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Using herbs to season your food


Kathy Kolasa


Kathy Kolasa

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Q: I am trying to use less salt in my food. I have never cooked with fresh herbs. How do you use them and store them? — W.H., Greenville

A: Most of us get more salt than we need. The new blood pressure guidelines encourage us to follow the DASH diet, increase our potassium and decrease our sodium or salt intake. Yenssi Williams, a senior ECU dietetic student, wanted to tell you about using herbs to season your food. Here is what she has to say.

For many, salt is the basis of seasoning that gives our favorite foods delicious flavor. Besides being flavorful, salt is inexpensive, convenient, universal, beneficial to our health and long-lasting. While sodium is important in our diet, consuming too much of it can have negative effects on blood pressure and can lead to excess fluid in the body.

It is well established that reducing salt can help reduce blood pressure and lower the risk for many chronic diseases like heart disease. So what are the alternatives to using salt to flavor food?

One answer to that question is dried and fresh herbs. Dried herbs can be in the form of a powder or the dried plant itself. Dried herbs have a stronger taste and aroma because flavors are more concentrated than fresh herbs, but they get the job done with a smaller amount. At the same time, natural, fresh herbs contain the original form of the plant. Both can be found in grocery stores and farmers markets. You can easily grow some fresh herbs at home.

Many herbs contain polyphenol or micronutrients that may have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects. Since you rarely eat herbs by themselves, the benefits of herbs depend on how often you consume them, how your body absorbs them, how you cook and prepare them and how other foods impact properties of herbs.

The degree of bioavailability, or the rate at which a substance is absorbed in the body, solely depends on the person. There is no amount that can provide the same advantages to everyone, but consuming fresh herbs provides more benefits than drawbacks. One disadvantage to using fresh herbs is that they can go bad quickly.

Get the most out of fresh herbs by first disposing of discolored or wilted leaves and making sure your herbs are dry or moisture-free. Next, cut stems of herbs diagonally and place them in a jar filled with water touching the stem ends of herbs. When the water begins to discolor, change it. Different herbs last longer in various conditions. For example, cilantro works well in refrigerated temperatures, while basil is better at room temperature. Whether refrigerated or room temperature, herbs need to be covered with a plastic bag that still allows air to circulate in and out of the jar. To prevent freezing, store herbs in the warmest area of the fridge. You can also store herbs in an open container or plastic bag or freeze fresh herbs into ice cubes.

Once it is time to start cooking, there are various methods for incorporating fresh herbs in a dish. For example, rosemary is an herb that can be added onto raw meat before cooking. Equally important, to prevent flavor loss, herbs can be added at the end of the cooking time. It is best to add the herbs slowly into the dish until the flavor is perfect for you. You might want to try adding cilantro to rice; flavoring olive oil with rosemary; adding thyme to roasted vegetables; mixing mint in your mojitos (a cocktail of rum, lime juice, sugar and soda water).

The vibrant colors, sodium-reducing, anti-inflammatory and anti-hypertensive properties of herbs make all the difference in cooking. Whether it is basil in a pesto sauce, cilantro on top of carne asada tacos (common Mexican dish with corn tortillas and grilled flank steak) or chives on top of a baked potato — incorporating herbs into your diet provides delicious dishes with a range of health advantages.

Professor emeritus Kathy Kolasa, a registered dietitian nutritionist and Ph.D., is an Affiliate Professor in the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. Contact her at kolasaka@ecu.edu.