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The new convenience herbs, spices and seasonings


Fat Guy
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I'm starting with the assumption that the traditional convenience herbs and related products, like dried basil from the supermarket shelf, and packets of chili-spice powder, are bad news for good cooking. Certainly, a higher level of these products exists: dried herbs from Penzey's (or from your own garden) will be better than what you get at the local supermarket. But overall these items are just not great.

However, in recent times I've seen a few products that seem a lot more promising. These are some that I've observed:

- Little frozen cubes of chopped herbs. This seems like a really good idea, given that it's what a lot of smart cooks do with their herbs anyway. The brand I've seen is Sabra, and the web page on their frozen herbs (which contains pretty much no information) is here. In addition to little frozen cubes of chopped basil, parsley, cilantro and dill, they have little frozen cubes of crushed garlic.

- Jars of chopped and pureed herbs and seasonings. I've seen many brands, usually there's chopped garlic in water or oil, and also today I saw chopped shallots in water (if those are any good, they'll be a real time-saver). There are little jars of pureed basil, etc., as well.

- Spice pastes. These seem to me almost always to be much better than dried spice mixes. And they're becoming more prevalent.

Fresh herbs are supposed to be better than anything, and they're certainly usually better than dried, but am I the only one who things fresh herbs from the supermarket are often light on flavor? I don't think that just because something is fresh and green that it's necessarily good. It would seem to me that frozen herbs, in particular, could if done right have an edge, the same way frozen peas are often better than fresh because they can be frozen immediately after picking, in season.

Have any of you been using these products, or others? Any observations, recommendations, etc.?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I'm starting with the assumption that the traditional convenience herbs and related products, like dried basil from the supermarket shelf, and packets of chili-spice powder, are bad news for good cooking. Certainly, a higher level of these products exists: dried herbs from Penzey's (or from your own garden) will be better than what you get at the local supermarket. But overall these items are just not great.

In the Supermarket spice genre, I've found that the "table top spice grinders" from Cape Herb & Spice are a good alternative to ground dried spices.

Fresh herbs are supposed to be better than anything, and they're certainly usually better than dried, but am I the only one who things fresh herbs from the supermarket are often light on flavor?

herbs need to be grown under optimum conditions in order to have optimum flavor (think range fed chicken, the "real" kind). Much like greenhouse forced tomatoes, greenhouse herbs just don't have enough time to develop flavor before they are tall enough to harvest

I like to think that homegrown and dried are best. But not all of us have the time/inclination. Looking for good convenience products is an adaptive measure for 21st Century living.

Karen Dar Woon

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While nothing can take the place of fresh herbs, we have recently seen the introduction of herbs in tubes (like squat toothpaste tubes). These are imported from Australia, are extremely expensive and must be refrigerated. They were introduced into our local supermarket as a two-for-one special and I have found them to be very convenient. Until my herb garden is planted and thriving, these are better than dried for many applications. I have taken to mixing some "tubed" basil with mayo to make a very tasty sandwich spread.

Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

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While nothing can take the place of fresh herbs, we have recently seen the introduction of herbs in tubes (like squat toothpaste tubes).  These are imported from Australia, are extremely expensive and must be refrigerated.  They were introduced into our local supermarket as a two-for-one special and I have found them to be very convenient.  Until my herb garden is planted and thriving, these are better than dried for many applications.  I have taken to mixing some "tubed" basil with mayo to make a very tasty sandwich spread.

I tried these too -- can't recall the brand -- Safeway carries them in its "Lifestyle store" remodels. I thought they were quite good and "fresh" tasting. I bought the lemongrass and basil pastes, and kept them in the freezer (they don't harden completely). They were very convenient for when I wanted "a dab" of seasonings to add to soups or stir-fries, etc.

I have a black thumb when it comes to herb gardening, and the stores are often out of the herbs I want at the time I want them. If these were more readily available, I'd buy an assortment to keep frozen. They're expensive (about $5/tube), but a little goes a long way!

SuzySushi

"She sells shiso by the seashore."

My eGullet Foodblog: A Tropical Christmas in the Suburbs

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The company that makes the tubes I've seen is called Gourmet Garden and they're, as Anna says, Australian. They seem to have pretty good distribution throughout the English-speaking world. Most of the better supermarket chains here carry the products. I'll have to try some.

Apparently they make a range of ten products, though I don't think I've ever seen some of them: "Basil, Chili Pepper, Oregano, Garlic, Lemon Grass, Dill, Italian Seasoning, Parsley, Cilantro and Ginger."

