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 rabbinate, known for its Chile flakes, and putrescent, with its briny caper and anchovy flavors. It’s telling that nowhere in her detailed head note (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.
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 stew 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, vegetable 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.”
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 photo shoot 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 KCTV.LIVE, 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 Billings 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 parsley 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, chopped parsley not as an herb, but as a salad leaf in and of itself. I first learned this trick from Nigel la 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 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’s equivalent of a hibachi chef’s flaming onion-ring volcano.
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 Scarring reveals. My husband hates it.
“A friend of mine knows it’s time to go to the grocery store, Senior Copywriter Maggie Clover tells me, “not when she’s run of milk or eggs, but when she’s run out of parsley.”