This article is your guide to Italian herbs and spices, essential for creating authentic flavors in your cooking.
You’ll learn the background of popular herbs and practical tips for using each.
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Herbs of Italy – The Full List
The term “basil” derives from the Greek word ‘basilikon,’ translating to “royal herb,” aptly reflecting its noble status among herbs. Thriving in warm climates, basil is synonymous with the aromatic gardens of the Mediterranean.
While it peaks in summer, greenhouse cultivation allows for year-round growth. Italy celebrates its love for basil with two prized varieties: the ‘Genovese,’ essential for classic pesto, and the ‘Neapolitan,’ which carries a subtle mint-like scent and is ideal for drying.
Basil in Culinary Use
Basil reigns supreme in the Italian culinary scene. It’s revered for its ability to infuse fresh flavor into numerous dishes, from pasta and soups to vegetables, fish, and poultry.
The herb is a cornerstone of pesto alla Genovese and forms an iconic duo with tomatoes, gracing dishes like pizza margherita, and caprese salads with its fresh, fragrant touch.
We have a dedicated post about basil in Italian cuisine.
To preserve basil’s integrity when fresh, avoid using a knife; gently tear the leaves to prevent discoloration and flavor loss. Traditionalists advocate for making pesto using a mortar and pestle instead of a blender, respecting the herb’s delicate nature.
Basil also has its place in natural remedies. The East Indian basil variant, Ocimum gratissimum, is noted for its mosquito-repellent capabilities.
Historically, basil was surrounded by various beliefs, including the peculiar notion that it could give rise to scorpions.
Bay Leaf (Alloro)
Growing amidst the Mediterranean breeze, the laurel tree is distinguished by its dark green, glossy leaves and small clusters of yellow flowers that, while not particularly fragrant, have been emblematic since ancient times.
Our word “bachelor” may be traced back to the laurel, precisely the term ‘baca-laureus’ or ‘laurel berry.’ When comparing the Turkish variety to the Californian, the former is milder and has more compact, oval-shaped leaves.
In my kitchen, bay leaves are a staple for adding depth to soups, stews, and braises, though they remain behind the scenes, plucked out before serving. Their toughness isn’t very palate-pleasing!
I’ve also learned to use them sparingly, as their strong flavor can dominate a dish. While fresh bay is a rarity in stores, its dried counterpart is a fixture in my pantry, where it keeps well for about half a year if stored properly in a cool, dark place.
Handling bay leaves requires some knowledge; they can be pretty potent. A bay leaf brew is a traditional remedy that acts as an emetic and a laxative and was historically used to treat dropsy. The oil extracted from bay leaves, I’ve heard, is applied to soothe sprains and ease earaches when used as drops.
Delving into the herb’s darker past, laurel berries were once believed to have the power to induce a miscarriage, a testament to the herb’s medicinal solid properties.
Nestled along the sun-kissed coasts of southern Italy, the caper bush, known as Capparis Spinosa defiantly grows in the most arid and stony places, often found peeking through the ancient walls. Come spring, it’s adorned with sizable, rosy white blossoms that promise the flavorful buds we cherish.
In the Italian Kitchen
Capers have been a cornerstone in Mediterranean dishes for millennia, adding a piquant touch to Italian pizzas and the classic alla puttanesca sauce. In my experience, the tinier the caper, the mightier the taste, with the finest ones believed to come preserved in sea salt from Pantelleria.
Unlike other ingredients, capers are best when introduced into the dish just before it’s finished cooking. This way, they maintain their distinct aroma, which turns bitter with prolonged heat.
For details, refer to our article about Capers in Italian Food.
Chives (Erba Cipollina)
Chives, a more understated relative of the onion, bear hollow, tube-like leaves with a peppery yet pleasingly mild taste. The singular term refers to the plant as a whole, while the plural ‘chives’ points to the leaves cherished as a culinary spice.
Although their exact origins are a bit of a mystery, some plant historians suggest Central Asia as their starting point.