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I'm fortunate enough to shop at Cleveland's West Side Market once a week, so fresh herbs are almost always available. In addition to that, there is also a stand there called Urban Herbs -- they have a huge array of dried herbs, spices, some blends, pepper and specialty salts. Since they supply a lot of restaurants, their freshness is top notch.

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I've got pretty good access to fresh herbs as well, but convenience takes many forms. For one thing, it's rare that I can use up even the smallest package of a fresh herb before it rots. And that's if I just buy one herb. If I want to keep five herbs around, forget about it. For another thing, when you've just whipping up an omelette the last thing you want to do is start picking thyme (as in, pulling the little leaf clusters off the thyme sprigs). And for still another thing, there's the whole shopping/planning thing: sometimes I don't want to be limited by the fresh herbs I bought a week ago, but I'd rather not drop down to using dried basil or parsley.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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For me, the best compromise is the packages of fresh herbs at the grocery store that are a mixture of several in one packet. A few weeks ago I found a packet that included thyme, rosemary, and a couple others. It was just perfect for what I needed.

The ultimate convenience, of course, would be if the grocer had plants, and I could just snip off what I want.

I haven't seen the frozen herb cubes around here. I think I've seen some of the tubes, and haven't tried them, but maybe I should. I did also purchase an Aerogarden, and that's my favorite. I can't wait until my new seed pods arrive!

Jenny

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I can't get past the ingredients list on those Gourmet Garden products-it's hard for me to think of it as a good quality product given the additives. For example, the basil has:

Basil, Dextrose, Whey (Milk), Sodium Lactate, Canola Oil Fructose, Glycerine, Salt, Sodium Ascorbate To Help Protect Flavor, Ascorbic Acid To Promote Color Retention, Xanthan Gum, Citric Acid To Promote Color Retention.

I've never had good luck substituting for fresh herbs in general. I don't like frozen herb cubes or dried. I think of dishes that really rely on fresh herbs as things I make seasonally-it wouldn't occur to me to make pesto in the winter. And if the herb plays a relatively minor role in a dish I'd rather sub another fresh herb that is readily available-parsley for basil, for instance. Luckily I live in a climate where I can grow most herbs March-November, and where some will even live through the winter nicely.

Edited by kiliki (log)
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I have read the ingredient list and it doesn't particularly concern me especially in the quantities one is likely to consume at any one time - we are talking here of a teaspoon or two to flavour a fair amount of other ingredients.

Steven is right - sometimes convenience is paramount. I don't have access to fresh herbs off-season and until recently had to rely on someone else to take me even to a grocery store. So my cooking is improved in my estimation by such convenience foods. I would not, however, attempt to make a salad caprese using tubed basil - that's for summer when all the right things are in season!

Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

My 2004 eG Blog

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Smooshing up fresh basil well enough to mix w/ mayo for that sandwich would be a pain. I think the pastes offer a whole new way to herbs, based on Anna N's post.

I have taken to mixing some "tubed" basil with mayo to make a very tasty sandwich spread.

"You dont know everything in the world! You just know how to read!" -an ah-hah! moment for 6-yr old Miss O.

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If you do use the tubes, be sure not to leave them unrefrigerated longer than 30 minutes, or they'll go bad despite the preservatives.

But here's the irony of this convenience product that's supposed to extend the life of fresh herbs: It's highly perishable.

On the front of the tube screams the warning, IMPORTANT: Must Be Kept Refrigerated. I went digging on the Web site, which revealed that any exposure to ambient kitchen temperature beyond 30 minutes is bad news. Apparently, the herb blends begin to oxidize and the flavors start to turn. Funny, the literature also says that the plastic tube helps prevent oxidation. But I guess that's only in the refrigerator.

The product does indeed turn after being left on the counter -- or, in this case, my office desk.

Not realizing just how serious the warning was, I left the tubes at my side as I was working at the computer. I went back to taste the cilantro, and the dab nearly made me lose my coffee.

Seattle P-I article

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- Little frozen cubes of chopped herbs. This seems like a really good idea, given that it's what a lot of smart cooks do with their herbs anyway. The brand I've seen is Sabra, and the web page on their frozen herbs (which contains pretty much no information) is here. In addition to little frozen cubes of chopped basil, parsley, cilantro and dill, they have little frozen cubes of crushed garlic.

Trader Joe's carries a private label version of these - or at least, the basil and parsley. Used to carry the garlic too, but not any longer.

I'm quite fond of these for sauces and sautees. The cubes pop out of the containers and thaw/cook in no time, with fantastic fresh-like flavor.

