The Science Behind Bruising Your Herbs

published Nov 10, 2009
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

By now, most of us are pretty proficient when it comes to using fresh herbs in the kitchen. They’re hands down one of the best ways to impart fresh, clean flavors into your food, but did you know simply picking them off their stem isn’t enough? You can bruise and you can chop, but do you know which is better? Don’t worry, we drew you pretty pictures to explain it all.

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The principles of bruising are pretty basic, but sometimes it takes an amazing Photoshop graphic to help things out a little. Seriously, look at those things, it’s Photoshop at it’s finest right there. But you’re not here to praise our mad computer skills, you’re here for science! So, moving on…

Chopping your herbs up before tossing them in your soups, stews and salsas is perfectly acceptable. You wouldn’t be thrown off Top Chef for the act, but bruising your herbs instead of, or as well as—can make your dishes truly sing instead of just humming along.

Check out the first graphic above, depicting a basic cell (if you’re not blinded by it’s amazing-ness). Each cell, that makes up each leaf or stem of the herbs your working with is filled with tasty oils. These oils are released one of two ways. Either the temperature of the cell has to grow high enough to rupture the cell wall, or structure, or you have to take matters into your own hands.

To the left of our cell illustration is a Basil leaf. No really… it is. When you roll up your herbs and chop them into tasty little bits to flavor your dishes, only the cells that the knife hit are the ones releasing their herb-y oils into your food. If you’re tossing them into something like a sauce that will be simmering for a length of time, then no worries, the oils in combination with the heat from your stove will eventually seep out.

But let’s say you’ll be using your herbs in your favorite salsa recipe or in a vinaigrette — or something that requires only a quick heat such as tossing them in with a little fresh pasta and butter. In this case, the cells don’t get a chance to rupture and usually, unless you’re a character from Twilight, your teeth aren’t sharp enough to rupture them either, or if they are, you’ve already swallowed the bite and down the hatch it goes.

Bruising is an easy thing to do, just simply bend or press the leaves so they show a wet crease, denoting the broken cells inside. Naturally, you’d keep them whole if you’re using them as a garnish for a dish to keep appearances up, but if it’s the taste you’re going for, bruise and bash away. You can even toss them in a mortar and pestle for all out cell grinding fun.

We wish you happy herb grinding for the upcoming Holidays! Class dismissed.

(Image: Flickr member Shawn Allen licensed for use under Creative Commons and Sarah Rae Trover)