simple syrups, like for this mint julep from Food Network Magazine, they add big flavor notes. This is perfect for sweetening everything from iced tea to lemonade to cocktails. Like mint, rosemary, sage and tarragon also add really unexpected, yet fantastic flavors to drinks, too. For a milder flavor, you’ll want to use just a few herb stems; for a bolder flavor, use a small handful.
Woody stems are also great for flavoring frying oil. Because they are not juicy like soft stemmed herbs, hard stems will not splatter in the oil or burn too quickly. If there are leaves still attached to the stems, they will also get crispy and can be nibbled on with the other fried items.
Woody stems, like thyme and rosemary, can also be grilled; just like wood chips, they can be added to hot coals to add a gentle smoky flavor to your favorite foods. Since they won’t smoke for as long as wood chips do though, you’ll want to add your herb stems right before putting your food on the grill.
As if all this wasn’t enough, you can also use a variety of tougher herb stems, like rosemary, as a skewer in place of traditional metal or wooden ones. Since most hard stems don’t have a pointy end, however, you’ll need to poke a hole through your meat or vegetables first to help thread them through.