Identifying common herbs is easy enough with some practice. If you are only familiar with the dried versions used for cooking, you may not recognize the fresh leaves of herbs you know. Familiarize yourself with their smell, taste and appearance and you’ll be able to name them in no time. Remember, always be cautious when tasting unknown plants. Some can be poisonous. If you are uncertain, err on the side of caution. Go to a nursery or fine grocery store to check out the fresh herbs. If it’s a well-tended garden, sample the plant, but don’t eat things in the wild unless you are sure it’s safe to consume.
Herbs are, by definition, non-woody plants. So if the plant in question has woody stems, it’s not an herb. Also, the herbs we use in cooking tend to be fragrant and flavorful. Scent is your first step in identifying an herb. Dill, for instance, has hints of licorice and caraway in its aroma. Fragrant rosemary has hints of pine and eucalyptus. Lemon basil is so named for its citrus scent. Pick up the plant or package of herbs. Take a step away from the display so you’re not overwhelmed by scent. Now inhale deeply. If you’re at the nursery, try plucking a leaf and crushing it lightly between your fingers to release the scent. Learn to recognize the scents of basil, thyme, sage and others by sampling them all and comparing them.
Next, taste is the important consideration. After all, herbs are meant to be consumed because of their flavorful contributions to recipes. Sample fresh mint. Decide if you like the pungent flavor of cilantro or not. Taste the difference between fresh basil and dried basil. You may recognize different herbs from different recipes. Sage is common in Thanksgiving stuffing and other poultry recipes. Basil and oregano are favorites in Italian cuisine. Dill appears in many Scandinavian recipes, especially when paired with salmon or potatoes.
Lastly, learn to identify the herbs by the shape of their leaves. Basil has large soft leaves that are a glossy green or even purple color. Parsley can have curly or flat leaves, but its bushy appearance should be familiar as a plate garnish. Rosemary resembles a pine needle. Using this combination of smell, taste and appearance, you should be able to recognize and identify all the common herbs.