Bet you didn’t know that mint, when it comes to cooking, is the biggest herb going. You can hardly make a dish calling for fresh herbs without using some mint.
What’s that? You’ve never used mint in cooking? Mint is only for tea, mojitos, and mint juleps? I beg to differ. I’ll bet you’ve used mint lots of times in cooking.
Confused? Well, I’m playing the semantics game, really. Or the botany game. To us, mint is an herb that has mint in its name and smells unmistakeably minty, like spearmint or peppermint. But to botanists, mint is a family of flowering plants, also known as the Lamiaceae or Labiatae (older term) family of plants. With 3,500 to 6,000 species, these plants grow all over the world and most of the familiar and important culinary herbs belong to it.
Plants of the mint family have square stems with nice smelling leaves arranged opposite each other on the stem. In fact, this is the way to recognize them, so you might want to memorize this so you can impress your friends at the produce section by rolling an herb in your fingers, or failing to, observing its paired opposite leaves, and saying, “ahh, a member of the mint family.” The scent comes from small glands that contain volatile or essential oils. The small pink, purple, or white flowers tend to be arranged in clusters on the base of the uppermost leaves or in a spike coming off the top of the plant (called a terminal spike).
If you have ever smelled basil, you may have guessed it was kin to mint, and, of course, you were right. Other mint family herbs besides the familiar plants we all know as mints are thyme, oregano, marjoram, sage, rosemary, savory, and lemon balm. Catnip is also a mint as well lavender. Some less familiar family members are hyssop and horehound. Most of the mint family blend well together in cooking.
So see, I was right that mint is the most important herb in the kitchen. Okay, maybe it is not the most important one, that’s really a matter of opinion. Mint certainly doesn’t cover all the important culinary herbs. The runner-up is the parsley or Umbelliferae family or the Lilly family.
Besides the familiar parsleys like curly leaf and flat leaf or Italian; there is cilantro, anise, dill, caraway, fennel, lovage, chervil, and even celery. I won’t mind if you want to quibble with me about the ranking but most cooks know the mint family better. Even better known is the Lilly family.
The Lilly family, or Liliaceae, you can simply think of as onions and garlic. But don’t forget leeks, shallots, and chives. Whether you want to place it up top or second in ranking would depend on whether you actually thought of these as herbs. Most of us, I think, consider onions to be vegetables but the entire family can be considered herbs in the kitchen.
Then there is the aster family, or Compositae which includes tarragon. Sunflowers, artichokes, and dandelions are also in this family. In case you feel bad about tarragon and want to combine it with the more popular group, mints, I’d advise against it, but tarragon plays well with the parsley.
This article contains one or more Amazon affiliate links. See full disclosure.