Anyone who has ever made a meal probably knows the importance of herbs and spices. They add texture, flavor, aroma, color and are basically the soul of a dish. Herbs are not necessarily overpowering and strong and spices does not mean the food is hot or spicy. Both herbs and spices can be paired together to create a symphony of flavors. You need not be limited to conventional pairing, think beyond the salt shaker and cook with herbs and spices. It is easier to cook if you understand your ingredients and the subtle and sometime not so subtle difference between them.
Is a plant or part of a plant that is used as medicine or to give flavor to food. Botanists describe herb as a small, seed bearing plant with fleshy, rather than woody, parts.
“ Herb is the friend of physicians and the praise of cooks.” – Charlemagne
Spices are usually dried part of the plant, used in cooking to add flavor to food. A small amount of spice goes a long way as it is packed with flavor.
The word “spice” comes from the Latin species, which means an item of special value, as compared to ordinary.
Difference and similarities between herbs and spices.
In broad terms both herbs and spices come from plants but herbs are the fresh part of the plant while spice is the dried root, dried stalk, seed or dried fruit of the plant and is almost always dried not fresh.
Both herbs and spices add flavor to the dish, however herbs are more subtle while spices have stronger flavor. You can add a small bunch of basil to your pesto, however you cannot add more that a few peppercorn to it. With spices less is often more.
Herbs and spices can not only be paired with each other but you can use a combination of two or more herbs or multiple spices. In order to create a flavor profile, you need to understand the texture, flavor, aroma and taste of each. It is like painting, too many colors mixed together and you have a muddy brown. Layering is very important in cooking. The French have always used multiple herbs in their cooking – bouquets garni ( The bouquet garni is a bundle of herbs usually tied together with string and mainly used to prepare soup, stock, and various stews). While the Indian cuisine is famous for its spice blends like the garam masala. The trick is to get the right blend, in either case so that no one herb or spice, dominates the dish. While the spice blend is stronger the bouquet garni is often subtle.
Some classic combinations* are :
- Chinese five spice – star anise, cinnamon, cloves, szechuan peppers, and fennel seeds.
- Herbs de Provence – rosemary, fennel seed, dried savory, marjoram, tarragon, thyme, oregano, and lavender
- Italian seasoning – (more of an American creation than Italian) – basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme,
- Jerk Seasoning – (Caribbean) – allspice, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, thyme, garlic, and the super hot scotch bonnet peppers.
- Indian Garam Masala – coriander seeds, cumin seeds, black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, red chili, turmeric
These combinations are just an example of how multiple combinations of herbs and spices can be layered to create a flavor profile. Balance is the key word. While the spices add bold strokes of flavor the herbs add a subtleness to it.
Herbs are not only used for flavoring but are also used as a garnish, not only adding flavor but visual appeal to the dish. Spices could be used for garnish but are not as popular as herb.
Herbs are best used when it is fresh, and have a short shelf life, however you can store your spice in an air-tight container for as long as a year. Infact some spice blends needs to be aged a bit like rasam powder. You can use dried herbs but they are not as aromatic as fresh and you certainly cannot use dried herbs for garnish.
Herbs needs to be refrigerated or stored in water like cut flowers while spices are best preserved in glass bottles in your pantry.
Herbs can be grown in your backyard, they are usually annuals and easy to grow. Spices can certainly not be grown in the back yard.
Some plants like cilantro/coriander can be both herb and spice. The leaf is the herb while the seed is the spice. Dill is another example.
Both herbs and spices can be used for savory dishes, desserts, jams, chutneys , dips, cocktails and mocktails.
You can use herbs and spices in various ways:
- Whole spices or a bouquets garni.
- Pesto of herbs and spices or powdered spice blend.
- Infused by tying them in a cheesecloth and removing it just before serving, so you get the flavor.
