If you are interested in learning about cooking in Italy, then Italian herbs is always a great place to start.
These herbs create the base flavor in most Italian dishes, so once you have a good grasp of each herb, what it tastes like, what it pairs well with, and what dishes use the herb, then you will be ready to wow your Italian friends and relatives in no time.
We will lay this out in our guide and more, so read on to learn more about the role of herbs in Italian cuisine.
Basil has to be the most quintessential Italian herb. While it isn’t necessarily used in every dish, nor is basil a uniquely Italian herb, it is probably the herb you associate with Italian cooking the most. The Italians love Basil for its strong savoury flavor and versatility in dishes.
Basil generally has a strong savoury and moorish flavor. It tastes great raw and can also be chopped and added to pasta dishes and can be bought fresh or dried. Basil is really easy to cultivate in your herb garden as it is a weed so it will grow pretty well even when unattended.
Basil is used in a huge range of Italian dishes, condiments, and salads. Pesto’s main ingredient is basil, and fresh pesto made with fresh basil leaves is truly an Italian delicacy.
A Caprese Salad is also one of our favorite uses of basil. This salad is a simple layering of mozzarella slices, tomato, and basil, and truly encapsulates the goals of Italian cooking : simple family cooking made amazing by using the best and freshest ingredients to hand.
Oregano is a great herb that can get overlooked in your herbs and spices rack; If Basil is the yin of Italian herbs, you should consider Oregano the yang.
The two work in tandem to balance out each other’s flavors. A combination of basil and oregano is favored in many tomato based dishes, but the herb is also often used on its own.
Oftentimes, Oregano is much more intensely flavored when fresh, if it is dried it is milder. Thus, this is one herb that many opt for the dried version.
Dried oregano is used in a wealth of tomato based dishes such as pizza sauce, gazpacho, and minestrone. There is a pleasant bitterness, earthiness, and herbal note that is desirable in many dishes.
Growing Oregano is super easy as it is another weed, from the mint family, and can easily be planted and left to grow to its content.
Like oregano, rosemary is often overlooked. Rosemary is also similar to oregano in the sense that its fresh form is much stronger and pungent than its dried form. Rosemary works well to compliment other provincial herbs, but has many other horticultural and gardening based uses.
Rosemary can have a strong herbal perfume and is shrub somewhat similar to lavender but with more desirable savouriness. Rosemary is used in many meat dishes within Italian cuisine. In Italy, they traditionally have a small plate of pasta followed by a meat dish.
While you wouldn’t really find Rosemary in a pasta dish, it goes perfectly with lamb in the spring time and beef in the winter. If you are flavoring any Italian meat dish, rosemary is always a good shout and goes well paired with oregano. Rosemary is the herb used on the Italian classic Focaccia.
Growing rosemary can take more attention than other herbs as it is a shrub rather than a weed. However, growing rosemary is a great addition to any garden and will smell great in borders. It is also loved by bees too, and can be great for helping them out.
Marjoram is perhaps one of the lesser known herbs used in Italian cuisine, but is also that ‘je ne sais quoi’ that you will recognise if it is missing.
Actually part of the oregano family, Marjoram has a similar taste that is a little more piney and citrusy in flavor. This sounds undesirable but brings a lot of brightness to your favorite Italian dishes.
Like oregano, marjoram can be quite strong when fresh, many cooks choose to use it dried in order to add that bright hum to your dishes, rather than using it fresh. It is a great provincial herb. It is used in many stews and soups as well as tomato sauces.
Add marjoram to your pizza sauce next time you make some and see if you recognise that bright difference.
Marjoram is often used in amalgamation with other provincial herbs such as oregano and basil for a combined flavor bomb. This is often used in ‘Italian Seasoning’ blends, which, with this information, you should be able to avoid.
Parsley is likely one of the most used herbs in all cooking, let alone Italian. This is because it is truly a team player and is one of the best to use in combination with other provincial herbs.
Parsley often comes in two varieties, flat leaf or curly, Italians often used the flat leaf variety as it has a stronger flavor, occasionally labelled ‘Italian Parsley’ for this reason.
Parsley is one of those herbs, like Basil, that is rarely used dried. When used fresh it has a lot of uses and much more flavor. Pasta loves parsley, especially in combination with basil. Parsley is also a great summer herb when used on fish dishes or a lemony pasta or risotto dish.
Parsley is a great one to grow and is also pretty easy. It is a millennial plant so will continue to grow year by year and it spreads its seeds when the plant dies.
Last but not least, the winter herb of Sage. Sage is a pretty unique tasting herb that is used in many winter dishes for the warmth and comfort flavor it brings to a dish. Much stronger when fresh, it is rarely used dried.
Sage is also pretty versatile: you can add it fresh to pasta dishes, or even can be fried into crispy and fragrant leaves that work as a great garnish on winter salads, soups and stews.
One of our favorite uses of sage is with a nice gnocchi, this is a winning winter dish to warm the soul. If you are using winter root vegetables such as pumpkin orr squash, then sage is a great pairing for these flavors.
For the carnivores among us, sage is also a great pairing with meat dishes and can bring that winter comfort to a typical summer dish if you understand how to swap the herbs out for different flavor profiles.
Sage is pretty easy to grow at home and is attractive enough to be grown alongside other ornamental plants. It has many varieties including purple sage.
It survives relatively well in winter time but tastes best in summer. Fresh cuttings of leaves are often hung up and left to dry in sprigs.
Thyme is another herb that works well in winter but can also be utilised in any seasonal dish. Favored in Southern Italian cuisine, but used throughout the Mediterranean, thyme is often used dried and it can be pungent when fresh.
Thyme is similar to oregano and marjoram but is more herbally and perfumey. It is the best friend of garlic and lemon specifically, but can work well and is also used to great effect on potatoes. Many meat dishes also love using thyme to bring out some welcome perfume notes.
Growing thyme is pretty easy too and it does relatively well in the winter months, while being a shrub rather than weed. Just remember to dry your leaves by hanging them in sprigs and allowing them to dry naturally, or simply purchase it in this format.