Rosemary : Herb and Note

Herbs can add a bracing touch to fragrance and food. Elisa explores all facets of rosemary.

I never much liked the dried version of rosemary – neither the flat, somewhat dusty flavor nor the stabby texture, like dead pine needles, appealed. The first time I tried fresh rosemary, I was blown away. It felt like another species entirely – firm but pliant in texture (easily chopped with a sharp knife) and with a full, complex, room-filling scent when you cook with it.

rosemary1

Just by looking at it you could guess that rosemary smells piney – woodsy and green. It contains camphor, that bracing, pungently minty note common to evergreen trees, mothballs, and Tiger balm, as well as caffeic acid, a phenolic substance also found in eucalyptus bark. But my favorite thing about fresh rosemary, which I rarely see mentioned, is a distinctly buttery note – a savory milky aspect that makes anything you add it to smell and taste extra rich.

The dried herb smells overly compressed in comparison – it doesn’t produce the same striking contrast between aromatic freshness and the illusion of fattiness. As with basil and cilantro, a ton of complexity is lost in the drying process, but fresh rosemary stands up much better to cooking than most soft herbs.

Rosemary in Perfume

In perfume, rosemary is used, similar to lavender, to add an herbal, aromatic quality, especially to the top notes of colognes and fougères. But unlike lavender, whose sharp, gray-blue presence is always unmistakable, rosemary notes tend to be shy, to blend into the background.

Rosemary is great with lemon – you can find it in Dior Eau Sauvage and Clarins Eau Dynamisante, two of my favorite colognes. In both, the lavender is minimal, so the rosemary shines through, but it’s especially noticeable in Eau Dynamisante, where it leans toward the prickliness of the dried herb, bolstered by a what smells like a bit of the chypre-like leather material found in Estée Lauder Azurée.

Rosemary also appears in a few of Guerlain’s classics and newer orientals. Jicky smells of lavender, lemon, rosemary, and vanilla – except perhaps for the civet, it would make an awesome shortbread. A dash of herbes de Provence (a combination of rosemary, thyme and other herbs, such as savory, basil, marjoram and tarragon) adds foody complexity to the powdery violet-iris of Après l’Ondée.

The more recent Tonka Impériale is all about the cozy, nutty tobacco smell of tonka bean, with a touch of that green and yet buttery savoriness of fresh rosemary – it reminds me of flaky pastry dough, like a rosemary almond croissant. I get a similar impression from Attrape-Coeur, which is less sweet and more difficult to pin down; I smell iris and violets set against a quite salty amber. It has the medicinal edge common to many Guerlain orientals, a hint of the old Band-Aid smell (remember when Band-Aids had a scent?), creating a very Guerlain, paradoxical combination of repellant and delicious. A piney, woody note shines through after it warms to your skin.

Rosemary in Food

Rosemary is gorgeous with roasted pork and apples, on potatoes, in a red wine reduction for short ribs, or – more unexpectedly – in cocktails, paired with gin or vodka, citrus (grapefruit is especially nice) and a little simple syrup. I also love it in this simple recipe for cocktail pecans, which I adapted from Nigella Lawson’s recipe for mixed bar nuts, itself adapted from the Union Square Café. The fresh rosemary really complements the buttery pecans, and the smell is half the experience – please don’t substitute with dried herbs! These are great with drinks while warm; try tossing leftovers in a salad.

rosemary-pecans-1

Rosemary Pecans

8 ounces (225g, 2 1/4 cups) of raw unsalted pecans
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary (from 4-5 sprigs)
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon brown sugar
¼ – ½ teaspoon of cayenne pepper (adjust to taste)

Toast the pecans on a sheet pan in the oven at 350 for about 9-10 minutes, until fragrant (watch closely so they don’t burn). Meanwhile, melt the butter and combine with the brown sugar and cayenne. When the pecans are toasted, toss them in a bowl with the butter mixture and the rosemary. Season generously with a couple of pinches of sea salt or kosher salt and a little fresh cracked black pepper if desired.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin (first image) and Elisa Gabbert (second image)

