While Italian cuisine is fairly simple, there are several key herbs and spices that compliment many of the dishes. We’ve outlined the top six that we think add the most flavor, color and texture to a wide array of Italian favorites, from lasagna to marinara.
Parsley (prezzemolo, in Italian), of the flat-leaf variety, is one of the most commonly used herbs in Italian cooking and pairs particularly well with basil and rosemary. Parsley has a vibrant, clean flavor and is typically present in seafood and vegetable sauces, as well as a variety of pasta dishes, sauces, and soups. Italians use it to compliment spicy dishes, and it is found in bouquet garni – along with bay leaves, thyme, rosemary, and sage. Its health benefits include vitamins A and C, as well as copper, iron, and magnesium. Parsley also acts as a great breath freshener – which is why it is commonly paired with garlic!
Like parsley, basil (basilico, in Italian) is another major herb used in Italian cooking. Although it is commonly associated with Italian cooking, it actually came from India to Europe by way of the spice trade. Basil brings a peppery freshness to food, and pairs particularly well with tomatoes, garlic, and lemon. It is used in countless Italian recipes, perhaps most famously in Caprese salad and pesto. Its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties are amongst its many health benefits.
Basil brings a peppery freshness to food, and pairs particularly well with tomatoes, garlic and lemon.
Bay leaves (alloro, in Italian) can be traced back to ancient Greece where they were found growing on laurel trees. These trees grow abundantly in Italy and its leaves are used in the cuisine of diverse regions. The spicy and aromatic leaves are often added to soups, sauces, and stews to ensure a well-rounded flavor. They are also used to flavor meat and seafood dishes, serve as a common pickling spice, and as one of the herbs in a bouquet garni. Bay leaves offer a source of vitamins A and C, as well as folic acid, potassium, calcium, and iron.
Sage (salvia, in Italian) is used internationally as a natural cleaning agent, a cleansing ritual object, beneficial health properties and as a key cooking herb in Italian cuisine. Sage’s Italian name comes from the Latin root that means “health” and is used in Italian cuisine in pasta dishes such as gnocchi and risotto, as well as in roasted meats and soups. Known as a “miracle herb,” sage has powerful antibacterial properties and is used to reduce inflammation and soothe sore throats.
Rosemary (rosmarino, in Italian) grows in abundance in Italy and is actually a member of the mint family. A hardy plant, rosemary has a peppery, woody flavor and is often tossed with pasta or used in meat and vegetable preparations in Italy. A common flavor agent for stocks and stews, it has a long history, as a symbol of friendship, an object to ward off bad dreams and as a medicinal agent, its health properties including iron, calcium, dietary fiber, and antioxidants.
Rosemary (rosmarino, in Italian) grows in abundance in Italy and is actually a member of the mint family.
Oregano (origano, in Italian) is an aromatic and medicinal herb that features prominently in Italian cuisine, especially in vinaigrettes and tomato-centric recipes like pasta sauce, marinades and on pizza, of course. Used more commonly in southern Italian and Sicilian dishes, oregano is more flavorful in its dried form and has an earthy, almost bitter flavor. Health benefits of oregano include high amounts of Omega-3s, iron, manganese, and antioxidants.