Kathy Maister's Start Cooking

Herbs and Spices

posted in Spices and Seasonings by Kathy Maister

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Istanbul Spice Market

Many people use the terms herbs and spices interchangeably to mean any product of plant origin used primarily for seasoning food.

By definition “a spice is a pungent or aromatic seasoning obtained from the bark, buds, fruit, roots, seeds or stem of various plants and trees.”

Some of the more popular spices used today are allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mace, nutmeg, paprika, pepper, saffron and turmeric. Spice blends, like curry powder, chili powder, garam masala, pickling spice, cajun seasoning (Bam!), and pumpkin pie spice can be purchased at the grocery store or made at home by combining several dried spices. (Salt, often listed in the spice category, is actually a mineral and not a spice.)

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Ingredients for Pumpkin Pie For Beginners

By definition an “herb is the fragrant leaves of any of various annual or perennial plants that grow in temperate zones and do not have woody stems.”

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Parsley, Cilantro, and Mint

Some commonly available fresh herbs are: basil, bay leaf, cilantro, chervil, coriander, marjoram, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, savory, tarragon and thyme.

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Fresh Thyme, Rosemary and Basil

Using Herbs and Spices

Adding herbs and spices to your recipes is a great way to add a bit of pizazz to your cooking! (Just a pinch – literally what you can pinch between your thumb and forefinger – of oregano can really liven up a jar of spaghetti sauce.)

Dried, ground spices are usually measured out and added to the recipe at the beginning of the cooking process. (In Indian cooking the dried spices are handled somewhat differently. Indian food recipes usually call for whole spices that are then toasted in the fry pan – and sometimes then ground – before use. The flavors are brighter and more intense then just adding the pre-ground spice from the jar.)

Fresh herbs are usually added at the end of the cooking process. It keeps the flavor of the herb brighter. If you are using fresh herbs instead of dried the ratio is 3 to 1.

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So if the recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of dried oregano, you would use 3 teaspoons of fresh oregano.

Knowing what herb/spice works with what foods is all part of the learning process. CNN has an In-Depth Food food and spice chart that will help guide you.

You do want to be careful not to overpower a recipe with too much or too many spices. The University of Delaware has an excellent description on the intensity of herbs and spices:

  • Strong or dominant flavors – Includes bay leaf, cardamom, curry (actually a blend of spices), ginger, pepper, mustard, rosemary, sage
  • Medium flavors – Use in moderate amounts (1 to 2 teaspoons for 6 servings) Includes basil, celery seeds and leaves, cumin, dill, fennel, French tarragon, garlic, marjoram, mint, oregano, savory, thyme, turmeric
  • Delicate flavors – Includes burnet, chervil, chives, parsley. May be used in large quantities and combined with most other herbs and spices.
  • Sweet flavor (combined in sweet dishes may let you reduce sugar) – Includes cinnamon, cloves, allspice, ginger, cardamom, anise, fennel, mint.
  • Savory flavor – Oregano, tarragon, chives, dill
  • Peppery flavor – Red pepper, mustard, black pepper, paprika. Use with care since their flavors stand out (approximately 1 teaspoon for 6 servings)”

HerbExpert “is an excellent resource on growing and cooking with herbs in a simple and clear format, with easily accessible language.”

Storage:

Both fresh herbs and dried spices tend to be expensive. Proper storage of both is really important. A trendy and beautiful spice rack may look fantastic on a kitchen counter but dried spices should NOT get stored on your kitchen counter!

Dried spices should be stored in a cool, dark, dry environment, away from direct sunlight, in air tight containers. Inside a cupboard usually works well. Be sure that the cupboard is away from the heat of the oven/microwave and away from the moisture of the dishwasher. Once your spice collection begins to grow, try to keep them in alphabetical order for easier access.

Many people label their spice jars with the date it was purchased. That is not always the best indicator of how fresh a dried spice is. A much better test is to just smell dried spices before using them. If they have lost their scent, they should get tossed into the trash.

