A woody shrub native to the Mediterranean and some additional European regions, rosemary (rosmarinus officinalis) is one of the most esteemed herbs in the culinary world. A perennial evergreen, aka a plant which keeps its leaves year round, rosemary is a member of the mint family. The herb is characterized by distinctively narrow leaves which roll in at the edges and are similar in appearance to pine needles; its flowers can be blue, purple, white, or pink.
Rosemary’s distinctive aroma is hard to describe, though acclaimed food scientist Harold McGee breaks it down as a combination of “florals, pine, wood, eucalyptus, and clove” (“enticing” also works). The herb’s flavor, which is very bitter and astringent when chewed alone, has notes of pine, mint and ginger, and mellows when cooked. The complex scent and flavor lend well to grilled meats, roasts, flavored oils, herb cheeses, oily fish, and stuffing. Rosemary also works in many sweet dishes, especially when paired with sweet citrus, tart berries, and even semi-sweet chocolate.
The flowering shrub grows fairly easily, and its attractive appearance makes it a popular garden and landscaping plant; the species also cooperates when pruned and can be shaped into decorative topiaries. It is also utilized as a “companion plant”, or a plant which assists the growth of other garden items – rosemary reportedly prevents moths and beetles which can attack cabbage, carrots, and beans.
Rosemary comes in a variety of strains each offering its own atheistic value – some have pink flowers, some have blue, while others show variation in leaf color or size. All strains tolerate drought well and are sensitive to over watering.
Rosemary is used frequently in Mediterranean cuisine, due in part to the location of its native growing territory. It also makes frequent appearances in French, Italian, and North American cuisines, though the latter seems to have been influenced somewhat by the former. Rosemary’s distinct aroma and flavors lend well to braises, stuffing, and roasts; it is generally considered a good pairing for meats like lamb, but also cuts the “fishiness” of oily fishes like salmon, tuna and swordfish, adding balance to certain seafood dishes.
Historically speaking rosemary has almost had more success as a medicinal tool than as a culinary herb. Since medieval times people have used the plant to treat a wealth of ailments ranging from memory loss to rheumatism. For centuries the leaves were widely reputed to strengthen the brain, leading to rosemary’s eventual association with memory and remembrance. The herb is traditionally used in both wedding and funeral ceremonies as a symbol of love and commemoration, and centuries ago students even wore wreaths of rosemary before tests to fortify their memory. Hungary water, a tonic used in the 1200’s by Queen Elizabeth of Hungary to treat paralysis, is perhaps the most famous medicinal use of rosemary on record. The recipe was said to have been created by a hermit specifically for the queen, and was made from a large quantity of fresh rosemary distilled in wine. The liquid was then vigorously rubbed into the Queen’s extremities daily and apparently worked – Hungary water became a popular home remedy shortly thereafter in France and other parts of Europe.
Recent science has revealed that rosemary has stimulant, analgesic, and antioxidant properties; two promising studies show that rosemary is a powerful anti-carcinogenic in animals, cutting the risk of skin, colon, breast and lung cancers by as much as a half in some lab cases (though there is no evidence as of yet that these results can be replicated in humans). Additionally, the plant purportedly helps to relax muscles and can be used to soothe stomach discomfort, anxiety, and menstrual cramps when brewed into tea. Rosemary tea is actually very pleasant and is carried in some supermarkets and health food stores; to make your own at home add one teaspoon of dried leaves or 1-2 sprigs of fresh to a cup of boiling water and let steep for around ten minutes.
Rosemary has also proven useful in mainstream industries – in 1987 Rutgers University patented a powerful food preservative called rosmaridipheno, which is derived from the plant.
Use and Storage
Fresh rosemary is readily available in most markets and grocery stores. Fresh rosemary can be frozen on the stem for up to six months, but be careful – the herb is more potent when frozen. Dried rosemary is also easy to find in most stores but is much milder in flavor than fresh.
Fresh rosemary can be dried at home by hanging the entire sprig upside down out of direct sunlight. Be sure to remove the leaves from the stem before storing in an airtight container.
- In a bouquet garni for flavoring stocks and sauces
- In soups and stews
- In marinades and dressings
- In flavored oils for cooking or baking
- In bread dipping oils
- Mixed in with charcoal or wood for grilling/smoking
- Tucked in between, or into, slabs of meat before roasting
- Laid over pork chops or kebabs before grilling
- Added to roasted winter vegetables like squash, eggplant, or pumpkin
- Sprinkled on mushrooms, spinach, and baby vegetables to add flavor
- To balance oily fishes like salmon, tuna, or swordfish
* Note: Rosemary can be very powerful – it’s best to start with a little and add more if necessary.
Recipe with Rosemary
Garlic and Rosemary Dipping Oil
This herb infused oil is perfect for dipping crusty breads or breadsticks in. You can also paint the oil over Panini sandwiches before pressing/grilling.
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon fresh ground pepper
½ teaspoon basil
5 garlic cloves (roasted or raw), minced
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, minced
Salt, to taste
Pinch dried oregano (optional)
Combine all ingredients in bowl. Mix thoroughly with spoon or whisk. Place on plate or in a shallow saucer for dipping. Store leftover in the fridge in an airtight jar or container – remember the oil will grow more potent the longer it sits!
Blood-Orange Rosemary Marinade
This marinade is perfect for chicken, but can also be used for lamb or duck.
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup fresh-squeezed blood-orange juice (or regular orange juice)
Juice of 1 lemon
1/3 cup fresh rosemary leaves, minced
3 tablespoons fresh thyme, minced
4 garlic cloves, minced
Whisk together ingredients in small bowl, reserving used orange halves. Pour marinade over meat, adding orange halves. Cover. Let marinate for at least four hours.