What is Dill? How to Use Dill

FR: Aneth odorant, Fenouil batard GER: Dill, Till, Tille IT: Aneto SP: Eneldo

BOT: Anethum graveolens FAM: Umbelliferae ILL: Plate 6, No. 2

Dill is a herb important for both its seeds and its leaves. Its origin is variously given as southern Europe and western Asia, but in either case it has been used for a long time in Europe: certainly it was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans and spread north into central Europe in medieval times, if not before. It is a typical plant of the parsley family, with yellow flowers in umbels and feathery thread-like leaves, very similar to fennel, but much smaller, growing only to about three feet high.

The flavour of the leaves is also quite different from fennel, distinctive, perhaps a little towards parsley but not like anise. The flavour of the seed is quite unlike the green leaf, being bitter and rather like caraway, due to the presence of the same essential oil (carvone).

Dill is an annual, easily grown from seed sown in spring and thriving in almost any soil. It is hardy, but prefers a warm position out of the wind. If left, it will often self-seed. It can be bought in some continental markets as a green herb, but usually if one wants green dill one must grow it oneself. It can be dried, but loses most of its flavour in the process. It can be satisfactorily quick frozen.

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In southern Europe from Spain and Portugal to Bulgaria and Romania, dill may be found growing as a cornfield weed, but it is not a common herb in Mediterranean cooking, except in Greece. Dill is more popular in Scandinavia (where they tend to overdo it), Germany and in central and eastern Europe. It is, for instance, a very popular herb in Russia, the Balkans and Romania, also in Iran and Turkey.

The best known use of dill is undoubtedly in pickled cucumbers. These are soured by a lactic fermentation (as is sauerkraut or sour milk), and green dill, usually the whole plant together with the half ripe seeds, is the dominant flavour. In North America these are known as dill pickles. Dill is also used sometimes in sauerkraut and, indeed, it seems to go especially well with sour dishes. It is also macerated in vinegar to make dill vinegar.

In parts of northern Europe, dill is often used as a sauce for fish as an alternative to fennel sauce (e.g. in Germany with eels). In Russia, Romania and the Balkans, it figures with cucumber and with yogurt and sour cream – sometimes with all three together. It would be an ingredient in stuffed vine leaves from Romania, if not from Turkey or Greece. In these regions it is also often added to dishes containing spinach, and to casseroles of chicken and mushrooms or baby lamb. Occasionally it is chopped and added to the dish at the outset, but dill loses its aroma during cooking, so more often it is put in just before removing from the fire. In both Scandinavia and south-eastern Europe and Turkey, the flavour of dill is strongly characteristic of the cooking in the places where it is used. Dill is also popular in parts of Russia.

Dill seed is used as a condiment in the same way as caraway. However, its main use is as a source of dill oil. Essential oils are steam distilled both from the seed and the ‘weed’ of dill. Another species of dill called Indian dill (Anethum sowa) is also used and has a slightly different flavour. These oils are used commercially as a food flavouring, particularly in commercial dill pickles. Another use, well known to most of us, is in dill water or syrup, optimistically given to crying babies as a digestive and soothing medicine.

This is a useful herb, well worth growing, and, if used with discretion, it can bring a range of new flavours to our cooking.

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