Yesterday I tried to follow a pasta recipe that called for tarragon. Since I didn't have this herb, I sustituted basil.

For convenience, I may try to plant those commonly needed herbs myself so I can pick them fresh, when I need them.

What are the most common herbs used in Italian pasta dishes and should they be used fresh?

Please state why the herb was chosen rather than simply listing them which would not be that helpful to me. For example, tarragon goes well with chicken so I put some into the pasta dish because I like the fennel-like taste of it.

  • Northern and southern Italian cuisines are very different. Which did you mean? Oct 6 '12 at 20:36
  • What's the difference? Oct 9 '12 at 1:16
  • 1
    That's another question in itself. They're vastly different cuisines, may as well be different countries. Oct 9 '12 at 1:18
  • Do you have a link to the recipe ? I love tarragon, and I would like to try that !
    – Max
    Jan 13 '15 at 1:59
  • 1
    Italian cuisine is not monolithic. It varies widely by region. There are very few, if any, common herbs that are not used. They are probably more commonly used fresh, but dried herbs have their place as well.
    – moscafj
    Sep 3 '17 at 11:38

Some example of herbs usage here in Italy (I'm 100% italian living near Milan):

Basil: (for its fresh taste)

  • Pasta with tomato sauce and a couple of leaves of fresh basil on top.
  • Pizza Margherita: Mozzarella Cheese, tomatoes, basil.
  • Pesto: basil, parmigiano cheese, pine nuts & olive oil.

Oregano: (a little salty, chosen for its strong parfume)

  • On top of Focaccia
  • Mozzarella Caprese (mozzarella, tomatoes, basil & oregano)

Sage (delicate perfume, used to enhance flavours)

  • Gnocchi with butter & sage, with little parmigiano


  • Mostly used with fish pasta dishes (never with meat!)

Some common mistakes on italian pasta recipes "as seen from abroad" is that we don't really use parsley or oregano everywhere. Many other herbs like tarragon, marjoram, etc... Are rarely used in everyday recipes.

  • So what I need is only basil if I only cook pasta? Oct 9 '12 at 1:18
  • Yes and No. If you want to strictly observe typical italian recipes, well, you have a few choices. But if you search on the web you can find a lot of delicious recipes like this one translate.google.com/… (translated from the most famous italian foodblog) that are not so common here, but are delicious.
    – napolux
    Oct 9 '12 at 9:46
  • As an Italian, you perhaps should know better than anyone that there are no "never"s in Italian cuisine. I can show you any number of recipes from actual Italian chefs (Guiliano Bugialli, Marcella Hazan, Giorgio Locatelli, Fabio Trabocchi...) that use parsley with meat. Two minutes flipping through Il cucchiaio d'argento turns up recipes for veal, liver, duck, and lamb that include parsley.
    – jscs
    Dec 10 '12 at 1:24
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    Oregano is better dried instead of fresh (it's one of the rare herb that is better dried).
    – Max
    Sep 5 '17 at 17:25

Basil, Parsley, Oregano, Bay leaves, Marjoram, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme.

The more woody of these aren't left in when serving (Rosemary, Bay Leaves etc.).

No general rule of thumb about what herbs to go in which sauces but for me, you can separate them by which goes well into which sauce colour:

  • Red (Tomato) sauces: Basil, Parsley, Oregano, Bay Leaves

  • White Sauces: Bay Leaves, Marjoram, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme

No reason why you can't put any herb in any sauce though.

  • Would there be other pasta using other sauce instead of red or white? I'd rather try to group them by how their favour suits a particular dish. And I think you won't put all the listed herb into the sauce too because that too overpowering. Oct 3 '12 at 7:45
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    My Italian friend says only the Greeks use oregano. She is from northern Italy though, which is nearly a separate country from the south. Oct 3 '12 at 8:21
  • Oregano is a staple herb in all the commercially jarred red pasta sauces here in the U.S. Oct 3 '12 at 11:06
  • French and Spanish also use oregano. My neighbor sells bags. Oct 3 '12 at 13:47
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    Load of rubbish. Origano (Oregano) is one of the most common herbs in Italy. It's nearly on every pizza and pasta dish they make, usually in the pomodoro (tomato) sauce
    – TFD
    Oct 3 '12 at 22:03

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