Fines herbes (feenz erbs) is a traditional French blend of delicately aromatic and flavorful herbs used to season subtly flavored dishes, such as eggs, buttery sauces, vegetables, chicken and fish. Gourmands prefer fines herbes made with fresh herbs, but you can salt dry fresh herbs to create an easily stored version with good flavor.
The classic fines herbes blend consists of tarragon, chervil, chives and parsley leaves. These herbs can be air-dried, but their constituents are so volatile and delicate that their unique flavors are largely lost into the air in the process. These same constituents are readily soluble into the fats and oils used in cooking — which is why they are preferred in their fresh form.
Fortunately, there is another way to capture some of fines herbes’ rare and elusive goodness. Salt-drying the fresh leaves will quickly desiccate the herbs and provide you with a delicately-seasoned salt to use long after the fresh herbs are no longer available. The addition of salt dramatically shortens the drying time, while the vast surface area of the crystals and their interlocking structure help to contain and fix the fugitive flavors of the fines herbes.
Here’s how to do it:
- Obtain the fresh herbs at a good market — where they are increasingly available — or seek out herb growers in your area by asking at farmer’s markets. Better yet, try growing fines herbes yourself. French tarragon and chives are perennial plants that grow easily in any good garden soil. Parsley plants are widely available as annual plants at garden centers, while chervil is best grown from seed. Try sowing it into a prepared bed in late fall. Winter temperatures act on the seeds to yield better germination and healthier, more flavorful plants the following spring.
- Use the herbs immediately after you bring them home (or harvest them), and avoid bruising or washing them too vigorously. If there is any dirt or sand present, give them a gentle dunk in clean water and then spin them dry using a salad spinner.
- Next, gently remove the leaves from the stems. Use a sharp knife or scissors to cut the chives into shorter, more manageable pieces.
- Sprinkle a thin layer (about 1/8 to 1/4 inch) of sea salt, kosher salt or French fleur de sel (or a combination of these) onto a pan. (Fleur de sel has a complex, mineral/oceanic flavor that is particularly suited to this process.)
- Spread the herbs over the salt, then add another sprinkling of salt over them. Use an approximate ratio of 3 parts salt to 1 part herbs as a guide.
- Place the herbs/salt mixture in an oven or toaster oven pre-heated to 150-200 degrees. (A convection oven works best.) Dry the herbs. It should take just 20-30 minutes; time may vary according to your oven’s performance. Gently stir the mixture once midway through to ensure even drying.
- As soon as the mixture is dry, remove from oven and let cool. Use the back of a spoon to crumble the leaves slightly, then place the seasoned salt in an airtight jar or tin. (I like to repurpose empty Frontier and Simply Organic spice bottles and grinder cap bottles.)
- Store your finished salt-dried fines herbes in a dark, dry cupboard. Use within 4-6 months.
How to Use:
- Sprinkle on eggs, especially poached eggs, or eggs that are cooked soft.
- Season any creamy, silky sauce such as Hollandaise, Béarnaise, Béchamel or Mornay.
- Season any dish that calls for delicate white fish, shellfish or bivalves such as clams, oysters, mussels, and scallops.
- Use it on poultry — fines herbes works especially well with chicken and turkey.
- Try adding the unique flavor of fines herbes salt to scooped salads such as egg, potato, crab, shrimp and chicken salad.
- Mix with plain, unsalted, fresh creamery butter and serve over boiled or mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables (asparagus…YUM!) or leafy greens.
- Give as a unique, handmade gift!