I’m going to give you some herbal background now. If you remember from last time, herbs are leaves, all other plant parts used for seasoning are spices. These five herbs are widely used in western cuisine. You can find them anywhere.
BAY LEAVES: Also known as Bay Laurel, these aromatic evergreen leaves probably originated somewhere in the Anatolian Peninsula before becoming a staple throughout the entire Mediterranean region. Bay leaves are utilized whole, often in a bouquet garni (a bundle of leaf junk) or by themselves, and removed before serving. When purchasing bay leaves always buy them whole and in a glass jar (all herbs and spices go in glass), you can buy fresh if you want to, but you probably won’t go through them very quickly. Dried bay leaves (assuming they weren’t dried wrong) are also significantly less bitter than fresh bay leaves. A good measure of the quality of a dried bay leaf is its color, the greener the better. A bright green leaf was most likely dried in the dark, thus preserving it’s aromatic components. Bay leaves lose their color and aroma as they age ultimately turning brown retaining only a slight bitterness. Unlike a lot of more delicate herbs, bay leaves can be cooked for extended periods of time without a loss of flavor. This property is why they make a great seasoning for pickling brine and slow cooking soups and stews.
OREGANO: Oregano is another Mediterranean herb, and is often times more potent and flavorful when dried than when fresh. This is good news because fresh oregano molds at the drop of a hat. Mexican oregano is not oregano, it’s more closely related to lemon verbena, but it tastes a lot like oregano. To further obfuscate things, the names different Eastern Mediterranean cultures use for oregano are interchangeable with marjoram, thyme, and sage. Let’s go deeper, marjoram is a more mildly flavored species in the oregano genus, it’s almost the same plant. Deeper: oregano, sage, rosemary, thyme, basil, and lavender are all in the mint family. Oregano has always (how would I know?) been ubiquitous in the Mediterranean but did not become popular in America until after World War II when returning soldiers brought back a taste for it. As such, oregano is a very important herb in Italian-American cuisine. I can’t figure out how to recover from this tangent hole I dug myself into, so I guess just buy some oregano.
ROSEMARY: Rosemary is a woody herb native to the Mediterranean (are you noticing a trend yet?). Rosemary belongs to the mint family, is very hardy and compliments a wide variety of dishes. Rosemary can be a little tough to chew, to avoid this you can use entire twigs in the cooking and then remove them before serving like you would with a bay leaf. Like bay leaves, rosemary can withstand long cooking, and like oregano dried rosemary is more potent than fresh. However, it’s frightfully easy to over season with the dried stuff and the flavor is less delicate. Dried rosemary can taste stale and overly woody. To that end, I suggest always buying rosemary fresh. When bought fresh, don’t refrigerate, it will keep out on the counter for over a week. As long as you don’t freeze it, rosemary is pretty tough. So if you don’t want to buy it more than once just keep a little pot of live rosemary in your window. Doing this will go a long way towards convincing people you have your shit together and can be trusted with a life. I highly recommend this course of action.
SAGE: Surprise! Sage is also a mint from Asia Minor (the Mediterranean (look at a map once in a while!)). Sage is of the Salvia family and is notable because, unlike other herbs, different varieties have vastly different chemical constituents. The discrete nature of sage varietals makes substitution difficult as different varieties are not interchangeable. Luckily the kind of sage you are most likely to find in a store is the kind you are most likely to need, just don’t buy Spanish or Greek sage unless that is the kind of food you are making. Throughout most of its history sage was treated more like a medicine than a seasoning, which is interesting, but not what we care about. Italian cuisine is rife with sage, French not so much, but the British consider it an “essential herb”. Sage is fine both fresh and dried. I prefer fresh sage for sauces or pastas but recommend dried(rubbed) sage for soups or general seasoning. My habit is to always have some rubbed sage around and buy the fresh when I specifically require it.
THYME: Thyme is thought to have been spread throughout Europe by those scrappy little (B)Romans as they fought, conquered, and high-fived the shit out of the known world. Like sage, thyme was eagerly adopted by the people of Great Britain and is utilized extensively in dishes you might readily recognize as food. Meat, specifically red meat, loves itself some thyme, rosemary too, I guess, but we’re talking about thyme right now. Fresh thyme is a very good thing to have, but is by no means necessary; dried will do fine for most things as long as you don’t buy super cheap herbs. Pro-tip: glass jars have better herbs in them, even if they’re the same as the ones in plastic jars, the glass keeps them from losing their flavor. Like oregano and rosemary, properly dried thyme has a stronger smokier flavor than fresh thyme and can be a better choice for fried or spicy foods. I could feed you some poetic spiel about how nice it is to keep a pot of live thyme in your kitchen window, and technically I just did, but thyme is a lot easier to kill than rosemary. Having dead plants will not convince people you have your life in order. Dried thyme is just fine dried, but maybe pick up the fresh stuff for fish and soup once in awhile.