Opinion

How Often, Really, Do You Follow This Recipe Instruction?

It's the one step I always skip. Here's why.

by:
December  7, 2019
Photo by Bobbi Lin

"Roughly chopped parsley, for garnish."

In a recipe's ingredient list, this line is, without a doubt, the one I always skip. Even in Karen Palmer's eggs in purgatory—a fiery, comforting "cross between an arrabbiata, known for its chile flakes, and puttanesca, with its briny caper and anchovy flavors." It's telling that nowhere in her detailed headnote (the introductory monologue that often precedes a recipe's ingredients) does she explain why the parsley is there; the only context we get is the clause after the comma in the ingredient's listing: "for garnish."

Optional. Photo by James Ransom

Don't get me wrong. I adore the fresh, spring-like flavor of parsley (always flat-leaf, never curly), especially in a rich, buttery pasta, where the herb seems to somehow offset the heaviness of the dish. Or in a green sauce, where a bedrock of parsley offers not only heft, but also water, color, and a blank slate for other herbs and flavors. One time, after a solo trip to New Orleans, where I ate almost exclusively deep-fried or stewy comfort foods, the first thing I cooked when I got home was a risotto with generous heaps of parsley and pureed broccoli rabe folded in—because what my body craved most was that clean, vegetal taste.

"Parsley has flavor, but it's often used in lame ways," Test Kitchen Director Josh Cohen agrees. "You can't just throw parsley on anything and call it a garnish. The flavor of the parsley has to make sense. I like to pair it with lemon juice, to create a bright, acidic, grassy flavor—this can often be used well to contrast rich, fatty meats."

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Top Comment:
“I totally agree with you, I always disliked when someone would add parsley just to make the dish look "pretty" until I did notice at times the addition of chopped parsley added a bight flavor notes to the dish. But when that happened I would always say we need to make the parsley necessary ingredient not optional! It is so important to give the home cook all of the necessary help and information the make the recipe successful at home for them, so the option use of garnish really does not tell them much. You need to give them the whys and then let them make a decision. Also, the recipe photo needs to always match your recipe! :) ”
— jane F.
Comment

If I'm buying fresh parsley at the store, it's never because I need it for garnish, but because a recipe I'm cooking would be, truly, lesser without it. I pride myself in almost never calling for a parsley garnish in any of the recipes featured in my column. If there's a garnish at all, it's probably fresh oregano, thyme, or chives, herbs that make a mark. But if you see a parsley leaf, it's likely because the stylist on the photoshoot needed it for color (and I certainly don't blame them; the kind of food I like to cook and eat may taste good, but it's almost certainly never that beautiful to look at).

"On set at Food52, using fresh herbs is often helpful as a back-pocket way to add color, and to bring something bright to the table," Food Stylist Anna Billingskog says, "especially when shooting stews and braises in the fall and winter months. While these dishes can be delicious, they also enter a monochromatic brown-town zone."

You'd be surprised at how many recipes you read online only call for herbs because a food stylist has added it after the fact (with the recipe developer's permission, of course). The package you see as a consumer is a product of great collaboration between both cooks and artists.

But the reality is: Most of us in our day to day aren't cooking and shopping for a photo; we're feeding ourselves and those around us, wherein a parsley garnish is often just an added expense, not to mention an annoying extra step at the end of a recipe.

So why should we bother when a recipe calls for "1 tablespoon roughly chopped parsley, for garnish"?

"I hate nonfunctional garnishes," Josh tells me. "For example, a sprig of thyme might look pretty, but let's be honest, it's not going to be eaten; it's going to be thrown away. A garnish should be eaten, and it should enhance the overall flavor of a dish. If a garnish makes a dish look better, but doesn't make it taste better, then it doesn't deserve to be served."

To side-step the issue altogether, I like to use whole, unchopped parsley not as an herb, but as a salad leaf in and of itself. I first learned this trick from Nigella Lawson, who dresses the herbs very simply with thinly sliced red onions, salt-packed capers, lemon juice, and olive oil. There's nothing fresher to serve alongside a gorgeous, fatty roast loin of pork.