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71 Comments

  • Michael: Rosemary is also one of the top notes in the Miller Harris fragrance Fleurs de Sel. I get a distinct scent of it whenever I wear the perfume, but more so on a warm summer day – something about the heat that brings the three herbs used (together with thyme and clary sage) to the forefront. February 15, 2016 at 8:30am Reply

    • Elisa: I have never noticed that! I have a little Fleurs de Sel — I’m going to look for that next time I wear it. February 15, 2016 at 9:53am Reply

  • Kat: I never thought too much about rosemary in perfumes until last winter. Every time I entered our basement I thought I could smell a beautiful perfumy scent. That made no sense as all we keep in the basement is a big garbage bin and hibernating geraniums. It was very confusing until my mother told me that the pot of rosemary she used to have outside in the garden during summertime was also hibernating in the basement. I couldn’t believe it but next time I checked – that dried little shrub managed to perfume the whole room, easily overwhelming the slightly mouldy scent of the geraniums and whatever the garbage bin was concocting. February 15, 2016 at 8:34am Reply

    • Elisa: This is a great tip for scenting a basement then!

      Another herb I much prefer fresh to dried is lavender, if that counts. February 15, 2016 at 9:55am Reply

    • Surbhi: A bouquet of flower I received had lots of rosemary on the side. I loved the refreshing scent. I walked into the room and it would smell warm and fresh in winter. I started keeping rosemary in kitchen after that. February 16, 2016 at 11:57am Reply

  • Ida: One of my husband’s favourites – L’Eau Bleue d’Issey, has rosemary in the top notes. The cypress + rosemary + lime combination smells really good on him. February 15, 2016 at 8:41am Reply

    • Elisa: Oh, I wonder if it is similar to Acqua di Gio? February 15, 2016 at 9:55am Reply

  • mj: In Andalucia (Southern Spain) the rosemary plant is a good luck plant.
    The Spanish cusine is full of rosemary perfumed dishes, especially meat ones. Rosemary is also used to cure cheeses, wrapping the whole thing in rosemary leaves and then let it dry. The leaves are in the outside of the cheese, but lend perfume and flavour to it. February 15, 2016 at 9:07am Reply

    • Elisa: You’re making me hungry. February 15, 2016 at 9:56am Reply

    • rickyrebarco: Yes, Spanish food with rosemary. Yummm. I love rosemary with lamb, especially on little lamb chops. Divine!! Also fantastic with Chicken dishes. February 15, 2016 at 11:01am Reply

      • Elisa: Yes, with lamb! Delicious. February 15, 2016 at 12:20pm Reply

    • Mia: Oo, queso romero! I love everything Andalucian: food, history, people, sun. I also guess (you?) Andalucians never suffer from headaches since rosemary is a natural painkiller. February 15, 2016 at 9:10pm Reply

      • mj: Not Andalusian here; my parents are both from Northern Spain: a Basque mother and an Northwester Castillian father; however, my Basque mother always keeps at home rosemary alcohol to be used for muscular pains. February 16, 2016 at 2:51am Reply

        • Mia: Nice to hear mj! Rosemary really helps in various kinds of pains.

          Actually, if I’m precise, my love applies to whole Spain where I’ve traveled quite a bit. Pais Vasco however still not visited, which is something I look forward to. I also wish to improve my Spanish but it is a slow process. Out of curiosity: do you also speak Basque language (or Euskara if you wish)?

