Are James Beard’s six essential herbs right for today’s cooks?


In 1974, James Beard published his iconic Beard on Food. In that tome, he listed the six herbs that he couldn’t cook without (actually seven because he felt parsley was so universal that it didn’t need to be named). The Beard Foundation recently excerpted the list and Beard’s explanation of his selections. The must-have herbs were basil, bay leaf, rosemary, savory, tarragon, and thyme. Most of these herbs are still popular today, but with tastes changing over the past forty-plus years, it may be time to rethink whether Mr. Beard would change his mind if he were still alive today.

There’s little doubt that basil, rosemary, and thyme would still make the cut. However, with the ever-increasing popularity in Western diets for Latin American, Middle Eastern, and Southeast Asian flavors, tarragon, savory, and bay leaf might be displaced for other herbs like cilantro, mint, or chives. If you consider garlic a herb (as do several gardening websites), that might oust an herb as well.

Whether or not you agree with Beard’s selection of essential herbs, his advice on cooking with old, faded flavors still rings true: “There’s no economy in cooking with a spent herb.” Beard recommended that you store dried herbs in a dark place in a tightly sealed container, and that you periodically check on them to ensure they are still potent. If they aren’t, toss and replace.

Photo of How to make an herb rub without a recipe from indexed blog Food52

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  • Cubangirl  on  January 24, 2017

    I would switch the savory for mint but otherwise, perfect for me. I never think of garlic or chives as herbs.

  • wester  on  January 25, 2017

    I don't even have any savory, and I do like herbs. If I encounter it in a recipe I always sub oregano. I could do without bay leaf and tarragon as well although sometimes they're nice. Mint, dill and cilantro/coriander are more important to me.

  • melpy  on  January 25, 2017

    It is difficult for me to find fresh tarragon unfortunately, so I don't get to use it as often as I would like. I am not sure I could even identify savory although I might have an extremely old bottle I inherited, probably need to toss that.

  • sir_ken_g  on  January 25, 2017


  • hillsboroks  on  January 25, 2017

    My herb garden always has rosemary, sage, thyme, mint and flat-leaf Italian parsley. But I also plant basil, tarragon and oregano each year. I agree with Sir Ken G about ginger too. There is always a nice piece of ginger in my veggie crisper. Since one of my clients is a garlic farmer I am also well-supplied with garlic. Even in the dead of winter I go out with a flashlight to clip off a bit of rosemary, sage or thyme. You just can't beat the flavor of really fresh herbs.

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