Today, chives thrive throughout Europe, including Greece and Italy, celebrated for their robust growth since ancient times. Their culinary use dates back to Roman times and Marco Polo is credited with re-introducing them to Europe from China during the Middle Ages.
By 1806, they had reached American shores, where Dutch settlers had novel ideas of creating chive-infused milk.
Adorning any plate with its bright green stalks and edible purple flowers, chives serve both a decorative and flavorful purpose in numerous dishes.
Chives shine in various dishes with their subtle flavor and striking color. I often use them to enhance spreads, herbed butters, and dips, and they add a special touch to salads and vinegars.
When steeped in vinegar, I’ve also found that their blossoms create a beautifully tinted infusion that is perfect as a kitchen gift. Snipping fresh chives over soups and egg-based sauces adds flavor and a pop of color.
In my culinary adventures, I’ve noted that chives blend well with chervil, tarragon, and parsley, forming the classic French ‘fines herbes’ mix. This combination is a delight in both cool and warm dishes.
Chives have earned their place regarding cheese, particularly enhancing the taste of mild cheeses like cottage and cream cheese.
Chives are best enjoyed fresh; they tend to lose their essence when dried. Although freeze-drying is less detrimental, I prefer fresh or deep-frozen chives in colder months. Cooking chives at high heat diminishes their delicate flavor.
Chives are a good source of vitamins A and C and are known for their antibiotic and antiseptic qualities. They’re lauded for igniting the appetite and aiding the digestion of heavier meals. Interestingly, the juice of chives has been used as an insect repellent for its fungicidal properties.
Superstition and Folklore
In China, chives are held in high regard, not just in cooking but also in traditional remedies. Ancient fortune-telling practices and Roman natural remedies both saw the value in chives. Even beyond culinary and medicinal uses, there was a belief that surrounding one’s home with chives could keep away evil and illness.
With its wispy, feathery leaves, Dill stands tall at about three feet, resembling fennel but on a smaller scale. Flourishing in well-drained, sandy soil and basking in full sunlight, it is at home in the Mediterranean, growing wild amidst the cornfields and blooming in the summer heat. Its seeds are slim and broad, closely resembling those of fennel.
In the realm of cooking, dill, also known as dill weed, is a versatile fresh and dried herb, with its zest peaking when freshly plucked.
When I cook with dill, I remember to add it at the final stages to preserve its aroma, which tends to diminish with heat. It’s a wonderful complement to seafood, sauces, salads, and even meats.-Luca
I’ve prepared dill vinegar by infusing seeds in vinegar, a simple yet flavorful kitchen staple. The seeds are a cornerstone in pickling, endowing cucumbers with their characteristic tang.
Beyond Italy’s borders, dill even finds its way into French patisserie, providing a unique flavor to cakes and pastries.
Dill’s benefits extend into wellness, with the oil and seeds known for their digestive properties. The essential oil of dill is a common ingredient in various remedies for digestive disturbances, including flatulence.
Folklore and Old Beliefs
Tracing back to medieval times, dill was steeped in superstition, often featuring in magical rites as a shield against witchcraft. The famed herbalist Culpepper once claimed it was under the rule of Mercury, bestowing upon it the power to bolster the mind.
Often mistaken for its cousin oregano, Marjoram is a perennial favorite in the Labeatae family, cherished in the kitchen for its aromatic oils and subtle flavor. Historically, it’s adorned not just plates but also various traditions, serving decorative, symbolic, medicinal, and therapeutic roles.
Its varieties, such as the sweet marjoram most prevalent in culinary use, winter marjoram from Greece, and Sicilian pot marjoram, offer a milder, thyme-like taste than oregano’s robust profile.
Tips for Selecting and Storing
When shopping for marjoram, I look for fresh, resilient bunches, steering clear of any that seem wilting. I treat it like a bouquet at home, placing the stems in water to prolong its vibrancy. Fresh marjoram stays good for about a week in these conditions.
For those interested in drying marjoram, it’s best to harvest the herb in full bloom, displaying its brightest colors. Once dried in a shadowed, arid, warm spot, the leaves can be easily stripped and kept in sealed containers.