          Sorry: I drifted totally off the scent topic here =). February 16, 2016 at 3:35am Reply

          • mj: No, I don’t speak Basque, as my mother never learnt to (she was born in dark times, when it was forbidden to speak or learn it). I know a few curse words, though February 16, 2016 at 3:43am Reply

  • Old Herbaceous: I love rosemary too! Diorissimo has a rosemary note in it, and so does Hermes’ Un Jardin Sur the Toit. I’ve written about how rosemary is having a “moment” right now — including the gorgeous rosemary jewelry shown in the Metropolitan Museum of Art catalogue this year! Thanks for the lovely recipe. February 15, 2016 at 9:22am Reply

    • Elisa: Oh, do you know I have still never tried vintage Diorissimo? Perfumista fail! Especially since I’ve managed to smell vintage versions of many of the other older Diors. February 15, 2016 at 9:57am Reply

      • Old Herbaceous: I hope you will, and I hope you’ll write about it! I’m crazy about lily of the valley notes, and the flowers themselves. February 15, 2016 at 12:55pm Reply

  • Garrett: Love rosemary and I grow several varieties in the garden. In summer I used to brush my cat against the bushes to make her smell nice. February 15, 2016 at 9:56am Reply

    • Elisa: Cat perfume! I love it. February 15, 2016 at 9:58am Reply

    • Surbhi: Best comment ! Brought some giggles. February 16, 2016 at 11:59am Reply

  • limegreen: Yummy looking recipe! I love putting fresh rosemary and pretzel salt on a basic bread dough rolled out flat (foccacia) with olive oil. Without the rosemary, it is quite ordinary. The dried rosemary is really no comparison!
    Rosemary essential oil in the bath is a nice for relaxing sore muscles, smells great, too. February 15, 2016 at 10:00am Reply

    • Elisa: The difference between dried and fresh is crazy, isn’t it? Luckily I find fresh rosemary lasts quite a long time in the fridge. February 15, 2016 at 10:04am Reply

      • limegreen: Yes! With a damp paper towel wrapped around the stems, it can keep. I have rosemary in my garden so fortunately I don’t have to do that, too often.
        I had to laugh at your “shortbread” comment — I have had rosemary shortbread and it’s delicious (and rosemary sorbet!).
        I think there’s rosemary in the original Acqua di Parma cologne but I would not want too much of it in my fragrance. February 15, 2016 at 11:11am Reply

        • Elisa: Lucky you! I don’t have any outdoor space in my current apartment so I don’t get an herb garden 🙁 February 15, 2016 at 12:15pm Reply

          • Michaela: I grow rosemary in pots and it lasts about a season or 2. Easy to care, it’s worth a try and it’s such a treat. Last year I had red basil and mint, in pots, too.
            None of them compares to the dried versions.

            I like this article very much! And the recipe seems delicious. February 16, 2016 at 5:16am Reply

            • Elisa: Oh yes, mint is another one that is a totally different animal when fresh! February 16, 2016 at 10:13am Reply

  • Jillie: Rosemary makes a great rinse to bring out the shine in dark hair – steep a bunch of sprigs in boiling water, let this cool and pour over your hair as the final stage after shampooing and conditioning.

    I didn’t like rosemary on my roast potatoes until I realised how different using fresh was compared with dry! February 15, 2016 at 10:01am Reply

    • Elisa: Neat! Maybe V can try that. (My hair is blonde)

      I felt the exact same way. Different ballgames. February 15, 2016 at 10:05am Reply

    • rickyrebarco: My favorite herb on potatoes is dill- yummy! It’s great on potato salad (referred to as Russian Salad in Andalucia and Barcelona) February 15, 2016 at 11:03am Reply

      • Elisa: I love fresh dill. Awaiting dill season! February 15, 2016 at 12:16pm Reply

      • Tati: My favorite recipe with dill is cucumber salad with yogurt and dill, chilled in the frig for summer. February 15, 2016 at 1:15pm Reply

        • Victoria: I love romaine lettuce with a dill-lemon-olive oil vinaigrette. I also add green onion or a scrap of garlic and lots of black pepper. February 15, 2016 at 5:23pm Reply

          • Elisa: Dill is amazing with salmon too. I remember once for a wine party I made little toasts spread with goat cheese mixed with dill and then topped with a bit of smoked salmon. February 15, 2016 at 5:40pm Reply

