A Baker’s Dozen
Baking bread is an age-old craft, and adding flavour with fresh garden herbs makes it even more satisfying. There’s not much that surpasses the aroma, taste and texture of bread warm from the oven.
Adding fresh herbs to bread adds even more to the flavour and turns a basic loaf, flatbread or muffin into something of a signature dish. Herbs have always been used to flavour food, but one tends to see their use more in terms of roasts, slow-cooked stews, soups and other braised dishes. Baking, however, benefits as much as other dishes from the individual and subtle flavouring that herbs provide.
For those who love baking – and they are a specially gifted few – the herb garden offers a wealth of different flavours. There is the sweetness of anise or the spiciness of fennel seed, the fragrance of rosemary or lavender, the tang of chillies or the savoury notes of thyme, oregano, marjoram and chives. As in other forms of cooking, herbs should not dominate but only enhance the flavour.
The more familiar you become with the taste of each herb, the more creative you can be in combining herbs that complement each other in flavour.
Herbs for bakers
For those still at the experimental stage, this list of herbs from Louis van Aswegen of Healthy Living Herbs covers the different flavours, and the herbs are readily available. Most of them are aromatic herbs that stand up to long cooking by retaining their flavour. An exception is basil which is regarded as a mild herb, in spite of its strong flavour. It can be used in muffins or savoury scones that require a short baking time in a hot oven.
Rosemary is a very aromatic, shrubby perennial. Use only the leaves. A sprinkling of leaves together with coarse salt or olives is a delicious topping for focaccia or other flat bread. The leaves become crunchy and the flavour goes into the bread but is not overpowering.
Alternatively, grind a small quantity of dried rosemary leaves for flavouring.
Thyme is a small, shrubby perennial that also has a very distinctive taste, yet doesn’t clash with other herbs. It is often used together with chives, garlic chives, Italian parsley and oregano. The finely chopped leaves can be used in conventional loaves as well as in muffins.
Chives and garlic chives are clump-forming perennials that may die down in winter but regenerate and flower in spring. They are cut-and-come-again herbs that add a mild onion flavour. Use sharp kitchen scissors to simply snip the leaves finely into your bread or muffin mix.
Italian parsley is a tastier and larger-leafed version of moss-curled parsley. It is a good companion herb to thyme, oregano or marjoram.
Oregano and marjoram are both bushy perennial herbs. Oregano dries well and has a stronger flavour when dry, so should be used sparingly. Marjoram has a richer flavour and can used as an alternative to oregano. In addition to normal loaves, incorporate them into pizza dough or sprinkle over your pizza before baking.
Dill or perennial fennel seed is spicy and can be used to flavour breads and biscuits. Collect the seeds at the end of the season and dry them. The finely ground seeds can be mixed with butter to make a tasty spread.
Basil is a summer annual with an abundance of juicy, fragrant green leaves. A delicious combination is a basil and garlic French loaf. Even if you don’t bake your own, you can still claim the compliments.
Chilli peppers can be dried and ground and then added to the dry ingredients. The best drying peppers are cayenne, and although hot, they are not overly so.
Using herbs in baking
The fresh herbs are added to the dry ingredients and should be chopped as finely as possible. A tip from Doug Watson of Healthy Living Herbs is to allow the freshly picked herbs to dry out for a day or so before chopping them up. The chopped herbs will not be as wet and will distribute more easily throughout the dough. Strip the leaves off the stems before chopping. Herbs that are still full of juice when chopped tend to form clumps and do not mix easily.
A quick way to finely chop the slightly dried herbs is to put them in a coffee grinder. Herbs can also be used on flat breads and focaccia as a topping.
They are then baked into the bread and tend to sink into the dough which adds to the flavour. When you add herbs to muffins or scones do not over-mix the ingredients – rather cut the butter or oil and liquids into the flour with a knife instead of kneading it.
Planting a herbal chess board
This simple design consists of paving stones laid out like a chess board with gaps between the paving stones. The advantage of this design is that every herb is accessible. Each square accommodates a single large herb or two or three smaller herbs. Depending on the location, plant the taller herbs at the back, with the smaller herbs in front. This prevents the taller herbs from blocking out the sun. For extra texture, spread gravel mulch around each herb. This also keeps the area neat and weed free.
Without bread all is misery.William Cobbett, British Journalist