- Jars of chopped and pureed herbs and seasonings. I've seen many brands, usually there's chopped garlic in water or oil, and also today I saw chopped shallots in water (if those are any good, they'll be a real time-saver). There are little jars of pureed basil, etc., as well.

Crushed/chopped garlic in jars has been a staple for me for years, but I also just discovered chopped shallots in water. Wegman's carried them in the organic section - a 4 oz. jar for $2.99. It has a relatively short life once opened, but a good experiment and well worth it for the convenience.

A friend also tried Han Ah Reum's pureed garlic. Unlike the crushed version, it separates into liquid and particulate layers, which are easily re-suspended with a few shakes or stirs. She found it preferable to the crushed version for soups and other such dishes for which a homogenized flavor was preferred, vs. small chunks.

David aka "DCP"

Amateur protein denaturer, Maillard reaction experimenter, & gourmand-at-large

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If you do use the tubes, be sure not to leave them unrefrigerated longer than 30 minutes, or they'll go bad despite the preservatives.

Seattle P-I article

Frankly, I'd worry about getting them home from the grocery store in time to avoid losing shelf life.

David aka "DCP"

Amateur protein denaturer, Maillard reaction experimenter, & gourmand-at-large

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I did also purchase an Aerogarden, and that's my favorite.  I can't wait until my new seed pods arrive!

I'm hoping you'll write about your experiences with it once you've had some results. It's been on my wish list for about 6 months, but I'd love to hear more before jumping in.

David aka "DCP"

Amateur protein denaturer, Maillard reaction experimenter, & gourmand-at-large

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While nothing can take the place of fresh herbs, we have recently seen the introduction of herbs in tubes (like squat toothpaste tubes).  These are imported from Australia, are extremely expensive and must be refrigerated.  They were introduced into our local supermarket as a two-for-one special and I have found them to be very convenient.  Until my herb garden is planted and thriving, these are better than dried for many applications.  I have taken to mixing some "tubed" basil with mayo to make a very tasty sandwich spread.

I tried these too -- can't recall the brand -- Safeway carries them in its "Lifestyle store" remodels. I thought they were quite good and "fresh" tasting. I bought the lemongrass and basil pastes, and kept them in the freezer (they don't harden completely). They were very convenient for when I wanted "a dab" of seasonings to add to soups or stir-fries, etc.

I have a black thumb when it comes to herb gardening, and the stores are often out of the herbs I want at the time I want them. If these were more readily available, I'd buy an assortment to keep frozen. They're expensive (about $5/tube), but a little goes a long way!

I'm interested in buying an assortment to keep frozen, now! Tell us - did you just bring them home and put them straight into the freezer, then use directly from there as you need them? Do you find the stated 6-month shelf life in a freezer is realistic?

David aka "DCP"

Amateur protein denaturer, Maillard reaction experimenter, & gourmand-at-large

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I did also purchase an Aerogarden, and that's my favorite.  I can't wait until my new seed pods arrive!

I'm hoping you'll write about your experiences with it once you've had some results. It's been on my wish list for about 6 months, but I'd love to hear more before jumping in.

There's a whole Aerogarden topic right here.

Me, I grow herbs outside in the summer, and I'm rather partial to giving them a pulse in the food processor with a tiny bit of oil. Roll them into a log in plastic wrap, and freeze. Give that log a whack on the edge of the counter when you want a hunk, and bingo! I've even successfully preserved Thai basil (notoriously unstable unless fresh) successfully.

Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"
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There's a whole Aerogarden topic right here.

Ooh, thanks - managed to miss that one.

David aka "DCP"

Amateur protein denaturer, Maillard reaction experimenter, & gourmand-at-large

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I did also purchase an Aerogarden, and that's my favorite.  I can't wait until my new seed pods arrive!

I'm hoping you'll write about your experiences with it once you've had some results. It's been on my wish list for about 6 months, but I'd love to hear more before jumping in.

There's a whole Aerogarden topic right here.

Me, I grow herbs outside in the summer, and I'm rather partial to giving them a pulse in the food processor with a tiny bit of oil. Roll them into a log in plastic wrap, and freeze. Give that log a whack on the edge of the counter when you want a hunk, and bingo! I've even successfully preserved Thai basil (notoriously unstable unless ofresh) successfully.

That is a great idea. Last year Trader Joe's was selling a HUGE basil plant for (?) $2.99....more than you could use before it got cold. I would have loved to have some oof that in January when it was 11' !

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Trader Joe's carries a private label version of these - or at least, the basil and parsley.  Used to carry the garlic too, but not any longer.