In my cooking, from eggs to vegetables and salads, a sprinkle of marjoram is often just what’s needed to elevate the dish.-Luca
The oil of marjoram, known as origanum, finds its place in the soothing world of aromatherapy. Used to fragrance soaps or formulated into oils, it’s believed to ease tension. Applied to bruises, it’s thought to hasten healing.
Beyond its physical applications, marjoram’s aroma is credited with the power to diminish sexual desire and to alleviate symptoms of insomnia, stress, anxiety, and depression, making it a holistic herb for both kitchen and well-being.
The story of Mint, or ‘mentha,’ is steeped in Greek mythology, intertwined with tales of desire and transformation—Minute the nymph, became a plant at the hands of an envious Persephone. This legend weaves a mystique around the herb, a culinary and medicinal staple since ancient times.
A home-grown Mint.
Mint in Italian Cooking
Fresh mint is a cornerstone in Italian gastronomy. Contrary to Middle Eastern traditions, where dried mint is common, Italian dishes celebrate the herb in its fresh form. Its cool, refreshing flavor is a beloved addition to summertime beverages and sweets.
Beyond its use in desserts, mint infuses various main dishes with its vibrant taste. I find that incorporating raw mint towards the end of cooking best preserves its essence, whether in vegetable sautés, atop grilled fish, or as a final flourish on roasted meats.
Not only do fresh mint leaves serve as a natural breath freshener, but they also have an invigorating effect on the appetite—a little secret I always keep in mind when hosting dinners.
The healing properties of mint were no secret to the ancients. All mint varieties release menthol, which is known for aiding digestion and offering antiseptic benefits. The Chinese harnessed mint for its antispasmodic qualities and soothing effect on the stomach.
These age-old practices persist today, with mint infusions commonly used to address hiccups and migraine relief. Yet, it’s essential to respect the potency of menthol, as excessive amounts can negatively impact the nervous system.
Hippocrates, the father of medicine, believed in the powerful aphrodisiac properties of mint—a sentiment that perhaps added to its allure throughout history.
Oregano, which takes its name from the Greek terms for “mountain” and “splendor,” truly lives up to its moniker. A hardy perennial, it thrives in the mountainous wilds and in sun-drenched fields, blooming in late summer with reddish-pink flowers and sporting lush, velvety leaves. The flavors of thymol and carvacrol are what make this herb a kitchen essential.
In the Kitchen
The versatility of oregano, robust in both its fresh and dried forms, is something I celebrate in my cooking. Fresh oregano is sweeter, while its dried counterpart is more intensely flavored.
It’s a staple for pizzas, as it pairs divinely with tomatoes and olive oil. Oregano adds its aromatic charm to bruschetta and is a prime ingredient in various meats and fish marinades.
I dry oregano by laying the leaves out in the sunshine, transforming them into a staple seasoning for my autumn and winter culinary creations.-Luca
Selection and Preservation Tips
When choosing oregano, I look for vibrant and green sprigs, avoiding any hints of wilting or discoloration. Keeping it in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, oregano stays fresh for up to three days.
For more tips, refer to my post about preserving Italian herbs for winter cooking.
The therapeutic uses of oregano span from Ancient Greece to China. Greek traditions include using leaf compresses for sore muscles, while Chinese medicine favored it for fever reduction.
The oil from oregano leaves, particularly the pure extract, is a remedy I’ve used for toothache relief, as it acts as an analgesic.
Moreover, oregano is sought to ease digestive issues, menstrual discomfort, and respiratory conditions.
There’s a whimsical belief that oregano can aid in letting go of past romances. Brewing oregano tea, steeping a teaspoon of the herb in boiling water for ten minutes, is an old ritual for those looking to move forward from bygone love.
As a member of the Apiaceae family, parsley is a robust biennial herb with lush green leaves that can either be tender and curly or have a more frilled texture.
Originating from the Mediterranean, parsley has adapted to diverse environments and often grows wild on ancient structures. It can tower three feet in its second year, adorned with delicate yellow blossoms during the summer.
