The bouquet garni is one of the fundamental components of classic French cooking. It consists of a bundle of herbs that are chosen to complement a particular dish. This means that if you want to follow any of the complex French recipes published by culinary greats like Jacques Pepin or Julia Child, you will need to have the herbs for your herb bundle. You should have most of them in your kitchen already; if not, all but a few can easily be found in most grocery stores. Otherwise, you can use one of the many bouquet garni substitutes.
Your best bet: Make your own
The components of a bouquet garni are highly variable as with most herb and spice blends. Cooks can add or replace ingredients to suit the dish that they are making. However, the most basic version of a bouquet garni consists of three herbs: bay leaf, thyme, and parsley. These three herbs can provide intense flavoring for a host of savory dishes. Traditionally, the herbs are placed in cheesecloth and tied with a string. This does not alter the flavor, but it makes it easy to retrieve your bouquet when you are ready to serve your dish. It is not necessary to have the cheesecloth aside from the convenience that it provides.
You can make your own bouquet by placing a single bay leaf, a sprig of thyme, and a few parsley stems into your cheesecloth and dropping it into your dish. A coffee filter will do if you do not have any cheesecloth handy.
The dishes for which a bouquet garni can be used include soups, stews and braised dishes. In addition to the three main herbs, you can throw in tarragon and chervil as well as peppercorns for additional flavor complexity.
A decent second choice: Herbes de Provence
The name herbes de Provence translates to herbs of Provence, which refers to a range of southern French herbs. Herbs in this group include thyme, oregano, and savory. Some blends may include lavender and citrus zest. The ratio of each herb will depend on the cook’s preference.
You can use herbes de Provence in rubs or marinades and it is popular for seasoning roasted chicken. You can also use it in salad dressings or sprinkle it over vegetables coated with olive oil before roasting them. Herbes de Provence can provide many of the flavor notes that you want from your bouquet garni.
Note that lavender in food may be off-putting to some people and may not work in all dishes that require a bouquet garni. Choose a blend without it unless you are certain that it will complement the other flavors in your dish. Use exactly the same amount of herbes de Provence that your recipe requires for bouquet garni herbs.
In a pinch: fines herbes
French fines herbes blends consist of carefully chosen and balanced herbs. The flavors are intended to be subtle and provide the perfect complement to a dish. The fines herbs can include thyme, tarragon and marjoram along with a range of others including parsley and dill.
If you are using fresh herbs to make your own fines herbes blend, they should be minced just before you need them. You will want to add these at the end of cooking time or close to it. If using dried herbs, you can add them earlier in the cooking process.
In a pinch – a second choice: Italian seasoning
Italian seasoning blends may be American, but the herbs in them are indeed Italian. An Italian seasoning blend will usually contain basil, oregano, and rosemary. Some blends may also contain other Mediterranean herbs like thyme and marjoram. It can make a passable alternative to bouquet garni in a pinch.