It’s no secret that adding salt to sweets is a mouthwatering practice (almost literally), because of how salt deepens and complicates flavors, but what about herbs? Some herbs are natural partners for sweets: peppermint and spearmint lend themselves easily to cold-weather sweets or citrus drinks, rosemary blends seamlessly into brown sugar, and even basil gets along with lemons and limes.
What if you could use any spring or summer herb in a pastry recipe and instead of people responding with “I’m never eating this again,” they gasped and asked “Where did you get this recipe?? Can I have it?!”
The Age of Artisans and Local Food is long established and it’s about time we get to the point where we’re so comfortable with our surrounding ingredients that we can truly experiment and have fun with them. Now we can take classic or traditional flavors like lime and basil, cumin and tomatoes, coconut and cloves, and really run with them.
In this post, I discuss how to bake with herbs, fresh and dried, list some herbs that are common in the warm months, point out some year-round favorites, and provide links to pastry recipes or pastry ideas for each one.
Baking with Herbs
There are many notable differences between cooking and baking in general, and so if you’ve ever played around with cooking with fresh herbs versus dried, you might wonder, “so…what now? What do I do with the oven?” This is a question I asked myself for a long time and through my kitchen experiences, I’ve been able to answer it.
The same principles apply in baking with herbs as in cooking with herbs:
- Dried herbs need to steep, which means you need to add them earlier and let them cook longer.
- In the oven, this means you add the dried herbs to your pastry before baking it. Using the full baking time (eg., 25 minutes for muffins, 45 minutes for pies, 7 minutes for cookies, etc.) allows the dried herbs to steep and infuse.
- Dried herbs also benefit from being cooked in some liquid, so that you create an infusion, as if you’re making tea.
- In the oven, this means finding ways to infuse the dried herbs into a liquid. For example, in a pie, mix the dried herbs into the filling instead of sprinkling them on top or folding them into the pastry dough. For batters, mix the dried herbs into the batter.
- Fresh herbs are more volatile and more delicate, and when they cook too long, they produce bitter, vegetal flavors. Therefore, it’s best to add them late in the process, ideally after removing your food from the heat.
- This is where I struggled the most: how do I bake with fresh herbs?? I learned the answer when I helped in a pizza class at work: either add fresh herbs right after removing the pastry from the oven, or add them halfway through. That being said, for pastries that don’t cook very long (cakes, cookies, muffins, quickbreads, etc.), you can mix the herbs into the batter or dough*.
*Another creative idea: if you want to flavor a pastry but can’t seem to get the pastry itself to adapt the flavor well, or are worried about the best way to flavor the dough/batter/filling, etc., come up with something like a glaze or frosting to add another flavor. For example, macarons are difficult to flavor, but because they’re most often filled with something soft, you can always add one, two, or even three more flavors to the pastry by flavoring the filling. Try a buttercream** with fresh basil to fill a macaron, or a tarragon pastry cream to spread between cake layers.
**And yet another neat trick! Using either fresh or dried herbs, make an herb-infused syrup (1 part sugar, 1 part water, a bunch of fresh or dried herbs) and use the syrup as both the flavor and the sugar. This is especially useful for meringues, macarons, and buttercreams. (Read more about the different regional variations on meringue and buttercream, and how to use syrup to make them.)
- Dried herbs go in before baking, or you can infuse them into one or more of the wet ingredients.
- Fresh herbs should not bake very long (probably no longer than 25-30 minutes, and ideally less than 10-15), and can be mixed into other ingredients that won’t be cooked or baked.
As mentioned above, any opportunity you can find for infusing the herbs is a good opportunity for flavoring a pastry, and syrups, oils, and frostings are all highly versatile types of ingredients for baking.
Basil: We’re mostly used to basil with tomatoes, and maybe even Thai basil with limes, but what about other fruits? Basil pairs seamlessly with strawberries and citrus, and you may be inspired to try basil with other berries or summer fruits. Consider adding some balsamic vinegar to the mix, or try a sweet twist on caprese salads.
Cilantro: Cilantro is a refreshing addition to summer foods, for those of you to whom it doesn’t taste like poison, but have you ever considered making sweet ice creams out of vegetables? It’s a surprisingly pleasant treat!
Lavender: Some people think flowers taste like soap, and others add them to everything. If the lavender turns you off, try substituting it with a splash of rosewater or another flower, and if you still get a faint whiff of soap, then baking with flowers may not be for you (yet.)
Lemon Verbena: One of the most strongly-scented lemon plants we know, lemon verbena often comes to us in the form of soaps and cosmetics, but unlike lavender and rose, using the lemon plant in food won’t make you think of the bathroom.
Rosemary: The herb that you can smell from a mile away. Rosemary, being of the pine family, is an evergreen (though if you leave it untended for too long, the stems turn woody and brittle, so you should keep trimming throughout the year) and thus pairs well with all sorts of seasonal sweets and savories. The common pairing is with citrus, a perennial fruit, but really rosemary can blend into anything!
Mint: Mint is an obvious choice. In fact, most people are more familiar with mint in sweets than in savories.
Greek/Mexican Oregano: On the one hand, there are few sweet recipes out there for oregano, but on the other hand, both Greek and Mexican oregano are popular in Mediterranean food and can thus be used creatively in Mediterranean sweets or with other Mediterranean sweet ingredients.
Thyme: Thyme is a powerful ally to lean meats and poultry, like chicken in parmesan cream sauce, but it also cooperates with delicate, warm weather fruits. If you have any growing in your yard, then no doubt you have a lot of it. Strip and mince the leaves and sprinkle them on top of pies or tarts, or mix them into cake batters.
Sage: Most people have probably seen, heard of, or tried a savory recipe involving brown butter and sage, and most people who bake a lot have probably seen, heard of, or tried a sweet recipe using brown butter…but what about a sweet recipe using brown butter and sage? (Read here about how to brown butter.)
Tarragon: Not as popular in most American kitchens as the other herbs, tarragon usually pairs best with mushrooms, chicken, or mustard. Then why would it work in pastries? Because it has a subtle, earthy, slightly sweet and slightly minty taste, so you get the essence of a fragrant herb in your pastry without feeling like you should be eating chicken instead.
Bay Leaves: Not just for soups! If you’re like me, you only just discovered with bay leaves smell and taste like a year ago, and now you can’t live without them. The slightly woody, pine-y note provides a nice balance against sugary sweetness.
More Sweet Ideas
Here are some more sweet and creative ideas for types of pastries to play around with:
Strawberry Basil Jam
Rhubarb Rose Mint Jam
Citrus Basil Shortbread Cookies
Orange Rosemary Marmalade
Dark Chocolate Raspberry-Mint Brownies with Raspberry Red Wine Compote
Rosemary Orange Brownies
Peach Thyme Hazelnut Galettes with Whole Wheat Crusts
Apricot Chive Cakes with Cream Cheese Frosting
Almond Bay Laurel Cookies
Coconut Honey Oregano Pie
Embrace your surroundings, cultivate your gardens, and open up your horizons by baking with warm weather herbs!