Among its 30 variants, curly-leaf and Italian parsley reign supreme in popularity, the latter being a staple in specialty stores.
In the Culinary Sphere
Parsley is a cornerstone in my kitchen, primarily used freshly chopped to enhance the flavors of sauces, soups, and various main dishes.
While dried parsley is available, I’ve found its taste only faintly echoes the vibrancy of fresh leaves. Selecting parsley involves looking for vibrant, spotless bunches.
Once at home, a thorough rinse and gentle drying precede its storage in the refrigerator, which keeps well in a sealed bag for about a week.
To dry parsley, I’ve learned to bake it until crisp gently, then sieve it to create a fine powder, which is then stored in tins for extended use.
Parsley’s utility extends beyond the culinary, with a long history of medicinal use. Wreaths of parsley were believed to mitigate the effects of alcohol, and its leaves have been traditionally applied to soothe inflammation, such as swollen eyes, and to expedite the healing of bruises. Parsley seeds, containing a potent essential oil, have been used in small doses to alleviate menstrual discomfort.
A quaint superstition suggests that transplanting parsley plants may court misfortune, a reminder of the herb’s storied past and its place in the realm of folklore.
Its journey traces back 9,000 years to Mexico, and it was already a cultivated plant by 5,500 A.D. Montezuma, during his captivity in the early 16th century, is said to have indulged in it.
Peperoncino’s fiery trail reached Europe following Christopher Columbus’s voyage and had already traversed Asia and Africa through more discreet avenues.
In the Kitchen
Peperoncino peppers, ranging in color, shape, and intensity, have been woven into global cuisine fabric, especially in Southern Italy’s Calabria region. Here, the capsicum annuum reigns—fiery red and sharp.
Fresh or dried, these peppers infuse life into various dishes. Dried peperoncinos are preserved in multiple forms, with “diavolicchio” being a traditional Italian method of stringing peppers to dry. Its versatility is evident from Mexico’s tortillas to Italy’s pastas and stews, providing an affordable way to entice the senses.
In terms of flavor, peperoncino falls into three broad categories: sweet, spicy, and extra spicy. In general, the smaller the pepper, the more intense the piquancy. This deduction stems from the correlation between fruit, pod, and seed sizes.
When cooking with peperoncino, balance, and moderation are key. In any case, peperoncino consumption should never be excessive and should always be determined by the level of personal tolerance.
RELATED: Read our post What is Peperoncino to learn more about this fantastic spice.
Rich in Vitamin C, peperoncino peppers combat nicotine effects and support cardiovascular health. They offer relief for various conditions, from an enlarged prostate to depression, and can stimulate blood flow to areas affected by arthritis and rheumatism.
While it’s suggested that peperoncino might benefit cancer patients, it’s also a boon for digestion and preventing intestinal ailments when used in moderation.
The aphrodisiac reputation of peperoncino is perhaps as potent as its flavor. While contemporary beliefs about aphrodisiacs are varied, peperoncino’s vitamin E content links it to fertility and vitality. Its vibrant red hue and distinctive shape have also contributed to its sensual symbolism throughout history.
Renowned for its distinctive tea-like scent and sharp flavor, rosemary claims its place as a culinary favorite in Italy.
It’s a robust evergreen, gracing the coastlines of the Mediterranean with periwinkle blossoms and needle-like leaves. Echoing the ancient Greek belief that rosemary enhances brain function, this herb has woven itself into cultural and literary traditions, remembered in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” for its ties to remembrance.
In Italian cooking, only parsley rivals its usage. As a proud member of the mint family, rosemary imparts its aromatic punch to various dishes, finding perfect harmony with potatoes and an array of meats.
In the Kitchen
Fresh rosemary remains a staple in my cooking through winter, though I find dried rosemary a less flavorful and rougher alternative. When using dried, it’s best minced finely. Removing leaves from the sprig is easy—push against their growth.
Sometimes, I add whole sprigs to a dish for a subtle infusion, removing them before serving.