I'm quite fond of these for sauces and sautees.  The cubes pop out of the containers and thaw/cook in no time, with fantastic fresh-like flavor.

we use these frozen garlic cubes almost exclusively in my cooking classes. (we get them from trader joes---ours threatened to discontinue them for a while, but a student-led protest won them over. i bet your joe's can get them, if mine can....rise up!)

what i tell student is that even if they love to chop garlic...even if chopping garlic is their zen-like, centering device, after a hard day at work...sometimes you think you have garlic, and you have a sprouting houseplant...and other times, you think you have garlic, but it turns out to be just the "garlic paper"--no actual cloves remaining. so the frozen cubes are the back-up plan (or in my case, the whole plan, these days). i stress that if they are going to be sauteed, or otherwise subjected to direct heat, i like to keep them frozen until the second they get popped out of the tray and into the saute pan. if they sit out on the counter (or the mise en place tray---hey! we're a cooking school!) for more than a couple minutes, they defrost, and they are so finely minced that they will burn reallly fast. but popping them into that pan frozen gives you a minute or two to get the aroma going before they burn. i find they have a true garlic flavor, unlike the minced stuff in jars, which, to me, tastes like bad soybean oil and citric acid.

i love the frozen garlic! (haven't found much use for the frozen cilantro, though i might try it in guacamole...the frozen parsley, in my opinion, is useless---good only for sticking to one's teeth embarrassingly.)

the stuff in tubes has a weird texture to me. the flavors of the two i tried--lemongrass and another one? were okay, but the thick gumminess freaked me out too much.

"Laughter is brightest where food is best."

www.chezcherie.com

Author of The I Love Trader Joe's Cookbook ,The I Love Trader Joe's Party Cookbook and The I Love Trader Joe's Around the World Cookbook

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I was at the supermarket tonight and tried to buy some of the frozen cubes. They had them all together in a special display chest freezer. Unfortunately, they were completely sold out of everything except dill and ginger, which didn't particularly interest me. Maybe next week. Incidentally, there were some other ingredients in there with the herbs, like some oil I think.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I tried these too -- can't recall the brand -- Safeway carries them in its "Lifestyle store" remodels. I thought they were quite good and "fresh" tasting. I bought the lemongrass and basil pastes, and kept them in the freezer (they don't harden completely). They were very convenient for when I wanted "a dab" of seasonings to add to soups or stir-fries, etc.

I have a black thumb when it comes to herb gardening, and the stores are often out of the herbs I want at the time I want them. If these were more readily available, I'd buy an assortment to keep frozen. They're expensive (about $5/tube), but a little goes a long way!

I'm interested in buying an assortment to keep frozen, now! Tell us - did you just bring them home and put them straight into the freezer, then use directly from there as you need them? Do you find the stated 6-month shelf life in a freezer is realistic?

Yes, I stuck them in the freezer as soon as I got home. They kept just fine for six months after being first opened.

SuzySushi

"She sells shiso by the seashore."

My eGullet Foodblog: A Tropical Christmas in the Suburbs

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Yes, I stuck them in the freezer as soon as I got home. They kept just fine for six months after being first opened.

Excellent! I'll have to find room for a few of these in the freezer. Thanks for the info.

David aka "DCP"

Amateur protein denaturer, Maillard reaction experimenter, & gourmand-at-large

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I use the Toppit frozen herbs all the time. There's a topic about them here.

I use them in sauces, soups, pastas, dressings - they're convenient and I don't end of throwing out bunches of fresh herbs that get stuck in the back of my fridge.

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I've tried the tubes and personally find them to be lacking in taste and I like a little texture and I feel that is lacking as well.

My latest issue of Cooks Illustrated tackled this subject and while I buy fresh, for the size of my family (partner and I) unless we have a function. A great deal of my herbs were going to waste. I grow my own herbs - basil (various kinds), rosemary, cilantro, oregano, lavender and few others. After reading CI, I decided to try the cubes as our ice maker wasn't working and we had to purchase ice trays for the interim. I was pleasantly surprised. The cubes yielded a fresh taste and as I got bolder I began to mix my items. Lemon basil, basil and added lemon zest and juice.

I am interested in the shallots, garlic onions and even celery. I remember ages ago, my Mother used to freeze celery but then again...she would freeze EVERYTHING.

I've not seen the "suspension" herbs in oil or water but that sounds like it might be worth a try.

I have Penzey's curry powder and it is excellent. That is the only Penzey item I have tried.

I think it is worth it to grow your own and go from there.

Whoever said that man cannot live by bread alone...simply did not know me.
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