- Dry roasting spice and herb and then making a chutney
Commonly Used Herbs
Basil : Sweet basil is the most common basil and widely used, but there are over fifty kinds of basil. Most people think of basil married to tomato in a pesto or used as garnish for dessert and savory dishes. Think beyond they can be used with other herbs like garlic, juniper, mustard, paprika, rosemary and can be used in soups, salads, pies, tarts..
Mint: is not just a pretty looking green herb that can garnish your mojito, it has been used in savory and desserts for flavor and garnish alike. There are several kinds of mint, spearmint, chocolate mint, lavender mint, curly mint to name a few. It’s got a strong fresh aroma and the stems are not preferable to use unless they are tender. They pair well with cilantro and cumin seeds.
Cilantro : also known as coriander and chinese parsley are all and the same. Cilantro is widely used in Indian cuisine and no curry is complete without the garnish of cilantro. There is a debate on the nomenclature or common name of this herb, in some part of the world coriander is the dried seed, while some still believe it is the leafy part. Pairs well with mustard and cumin and with the herb mint.
Sage: is an evergreen perennial shrub, so you do not have to plant it every year, it keeps coming back. It has a beautiful delicate aroma and pairs very well with poultry, but not limited to it. It is often paired with thyme, marjoram, and rosemary.
Chamomile : the flowers of this herb looks like daisy, Don’t just use it to make your tea infusion, try it in pannacotta, shortbread, and you can make a lot of cock-tail infusions too. It’s a very floral and sweet aromatic herb, the flowers are used to flavor the food. Pairs well with spear mint.
Commonly Used Spices
Coriander : coriander spice is the seed of the coriander/cilantro plant. While the leaves are used as a herb the seed is a spice. It has a very mild flavor and is not at all sharp – this is probably one of the milder spices. It is the main ingredient of garam masala. It pairs well with almost all the spices.
Cinnamon : great for sweet and savory dishes. Cinnamon is a bark. It has a warm sweet aroma, great for sweet and savory dishes. It pairs very well with clove and black pepper.
Clove : Cloves originated in Maluku Islands of Indonesia, the earliest documented history. Clove is a very warm spice that has a sharp aftertaste. Pairs well with cinnamon, black pepper, nutmeg and ginger.
Cumin : Cumin is another nutty spice that is widely used in Indian cuisine has its origin in Nile valley of upper Egypt. About 400 years ago. Cumin has a nutty flavor but when dry roasted it has a smoky flavor to it. Pairs well with coriander, cilantro, black pepper, ginger, and you can make a marinade with cumin and yogurt.
All Spice : also called Jamaica Pepper, In the early 17th century, it was named allspice because spice traders identified it with a combination of flavors: clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The leaves of the allspice tree has the same flavor as the fruit, but lose their potency when dry. It’s great to use in breads and cakes and not only curries and chicken. Pairs well with rosemerry , sage and ginger.
- Beautiful white flowers with yellow center and popular for aromatic infusions.
- It is a herb and used with lime in your favorite drink.
D- rice flour
- A brighten and golden spice, it not only adds color to the curry but have innumerable health benefits.
A- split peas
- Is coriander a herb or a spice
D- none of the above
- Bitter spice – picture below.
B- holy basil
D- fenugreek seeds
- Which is the most expensive spice that is part of a flower ?
A- white pepper
D- basmati rice
- Which spice is a leaf ?
D- bay leaf
- Which herb shares the name with iconic Indian dish?
B- curry leaf
9. Which is a common herb used in Mexican and Indian cuisine ?
D- black cardamom
- Allspice is named because it tastes like a spice blend of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, but it is in fact a single spice made from dried:
D- dried flowers
1- C- chamomile
2- A- mint
3- D- turmeric
4- C- both
5- D- fenugreek seeds
6- B- saffron
7- D- bay leaf
8- B- curry leaf
9- A- cilantro
10- A- berries
* Spice blend recipes can vary from region to region and there can be various combinations of the same.