And then there are those of us who enjoy the acrobatic, Food Network–like ceremony of showering a finished dish with chopped parsley. This showmanship can be, in a way, the home-cook equivalent of a hibachi chef's flaming onion-ring volcano; none of us really want it, but it's been part of the show for eons, so we accept it. Sometimes the reasons we do the things we do in the privacy of our own kitchens may be less about taste, or even aesthetic—and more about ritual.

"I personally always garnish when a recipe calls for it and add a final flourish of herbs even if a recipe doesn’t call for it," Executive Editor Joanna Sciarrino reveals. "My husband hates it."

"A friend of mine knows it’s time to go to the grocery store," Senior Copywriter Maggie Slover tells me, "not when she’s run out of milk or eggs, but when she’s run out of parsley."

How often do you bother with the "garnish" step in a recipe? Tell us in the comments below.

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Eric Kim is a senior editor at Food52, where his solo dining column, Table for One, runs Friday mornings. Formerly the managing editor at Food Network and a PhD candidate in literature at Columbia University, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.

12 Comments

M January 6, 2020
I used to do this, until I had something with fresh parsley on it and realized I'd taken my abstinence too far. And yesyesyes, fresh parsley is a great salad leaf -- especially with oregano, mint, cilantro..
 
jane F. December 15, 2019
I totally agree with you, I always disliked when someone would add parsley just to make the dish look "pretty" until I did notice at times the addition of chopped parsley added a bight flavor notes to the dish. But when that happened I would always say we need to make the parsley necessary ingredient not optional! It is so important to give the home cook all of the necessary help and information the make the recipe successful at home for them, so the option use of garnish really does not tell them much. You need to give them the whys and then let them make a decision. Also, the recipe photo needs to always match your recipe! :)
 
Tessa December 13, 2019
As a gardener with a serious love of parsley, I totally agree in only garnishing with parsley if it adds something to the dish. I eat parsley straight out of the yard all the time and love it fresh in salads, it's amazing, but it definitely does not need to be thrown onto everything coming out of the kitchen!
 
HalfPint December 12, 2019
I don't bother with garnishes either unless I'm serving to guests.
 
Caitlin December 12, 2019
I prefer garnishes that add flavour as well like scallions, chives, fruit, etc. If colour is all your after, make a note interesting plate or use edible flowers that most people don't bother eating but look pretty.
 
carswell December 9, 2019
What's pictured at the top of this article is curly parsley - which doesn't have the same intensity of flavour as flat leaf Italian parsley - and so it is indeed primarily garnish.

That said - I do consider the addition of fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro and basil at the end of the process as an integral part of the recipe. The often add a layer of bright flavour that serves as an enhancement and counterpoint to the dominant flavours of the dish.
 
jane F. December 15, 2019
I do agree, flat parsley has a bright flavor that does add a nice dimension when used sparingly!
 
CameronM5 December 9, 2019
I think it makes sense to garnish when the ingredient is in the recipe already. It tells the diner what is inside and adds the fresh herb flavor to the final dish, but to he honest, I never knew that sometimes it was just for the photo!
 
suzybel63 December 8, 2019
I always thought I was the only weird person that actually ate the sprig of parsley on my plate at a restaurant. That being said, I have been known to garnish with dried parsley as well. But I love the curly stuff and that's what I buy. I pick the heads off and throw it in my salad and save the stems for soups and pesto. I use a lot of parsley in my pesto along with the basil.
 
Nancy December 7, 2019
Me too, never use a sprig of parsley as a garnish.
I guess hotels and restaurants use it girls color contrast and to signal frsshness.
Deep fried parsley, which I first met as a garnish for steak, is a whole 'nother story. Sort of like the first time you taste extra virgin olive oil - where has this been all my life (so far)?
 
Nancy December 8, 2019
Should read: use it to give color contrast & to signal freshness.
 
Shane L. December 7, 2019
Agreed, garnish that isn't meant to be eaten, is simply a waste of fresh herbs. My grandmother, however, used to request a postprandial sprig of parsley, in order to freshen her breath.