Herbs commonly used in savory cooking can lend a powerful and unique taste to many baked goods. Featured below are five herbs that pair well with a variety of sweet flavors. Many of these are available from your local grocery store or farmers market, though some may be more difficult to track down. Whether you’re making good use of that week-old thyme in your refrigerator or looking to impress your next dinner party guests with a lavender cream for your lemon curd tart, cozy up to these interesting flavors and use the ideas below as a springboard. You’re only limited by your imagination.
Rosemary is a perennial herb, common to Mediterranean cuisine, with a pungent, pine-like aroma. Rosemary lends its flavor primarily through infusion. Rosemary needles are coarse and fibrous, and although it’s generally not recommended to eat them, it isn’t dangerous. While rosemary’s affinity for meaty flavors is well-known, rosemary is also an intriguing flavor when paired with sweets, especially with stone fruit and citrus. Prepare a sorbet with rosemary and either grapefruit or orange by adding rosemary-infused simple syrup to juice and processing in an ice cream machine. Roast peaches or nectarines with butter, honey and rosemary and serve with vanilla ice cream or rosemary-flavored whipped cream. Rosemary also pairs well with apples, so place a couple of sprigs of rosemary in your compote when preparing an applesauce, or prepare a galette.
Lavender, though a true herb, is most frequently used for its fragrance either in the beauty industry or in flower arrangements. While lavender is certainly great for aromatherapy uses, as it’s said to be relaxing, lavender is also used in sweet and savory cooking. If preparing a lavender infusion, it is crucial to monitor the strength of your infusion, as the flavor can rapidly become overwhelming. When used properly, lavender has a slight peppery quality on the tongue. Lavender pairs well with lemon, so try a lemonade flavored with lavender syrup or prepare a simple lavender sugar to sprinkle on lemon flavored cookies, cakes or custards. Lavender also has an affinity for berries, especially strawberries and blackberries. Pop some lavender into a biscuit recipe and marinate lavender with berries and sugar for strawberry shortcakes. Or prepare blackberry scones or coffee cake and decorate with a lavender glaze. There are hundreds of delicious ways to combine lavender and fruit flavors.
Thyme is another familiar herb to savory cooks, and one that has been appropriated by the sweet cook in recent times. It is worth noting that fresh thyme and dried thyme have completely different flavors, as is the case with most herbs. Whenever possible, use fresh herbs, although dried will also work. Lemon thyme is an interesting thyme varietal with lemon overtones. Thyme pairs well with most fruit, notably figs, strawberries, plums, apples. Roast these fruits with sugar, butter, thyme and other aromatics, or toss a few sprigs of thyme into a jam or compote for its signature pine flavor.
Rose geranium is a flowering plant with bright pink flowers and rose-scented leaves. Found commonly in ornamental gardens, the plant is also used for essential oils, in bath products, and, for the enterprising home cook, in baking. Rose geranium’s fibrous leaves are not edible but can be infused in dairy for panna cotta, a creamy Italian gelled custard. Raspberries, strawberries and plums pair very well with rose. There are many other varieties of scented geranium for the curious; however, rose geranium and lemon geranium are the easiest to find commercially.
Lemon verbena is a hardy plant with a sharp lemon flavor. Fresh or dried lemon verbena leaves can be used, although they provide a different flavor. Like many herbs profiled here, the leaves should not be eaten. Prepare a lemon verbena panna cotta to serve with strawberries, toss some lemon verbena into a jam. Lemon verbena pairs strikingly well with peaches, and can also be used with most stone fruits and berries. Other lemon-flavored herbs, such as lemon balm, can be substituted in recipes calling for lemon verbena, though there will be a difference to the flavor.