Fatty meats benefit from rosemary’s boldness, while the herb can also be spotted in marinades and vegetable dishes.
I’ve tossed sprigs on the grill for a smokey flair, a trick that never fails to impress.
A fresh-to-dry rule with rosemary is to double the fresh amount if a recipe specifies dried. For garden enthusiasts, rosemary thrives with ample sunlight, dry soil, and mild climates. Pruning should be moderate, never exceeding a third of the bush.
To keep fresh rosemary on hand, refrigerate it wrapped in damp towels and placed in a perforated bag or in water like a bouquet. For drying, good ventilation is key—hang or lay out the sprigs, then store them in dark jars once dried.
Attributed to improving memory and reducing stress, rosemary has long been a herb of health and wellness. Its oil is particularly reputed for easing digestion and headache strains.
In modern times, rosemary’s energizing aroma has become a staple in aromatherapy, championed for stimulating the mind and central nervous system.
The herb’s nomenclature is debated—whether it stems from the Latin words for “dew” and “sea” or from biblical lore, where Mary’s cloak supposedly turned the flowers blue, renaming the plant the “rose of Mary.”
From ancient Greek traditions to its use in Medieval Europe and beyond, rosemary has symbolized remembrance and fidelity, permeating various aspects of life as a token of memory and loyalty.
Derived from the Arabic for “yellow,” Saffron is celebrated for its stamens’ vibrant color and distinct flavor. With roots likely in the eastern Mediterranean, this treasured spice was brought to Europe by the Crusaders.
Italy embraced Saffron in the 1400s, and the Tuscan village of San Quirico d’Orcia became renowned for its cultivation.
The meticulous process of harvesting Saffron, requiring the collection of 75,000 blossoms for just one pound, accounts for its title as the most expensive spice in the world.
In the Kitchen
In Italian kitchens, Saffron’s intense taste and powerful coloring mean a little goes a long way. It infuses dishes like risottos and soups with an earthy aroma and bitter-sweet flavor.
To ensure even distribution and to fully capture its essence, I add Saffron late in cooking, steeping threads in warm liquid before mixing them in.
Saffron is stored correctly in a non-transparent container, away from light, for about a year.
Authentic Saffron strands will swell in water; only a cup of liquid is needed for a pound of rice. While powdered Saffron offers convenience, it’s often subject to adulteration, so I prefer the strands for their purity and the visual cue of their quality. White streaks in strands or light spots in powder are tell-tale signs of lower-grade Saffron.
Saffron’s role extends into well-being, historically used for treating fevers, cramps, and various pains.
It’s valued for its calming and blood pressure-lowering properties; some even venerate it as an aphrodisiac. However, moderation is vital, as excessive consumption can be harmful.
In spiritual and mythical contexts, Saffron is linked to joy, healing, and love, among other attributes. It was sacred in ancient Crete, symbolizing the sun, and in Greek lore, it emerged from a tale of unrequited love, transforming the mortal Crocos into the Crocus sativus flower.
Sage, whose name hails from the Latin word for ‘health’, is acknowledged for its healing qualities. This hardy perennial blooms in sandy terrain, presenting rough leaves and blossoms in hues of white or reddish-purple. Thujone and borneol are among its essential compounds, contributing to its distinct aroma and benefits.
In the Kitchen
In the realm of Italian cooking, sage is indispensable. It infuses a depth of flavor into meats like poultry, veal, and fish and is integral to butter-based pasta sauces, complementing rather than dominating the dish. Both fresh and dried forms of sage impart an earthy essence to a wide array of recipes.
Aside from culinary uses, dried sage has a place in the household and is known for deterring moths from drawers and closets. It even has an age-old application in dental hygiene, with leaves traditionally used to clean teeth.
Sage’s reputed benefits are extensive, traditionally used to alleviate general malaise, staunch bleeding, ease asthma, and regulate menstrual flow and lactation. Topically, it’s been transformed into lotions for soothing skin issues and as a hair rinse to combat dandruff and enhance hair’s shine and softness. A homemade sage rinse involves boiling the leaves, letting the infusion settle, and using it regularly for hair care.
