Fresh Herbs and Meat: A Can’t Beat Combo

In my mind, on of the distinguishing characteristics of a great cook is his or her ability to use fresh herbs well. I admit it’s something I struggle to do. One reason is that I don’t have a garden, though of course I have access to plenty of fresh herbs at the market. Another reason is that I lack the confidence to just toss a handful of fresh herbs into whatever I’m making. With grilling season upon us (finally!), I thought you might appreciate a primer on matching herbs with meat (though of course, herbs are fabu when paired with seafood as well). Here are the basics…

Herb Bundle
Herb Bundle / Amanda Wray / CC BY 2.0

Find Your Herbs

I like to stroll out onto my deck and snip a few sprigs of herbs while I’m preparing dinner, it just makes me feel so chef-y. One of the easiest ways to have fresh herbs all summer and into fall is to grow your own. You don’t need a huge garden, just a pot or two. Culinary herbs are very forgiving plants—and many prefer a rather dry environment, so if you forget to water them for a little while they will usually be just fine. Oh, and if you have children, herbs are a great way to introduce them to the joys of gardening and caring for plants.  If gardening is not an option, you can grow ample herbs on your kitchen windowsill as long as you have a decent amount of sunlight coming in. And of course, you can easily buy a wide variety of fresh herbs at your local market, where both regular and organic versions are available.

Pair Them Right

Knowing which herbs to put with which meat can be a challenge if you’re not used to cooking with fresh herbs. Here is a thorough list of herbs (and spices) and appropriate foods with which to pair them. Or cut to the chase with this list of fresh herbs that make meat sing, and are easily used in marinades:

  • Chicken: basil, chervil, chives, cilantro, dill, marjoram, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, savory, tarragon, thyme
  • Beef: basil, chives, marjoram, oregano, parsley, rosemary, tarragon, thyme
  • Pork: basil, dill, lemon verbena, marjoram, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage

And if you really want to get creative, put the lists aside and just do what you like. Yep, that’s allowed.

Marinate That Meat

Cooking meat and high temps, for a long time or over an open flame is associated with higher levels of carcinogenic compounds called HCAs (heterocyclic amines), according to the National Cancer Institute. Grilled, fried and roasted meats tend to have the highest levels of HCAs. There is research that shows that meat marinated in antioxidant-rich mixtures (such as you get with the addition of herbs and spices) helps decrease some of the health hazards associated with grilled meat. Adding vinegar or lemon juice to the marinade is also helpful. Check out this recipe for a Guiding Stars Lemon Basil Dressing that can be used as a marinade for chicken (or fish), and keep safety in mind with these tips—be sure to marinate meat in the fridge and not on the counter.

Swapping Herbs

Oh the frustration of not having the ingredient you need when you need it! If you’re missing mint (like I usually am), don’t sweat it—many herbs have replacements that will yield good results. Two herbs that I usually am lacking are mint and thyme. Here are a couple swap ideas for them, as well as a few others.

  • Mint:try basil, rosemary or marjoram
  • Thyme:try oregano, savory, basil or marjoram