Occasionally I’ll hear from a reader, asking for a chart showing the correct use for herbs and spices. That’s a hard question to answer. The seasoning called for in a recipe are just recommendations, not a set formula.
You should see me when I’m cooking soup. Half the time I don’t even bother to rummage in my kitchen drawer for the measuring spoons. I know that sounds like culinary anarchy, but there really is method in my madness. I use a nifty rule-of-thumb borrowed from the French known as “bouquet garni.”
Bouquet garni (pronounced boh-KAY gahr-NEE) is a French term that translates roughly as a “handful of herbs.” In times past, the cook would step outside to the kitchen garden and snip a handful of herbs for the soup pot. Not much has changed except that we generally get our herbs from a jar. The traditional formula is a trio of herbs; bay leaf, thyme, and parsley. These three seasonings blend well together and can be used in almost anything.
This cooking rule of thumb is at home far beyond the borders of France. Cooks in other lands substitute a range of herbs for either the thyme or the parsley. Italy uses parsley, chervil, and bay leaf, with perhaps a bit of marjoram or basil. Spain adds garlic, of course. Hungary includes green pepper and caraway seeds. For their bouquet garni the Danes go wild and combine bay leaf, thyme, parsley, marjoram, lemon peel, mace, cloves, and peppercorns.
The key to bouquet garni is remembering that most herbs come from two botanical families. Thyme is a member of the oregano family of mostly square-stemmed herbs: basil, marjoram, rosemary, sage, and savory. Parsley is part of the family of herbs with leaves growing from the base and a thick taproot: cilantro, celery, chervil, dill, and fennel. To make bouquet garni, all you need to do is pick one from the oregano family, one from the parsley family, and add bay leaf.
You can make bouquet garni from fresh or dried herbs. When using fresh herbs, add the bay leaves to your herb sprigs, tie them together with kitchen twine or wrap them in cheesecloth, and put into the soup pot “as is”. If you’re using dried herbs, put them in a wire mesh ball or crush them and add directly to the pot. When the cooking is done, toss the bouquet into the trash. The flavor will remain, giving a savory meal for you to serve.
So now you know the French seasoning secret. Substituting one herb for another is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. Even when the measuring spoons stay in the drawer, you won’t be committing culinary suicide. With the time-tested bouquet garni guideline, you can cook without fear.