Beyond its tangible uses, sage carries a belief of attracting prosperity. When burned, it’s said to act as a protective agent, warding off malevolent influences from one’s home.
Tarragon, a perennial herb with slender, sharp leaves, graces gardens with its understated greenish flowers in summer. Despite its Siberian origins, tarragon has found a home in American and European cuisines, notably in Italian, French, and British dishes.
Available year-round in powdered and dried forms, it infuses a unique anise-like flavor into culinary creations.
In the Kitchen
Its distinct taste makes tarragon a favorite for seasoning chicken, fish, and vegetables, and it’s a crucial component in salads and sauces.
Due to its strong profile, I’ve learned that a little goes a long way to prevent it from overshadowing other ingredients.
Additionally, tarragon vinegar, a gourmet kitchen staple, is simple to make at home, requiring only a brief infusion in white vinegar before straining and bottling, ready to enhance salads and meats with its piquant flavor.
When shopping, I look for tarragon with roots still attached; when immersed in water, it remains fresh for an extended period, a handy tip for maintaining its vibrancy in the kitchen.
Historically, tarragon was a remedy for various bites and a go-to disinfectant and toothache reliever. Today, tarragon infusions are gently used to alleviate digestive discomfort.
A whimsical tale suggests that planting flax seed in a radish or sea onion will encourage tarragon to thrive, a nod to the herb’s mystique and the old-world charm it carries into contemporary gardens and kitchens.
Thyme, a Mediterranean native, is a small shrub that also dots the landscapes of Asia Minor and Central Asia, and it’s also cultivated in America.
Its leaves emit a potent, minty aroma, particularly when dried and crushed, due to an essential oil that’s both flavorful and the bearer of the herb’s healing properties. Predominantly grown for culinary purposes, thyme thrives in the summer and is a familiar sight in herb gardens.
As one of the most beloved herbs in cooking, thyme imparts a floral yet earthy flavor profile that’s versatile across various dishes, enhancing everything from meats and vegetables to sauces and seafood.
Fresh thyme is readily available in markets during its peak season, while dried thyme, in leaf or powder form, graces spice racks all year long. Properly stored, thyme can retain its character for up to six months. Sicily is renowned for its exquisite thyme honey, a sweet and healing delicacy produced for centuries.
Any surplus of thyme, even if wilted, need not be discarded. Soaking it in water rejuvenates the herb, transforming it into a fragrant addition to dressings.
Known for its antiseptic qualities, thyme contains an essential oil, mainly composed of thymol, which has been utilized to soothe respiratory ailments and gastritis. Beyond its internal uses, thyme is also an ingredient in various perfumes and toothpaste due to its aromatic properties.
Thyme holds a revered place in ancient practices—burned as incense in Greece for its balsamic scent and association with courage. It was also thought to have the power to repel malevolent forces, a testament to its enduring mystique.
Growing Herbs at Home
Setting Up Your Herb Garden
To start growing herbs from seeds, you’ll want to start with the right equipment. Small plastic containers with adequate drainage are essential, along with a watering tray, to capture any excess water.
I’ve found that a seed starter kit, like the one from Burpee with its expandable peat pellets, simplifies the process significantly.
Preparing for Planting
Ensuring the soil is optimally moist is crucial before sowing any seeds. I water the soil thoroughly and let it stand for a few hours to allow surplus water to escape. The goal is to achieve soil that’s moist to the touch without being waterlogged.
Sowing the Seeds
When planting, it’s important to keep the seeds close to the surface. I lightly cover the small seeds with about 1/8 inch of soil, placing roughly six seeds per pot.
Larger seeds will need a bit more depth, with two or three seeds in each pot ideal. This sets the stage for the seeds to sprout and eventually flourish into a full-fledged herb garden.
Exploring and utilizing Italian herbs and spices can truly transform your culinary creations, adding authentic Mediterranean zest to every dish you craft.
I hope this article serves as a helpful guide to infusing your kitchen with the rich flavors of Italy. Ciao!