            • Victoria: I once made Escargots à la Bourguignonne substituting cod for snails and parsley in garlicky butter for dill, and it was fantastic. Of course, in Ukrainian cuisine dill is used in a wide variety of dishes, although Estonians probably take the cake with their dill ice cream (really delicious). February 16, 2016 at 4:54am Reply

              • Elisa: Dill ice cream. Wow. February 16, 2016 at 10:12am Reply

    • kpaint: It’s also very soothing to the scalp. My scalp gets inflamed sometimes and I’ve steeped rosemary in water and poured it over my head to calm it. February 15, 2016 at 12:12pm Reply

    • Michaela: Interesting rinse! Thank you, Jillie! February 16, 2016 at 5:25am Reply

  • Nick: I might have encountered rosemarry as top notes, but these agrestic tops rarely form an impression for me. Now that you have written about this, Elisa, I just realise that I cannot think of a rosemarry soliflore.

    I should just macerate fresh rosemarry in 70% ethanol and see the result 😉 *the geeky scientist in me smirking* February 15, 2016 at 11:33am Reply

    • Elisa: Please let me know how it turns out if you do! I have yet to find a perfume that really captures the complexity of fresh rosemary. February 15, 2016 at 12:18pm Reply

  • Caroline: Recipe sounds delish, will have to give it a try. Loved the older version of Eau Sauvage, but I think they’ve done something to it to make it more tenacious and blunt. Love the rosemary accent in Guerlain’s Liu. February 15, 2016 at 12:13pm Reply

    • Elisa: I have to agree. Straight up, natural smelling colognes aren’t in fashion for men these days. February 15, 2016 at 12:19pm Reply

  • Karen (A): Rosemary is one of my favorite plants – had a huge one that died during a brutal winter a few years ago and I was heartbroken. Timely article as I’ve been using. Dr. Hauscka Rosemary leg toner just for the fragrance.

    A drop of rosemary oil is a great facial steam for congestion, too.

    And fresh or dried, with roasted potatoes – yummmm. February 15, 2016 at 1:39pm Reply

    • Elisa: Come to think of the night cream I’m currently using (from Caudalie) smells a lot like fresh rosemary — it’s very piney but rich too. February 15, 2016 at 1:47pm Reply

  • Aurora: A brilliant post, thank you for the recipe. I have a small rosemary bush and along with thyme and laurel it’s one of my favorite cooking herbs. Your review of perfumes with this note is great, I was totally unaware Jicky had some rosemary, I will try to identify it next time I wear it. You know the contemporary 4711 (the vintage is an orange and orange blossom scent) has a distinctive rosemary note. February 15, 2016 at 4:13pm Reply

    • Elisa: Thank you Aurora!

      I’ve been wearing Eau Dynamisante for years and never noticed how prominent the rosemary note was until I started writing this article! February 15, 2016 at 5:38pm Reply

  • marymary: This grows everywhere in London. Because it’s hardy, the council plants it all over the place. February 15, 2016 at 5:12pm Reply

    • Elisa: I’ve heard that in some places it’s practically a weed! February 15, 2016 at 5:37pm Reply

  • NancyM: Hi Elisa, I live in south Texas, and it is indeed a weed here in parts of the Lone Star State. You can find it all over the Hill Country growing wild. It really lifts my spirits to brush my hand against it when I’m out and about.
    Thanks for a wonderful post! February 15, 2016 at 7:21pm Reply

    • Elisa: Thanks Nancy! I’m from West Texas myself 🙂 February 15, 2016 at 9:52pm Reply

  • Mia: Thank you for taking up this impressive and lovely herb! February 15, 2016 at 9:17pm Reply

    • Elisa: Thank YOU for reading! February 15, 2016 at 9:51pm Reply

  • Alicia: Yes, rosemary is loved in Spain. The famous Góngora, a celebrated XVII century poet, wrote a lovely poem on its flowers as a symbol of jealousy (Las flores del romero, niña Isabel) because they are blue, at the time the colour of jealousy. If I remember well Acqua di Parma Colonia has, at least in its top notes, rosemary together with lavender. February 15, 2016 at 9:32pm Reply

