At a recent food symposium I found myself embroiled in a vigorous (if slightly misguided) debate. The issue under discussion was crucial to the experience and practice of the modern chef, and stances ranged from inflexible to downright cantankerous. In the matter of herbs and spices, which is better – fresh or dried?
The debate was intense, as you might expect from opinionated professional cooks the world over. However it was also misguided to my mind, as the distinction between the two reflects not quality, but utility.
Fresh and dried herbs and spices have unique flavours and cooking properties that usually makes them unsuitable for inter-substitution. Dried tastes like dried, while fresh is equally individual. As a result, the idea of ‘better’ is irrelevant.
There are some herbs whose fresh and dried versions are similar, although the dried will be less intense. Coriander, dill, mint and oregano are good examples of this rule. By contrast thyme, basil, tarragon and ginger show that the drying process can alter the perfume of a herb or spice to the point that it no longer reflects its original taste.
Of all the herbs and spices, ginger has the most pronounced distinction between its fresh and dried forms.
In Australia we usually associate the aroma of dried ginger with sweet foods. Gingerbread, speculaas biscuits, hot cross buns and ginger beer are all popular, and they share a similarity of taste profile. Dried ginger does make an appearance in some savoury foods, although it is usually blended with other spices – think garam masala and southern Chinese cuisine.
Fresh ginger rhizomes are more commonly associated with savoury dishes, as their acidity and heat blends well with mild proteins like fish and poultry. Fresh ginger has a lingering perfume that can transcend the intensity of other flavours – a characteristic that makes it well-suited to the intensity of South East Asian cooking.
When buying ginger, choose plump, smooth-skinned pieces whose ends have not yet withered, because the flavour of ginger declines markedly as it ages and desiccates.
When cooking, there is no need to peel the skin off ginger, as it’s perfectly edible. In fact, the skin contains a greater concentration of nutrients than the flesh, and more of that distinctively gingery heat. So simple grate or chop the ginger skin and all for the truest version of the spice.
As for the symposium’s chefs? Well I’ll leave the debate to them, but with a small parting note. You can’t make great gingerbread from fresh ginger, and dried ginger will overwhelm seafood. Use each wisely, and in their proper place, so that the only debate is about which wine to serve!
Steamed snapper with asparagus, mushrooms and ginger