Though dried herbs pack a punch, last longer than their fresh counterparts, and are great for building of flavor, fresh herbs are essential for raw preparations like salads, and add light, leafy texture and bright flavor to all manner of dishes as a finishing touch. In fact, there are few dishes that wouldn’t benefit from a handful of torn herbs just before serving. The trouble is, removing herbs from their stems can be time-consuming, tedious work—unless you’re in the know.
If you know the best way to approach each herb, removing the leaves doesn’t have to be a chore. Some might even call the task speedy and—dare we say it—satisfying. Here’s the best way to approach a handful of common herbs, in no particular order.
Rosemary stems are quite woody, so you definitely don’t want them making an appearance in your stews or sauces. To remove the edible portion from the woody stem, simply separate the stems and remove any branches, then run your fingers down the stem in a straight line. The herbs should fall right off. As an alternative, you could run a fork down the stem to rip off the leaves if the spaces between the tines are narrow enough.
Another fun trick? Try pulling the rosemary stem through a colander or the holes of a box grater if the holes are small enough.
To remove thyme leaves from the stem, you can use the same finger-stripping method that works for rosemary. Simply tear off any branches from a longer sprig, and run your fingers down the stem. The leaves will rip right off. The stems of some varieties of thyme are considerably softer and skinnier than rosemary, though, so you’ll need to have a lighter touch. If the stems break, fear not. Just run your fingers down the broken pieces.
For a hack, the holes of a colander will probably be too big for thyme, but you might find a cheese grater whose holes work: Simply pull the sprig through the hole and watch the leaves fall off. Alternatively, the holes in most fine mesh strainers work well for stripping thyme. Stick the stalk through the hole, pull, and watch the leaves fall off.
To remove mint leaves, you can use the same finger-stripping method that works for rosemary and thyme. The one caveat here is that mint leaves are soft and fragile, which means they bruise easily, so you want to be gentle. You can also pick these leaves off individually and delight in the aroma leftover on your hands!
Parsley and Cilantro
Believe it or not, you can use a fork to remove parsley and cilantro leaves from their stems. Simply hold a bunch in one hand, stick the head of a fork right above the leaves, then pull the fork away from you, through the leaves. They’ll tear right off the stalks.
This move requires a little finessing and won’t be as clean a strip as, say, pulling a fork down a stem of rosemary or pulling thyme through your fingers, but you’ll definitely remove some leaves in the process. Then you can pick the remaining leaves off with your fingers. Got a box grater? You can also pull parsley or cilantro stems through these holes.
Now for some good news: Depending on how you’re using the herbs, you might not actually have to remove cilantro leaves from their stems at all! Cilantro stalks are soft and full of flavor, so you can actually use them in the same applications where you’re using the leaves if your recipe calls for finely chopped cilantro. Chop off three-quarters of the stem, and from there, simply slice the leaves on a bias, to remove a big head of leafy herbs. Now chop away at the leaves and remaining stems. Once everything is finally chopped, you won’t notice the small amount of stems (except for the added flavor they bring).
Don’t throw away the bottoms of your parsley and cilantro stems. They’re super flavorful and perfect for seasoning stocks, soups, or marinades.
Basil and Sage
For herbs with softer leaves—like mint, basil, and sage—gadgets won’t serve you as well. You don’t want to risk pulling a large, soft leaf through a small hole of a colander only to see the leaf rip or bruise. The good news is that you’re likely using fewer leaves from these herbs than you are from something like thyme, so picking off the leaves one by one with your fingers isn't too time consuming.
Depending on the herb—and your mood—you now have plenty of methods for stripping away those fresh leaves. So, now that you’re an herb-picking machine, make sure you know the best way to store fresh herbs and how to chop various herbs.