“Trefoil, Vervain, John’s Wort, Dill
Hinders witches of their will”
—Old English folk saying
April is a time of renewal for the earth and also for your kitchen. Enhance the flavor and vibrancy of your favorite dishes with fresh dill weed (Anethum graveolens L.), an aromatic, self-sowing, annual herb that is technically biennial. The plant’s feathery, blue-green fronds will add a subtle, anise-like flavor to your foods.
Dill weed (or dill) belongs to the Apiaceae/Umbelliferae (wild carrot) family and includes the herbs parsley, coriander, and chervil. Dill, the sole species of the genus Anethum, delivers three seasonings in one; in addition to the fronds, the flowers and seeds are edible too. Dill seeds are considered a spice.
The long stems on maturing dill are topped with umbels — lacy, umbrella-like clusters of tiny chartreuse flowers with a bright, herbal flavor and aroma. The ripe seeds (dill fruits, to be precise) are harvested when the seedy flower heads turn golden brown. They are used in baking, pickling, and distillation. Their appealing, robust flavor tastes like a blend of caraway and anise.
Native to southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean area, dill can trace medicinal and culinary uses back to early antiquity. Dill is included in a soup recipe on a 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablet in the Babylonian Collection at Yale University. The early writing system was developed by the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia. Dill is also mentioned in Sanskrit literature and early Egyptian records.
The etymology of dill is uncertain. The ancient Greeks and Romans called it Anethum, which is its genus name. The Romans introduced dill to Britain; for centuries, it was called Anet in some rural districts. The Old Norse dilla (“lull”) referred to the herb’s use as a “lullaby plant” to calm colicky babies. Most Germanic languages shared a form of the word dill.
When troubled by witches, people turned to flowering dill for protection. To ward off evil spells, they hung sprigs in doorways, tucked them into clothing, and steeped them to make herbal tisanes. Over time, the fragrant blossoms came to represent good luck and were symbolically displayed in water.
Essential oils from dill seeds and leaves have long been used in natural medicines. Their antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties are used to increase food safety in industrial food manufacturing. Dill contains several nutrients, including magnesium and Vitamins A and C, and it may offer protection against heart disease. Dill has long been considered a remedy for gastrointestinal issues, headaches, bad breath, and hiccups.
In spite of its history, dill may be overlooked as a lackluster herb, yet it is one of the most delicious seasonings in the kitchen! It has enjoyed a long, close relationship with cucumbers. Mention dill, and people immediately think pickles — a tangy flavor combination so popular that it turns up in chips, popcorn, margaritas, lip balm, and even ice cream! Tuck a fragrant dill umbel, which is the stem with flowers, or a teaspoon of dill seed into each pint jar of homemade pickles. The quick-pickled, global side dish of thin-sliced cucumbers in vinegar is especially tasty with fresh dill or dill seeds.
Dill is much more than a pickling herb. The blossoms and feathery fronds will enhance fish, soups, salads, vegetables, spinach dip, coleslaw, mashed potatoes, rice, omelets, and deviled eggs. Add whole or crushed seeds to condiments, pickled vegetables, sauerkraut, cooked cabbage, sausages, and breads. Dill has an affinity for yogurt and sour cream. It shines in Greek tzatziki, a refreshing yogurt-cucumber side dish. For a quick mustard sauce for salmon, combine sour cream, fresh dill, Dijon mustard, minced shallot, and a pinch of salt.
Experience dill in all its glory through Eastern European and Nordic cuisines. It is closely associated with the foods of Russia, Ukraine, and Scandinavia. Ukrop — Russia’s word for dill — stems from the verb kropit or “to cover.” Foods are often blanketed with dill — even whole bunches. The largest herb producer reports that the annual consumption of dill per person is a large suitcase full. It is omnipresent in dishes, whether it’s beef stroganoff; kulebiaka or hearty fish pie; kefir, a fermented milk drink; hamburgers; or sushi. In northeast China, dill is cultivated for Russian immigrant workers; it is also a flavorsome addition to Chinese dumplings.
Dill is just as popular in the Ukraine; favorite dishes include boiled new potatoes; borsch or beetroot soup; and varenyky, cheese-filled dumplings with sour cream. Civilian forces call themselves “dill battalions,” and they sew dill logos onto their combat fatigues. Swedish cooks add dill to pickled herring and the cured salmon dish gravlax. They cook crayfish in beer with flowering dill during special outdoor feasts.
Early Dutch and German settlers in America produced dill pickles. Dill was popularized after Eastern European Jewish immigrants arrived; their pickles, gefilte fish, and matzo ball soup wouldn’t be the same without it.
Fresh dill tastes best; dried dill is not as distinctive. Fresh dill and the small, organic plants are available in most produce departments year-round. For maximum flavor, chop dill finely; add to dishes near the end of cooking. If desired, substitute one teaspoon dried or freeze-dried dill weed in place of one tablespoon fresh, chopped dill. The amount can be increased in small increments — keep tasting until you get it right.
If you like to garden, the seeds are easy to grow. The plants attract beneficial garden friends and pollinators such as ladybugs, honeybees, and swallowtail butterflies. Vierling and Superdukat are two of several excellent varieties; both are slower to flower and bolt.