How many different herbs and spices do you use on a daily, weekly, and regular basis? Do you feel confident pairing these seasonings with food? If not, you could benefit from the tips and techniques outlined my my cookbooks, my cooking DVD, and the live cooking classes I lead in the Phoenix metro area.
Confused about herbs & spices?
One of my cooking students asked me some questions about herbs and spices that some of you may also be wondering, particularly if you didn’t grow up cooking or cooking from scratch. She expressed wondered how to tell an herb from a spice, how to know which herbs and spices to use together and how to know which ones go best with which foods. She was curious about the functions and effects of different herbs and spices. So, I decided to turn her queries into a blog post. Consider this an overview.
Herbs & spices for better nutrition
Most herbs and spices contain numerous nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, various enzymes, antioxidants, and phytonutrients that can help stimulate bile flow and improve the flow of digestive juices. They help the body fight pain and inflammation. Many of them improve circulation disarming free radicals before they damage our DNA and cell membranes. Some support liver function. Most herbs and spices serve multiple functions. There are so many herbs and spices and they do so many things to enhance health. These simple seasonings increase our enjoyment of eating. Although herbs and spices aren’t calorically dense, since they help us digest and get more nutrition and pleasure out of the foods we eat, they are worth becoming familiar with and cooking with on a daily basis.
Where to start
You’ll find many classic herb and spice combinations the world’s most popular cuisines, such as Greek, Italian, Moroccan, Chinese, Thai, and French cooking. With practice you’ll become familiar with the most common seasonings and with the foods they pair well with. I suggest that you seek out and follow recipes on a daily and weekly basis.
By measuring and following recipes, you’ll start to get a feel for what seasonings go well together and with which foods and of how much to use. You’ll build your recipe repertoire. You’ll get a feel for which seasonings and seasoning blends you like best. If a recipe comes out to salty, spicy, bitter, dry, pungent, blank, or otherwise unpleasant or less than ideal, if you’ve measured or written down what you did to modify a recipe, you’ll find it much easier to adjust the recipe the next time (more or less red pepper, black pepper, ginger, or coriander, or sea salt). If it comes out great, you’ll know how to repeat your success the next time and you’ll be able to share the recipe with confidence knowing your friends or family members can repeat what you did with great results!
I encourage my cooking students to learn and master what I call basic procedures or master recipes. One of the thigns that makes my cookbooks unique is that I lay out master recipes with proportions and then offer variations for different herbs, spices, and other ingredients. This allows you to get more mileage from each recipe and to master not only the recipe but the actual technique. For example, if you make my Silver Dollar Sweet Potato recipe, Roasted Onions, or Oven/Fried, Roasted Parsnips, you’ll learn how many pounds of vegetables to use with how much fat or oil and how many teaspoons of herbs, spices, and optional sea salt.
If you some of the same recipes regularly, you’ll start to learn the techniques. Over time you’ll memorize the amounts required for the recipes. If you use a different herb or spice or combination each time (these are the variations I list in my recipes), you’ll become more familiar with more herbs and spices. Your confidence, skill, and the speed with which you can assemble the recipes will grow. You can start to memorize the recipes and seasonings combinations you like best. With repetition, using herbs and spices and following recipes will become a habit. Eventually, you’ll be able to make variations on other people’s recipes with greater ease and confidence.
I use herbs and spices at almost every meal. I keep a supply of approximately 50 to 60 dried herbs and spices in my kitchen. I mainly use dried herbs and spices. They’re more convenient to use than fresh herbs and they last longer without spoiling.
I like fresh herbs, but in the absence of a garden, porch, or other suitable place to grow fresh herbs and spices (my windowsils won’t work), I opt for dried ones. I buy most of them from bulk bins in the spice section of natural foods stores, which saves money and allows me to buy the amount I want and need. Some oneline sellers allow you buy this way as well. I buy fresh garlic and ginger, get rosemary from my friends’ gardens, and buy fresh basil, cilantro, parsley, sage, mint, and others as needed.
Defining Herbs & Spices
The term spice applies to dried roots, barks, pods, seeds, and berries, while herb refers to leaves, flowers, shoots and stems. Black pepper, red pepper, chili powder, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, fennel, cumin, mustard, and nutmeg are “spices.” The term herb applies to leaves, flowers, stems, and buds. Ecamples include bay leaf, basil, oregano, thyme, dill, parsley, sage, rosemary, tarragon, chives, and marjoram.
Herbs are generally more volatile than spices and more easily injured by overcooking or too high heat. Spices are sturdier; they can take (and give) more heat. Fresh (as opposed to dried) herbs are the most volatile and should generally be added during the last few minutes of cooking. Whole spices, such as cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, vanilla beans, whole cloves, and peppercorns, often require longer cooking to release their flavors and should be removed before serving.
Where to go from here
For more information about selecting herbs and spices, whether to buy whole or ground spices, how to store them, how to buy them most economically, and which ones I recommend stocking up on, please refer to chapter 10: Stocking the Pantry, in my book, The Garden of Eating: A Produce-Dominated Diet & Cookbook. It’s like three books in one. You get information about nutrition, stocking, organizing and outfitting your kitchen, planning meals, prep secrets, sample menus, along with 250 family-friendly recipes suitable for vegetarians, vegans, omnivores, and anyone with an interest in health and healthy eating.
Even people who don’t eat animal products have found tons of great recipes and tips in this book. The produce-dominated approach suits a wide range of tastes and dietary preferences. I hope you will check it out. You can find sample recipes here on this blog by clicking the categories on the left. You’ll find time tested recipes with clear directions, approximate prep time, cooking time, serving size, yields, nutrition breakdown, variations, as well as serving and storage tips.