    • Elisa: It seems to be quite common as a top note in classic colognes, even if it’s not always listed. February 15, 2016 at 9:52pm Reply

  • Raquel: I love rosemary. I’ve got a recipe of Roasted Squash with butter, sugar and natural rosemary that’s so delicious! I read once that smelling natural rosemary is good for the memory. February 15, 2016 at 10:25pm Reply

    • Elisa: Roasted squash is also great with fresh sage. February 16, 2016 at 10:11am Reply

    • Katherine X: Great to hear Raquel because I need help with the memory and adore rosemary. And just when I was beginning to think that everything good is bad for you! Only kidding! February 16, 2016 at 11:40pm Reply

  • Dkchocoman: I love Rosemary in cooking, especially in chicken dishes. I tried two meal delivery services called HelloFresh and GreenChef and they always sent me fresh rosemary to cook with, never dried and the meals were always delightful. I also enjoy using Rosemary essential oil mixed in fractionated coconut oil as a carrier at a 10% dilution. It’s great for mental clarity and focus when you are working on something that requires it. February 15, 2016 at 11:49pm Reply

    • Michaela: DkChocoman, Thank you for the tips! How do you use the rosemary essential oil diluted in coconut oil, please? As an air freshner or directly on skin? February 16, 2016 at 5:24am Reply

    • Elisa: It’s one of those ingredients that totally makes or breaks a dish. February 16, 2016 at 10:11am Reply

  • girasole: I just made a butternut squash, parsnip and rosemary soup last night and you’re right, it really does add such a richness. I’m always trying to shoehorn it into my recipes, often at the expense of my other poor herbs!

    The scent of fresh rosemary always reminds me of my wedding day. It’s probably not a choice too many would make, but I married just a few months after my father died and I wanted some way to honor him and so chose rosemary, for ‘remembrance’. I put a fresh sprig beside each place card and as the evening went on, you could really smell them. At the end of the night, a lot of guests took them home to use in cooking, which made me even happier. February 16, 2016 at 9:50am Reply

    • Elisa: That’s beautiful! February 16, 2016 at 10:10am Reply

    • Katherine X: Very touching. February 16, 2016 at 11:41pm Reply

  • girasole: Thanks for the kinds words! February 17, 2016 at 1:14pm Reply

    • girasole: Oops – that was meant to go as a reply on the comments above (that wouldn’t be the first time I’ve messed that up!) February 17, 2016 at 1:15pm Reply

  • john: Wonderful piece – I was just walking in from the garden a day or two ago with a very fresh sprig of rosemary for some potatoes, and realized that it had a citric facet I’d never noticed before. I regularly wear Pour un Homme de Caron and have read varying opinions about whether it really has a rosemary note or if that is just a facet of its intensive, stemmy lavender – any thoughts? February 17, 2016 at 4:02pm Reply

    • Elisa: That is an interesting question, I don’t have any Pour un Homme around at the moment to check, but certainly there is some olfactory overlap between lavender, rosemary, and mint… February 17, 2016 at 4:04pm Reply

  • Kari: I love using rosemary in cooking, but most especially with bread. Costco in the US used to bake a really wonderful olive oil and rosemary bread fresh in their warehouses. It was delicious; I would spread light basil pesto, olive oil, or aoli on a hot slice, perhaps with some sharp cheddar cheese, and was in heaven. I was very sad when they stopped baking it. February 19, 2016 at 12:12am Reply

    • Elisa: That sounds delicious! February 19, 2016 at 9:46am Reply

  • Irina: A little late: what a lovely post on an offbeat note! I also smell fresh rosemary in the herb bouquet of Diptyque’s Virgilio. February 25, 2016 at 9:49am Reply

    • Elisa: Thanks, Irina! February 25, 2016 at 9:52am Reply

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