Real Simple has some great tips on storing fresh herbs:

Basil, Parsley, and Cilantro

“A fresh bunch of basil can be treated like a bouquet of flowers: Just trim the ends, place in a glass with an inch or so of water, and place on the counter at room temperature. (The leaves will turn black if refrigerated). The basil will remain fresh for anywhere from a few days to a week. You can also try this with similar long-stemmed herbs like parsley and cilantro.”

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Fresh Basil

Chives, Thyme, and Rosemary

“Other herbs, like chives, thyme, and rosemary, require a slightly different approach. Wrap them loosely in plastic wrap and place them in the warmest part of the refrigerator; one of the compartments in the door works perfectly. Do not wrap the herbs tightly or the trapped moisture may cause them to mold prematurely; many people like to add a crumpled paper towel to the bag as a safeguard. Do not rinse the herbs until just before using.”

Better Homes and Garden has some great tips on freezing herbs. They say that some herbs (like basil, chives, dill, lemongrass, mint, oregano, sage, savory-both winter and summer, sorrel, tarragon, and thyme) will keep their flavor when frozen. Simply clean the leaves, dry them, and put them in sealed plastic bags (remove all the air before sealing).

The farmer’s market near my home has little pots of fresh herbs, and I am very tempted to get a few of these pots for the window sill, but I am really bad at keeping plants alive. Then again, how hard can it be to grow basil?

Does any one have any suggestions?

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24 Comments

will said:

nice post !

here are a few comments:

basil is pretty easy to grow, but it needs a lot of sunshine and wind, ideally, so it’s best outside. I am not so sure about watering.

that’s a lovely photo of the spice market stall. I am off to Jerusalem soon, and in the old city there are stalls looking very much like that!

how coincidental !

Kathy (Maister) said:

I have seen various spice markets all over the world, yet have never seen anything remotely close to that in the USA. What a pity! The sights and smells are just fantastic!
So Will, I guess my window sill in the kitchen is not the most ideal place to grow basil?

DBK said:

Mrs DBK and I were in France in May, where we took two cooking classes in Avignon at La Mirande (a hotel we adored). The classes were given by chefs at local restaurants (in French…just try your best to understand).

One of them did a saddle of lamb that was seasoned only with fistfuls of dried thyme. He told us that drying concentrates the flavors and that dried herbs are therefore stronger than fresh. I think I have heard that before somewhere.

By the way, I ought to publish a photo of our strawberry pot. We have a strawberry pot on the back porch. In it we have rosemary, lemon thyme, globe basil (but no regular basil), oregano, tarragon, chives, and hot peppers. It occupies no more than one square foot. I water the thing every day and it is situated where it gets a lot of sun all day. It is bursting with herbs…just doing phenomenally well. I can cut it back and cut it back and they just keep coming (especially the oregano, which I have begun cutting back and then drying…you cannot stop oregano).

Kathy (Maister) said:

DBK, I wish we were neighbors, and then I could come by for a few cuttings of what sounds like a fabulous pot of herbs!

When substituting fresh for dried herbs, the 3 to 1 ratio is what’s usually recommended. You are right dried herbs have a much more intense flavor then fresh ones.

Your trip to France sounds like it was quite an adventure! I can’t imagine taking cooking classes in another language. Sounds like a real challenge!

Jon Sacker said:

You just can’t beat fresh herbs (pronounced of course with a hard ‘h’!). I always keep some chives going – lovely thrown into scrambled eggs.

Basil needs lots of sun, but if you do have a good spot I would thoroughly recommend it.

One thing to watch out for is that many herbs – and in particular I find oregano- bolts if it is not watered regularly and you are left with some spindly flowering plants and very little leaf.

As for dried herbs, I think that a great deal of uneducated snobbery has developed over the last few years. After all, so long as they are still fresh, you just can’t beat a good pinch of dried oregano in a tomato sauce, it has a totally different impact to fresh.

I was interested to see that DBK is goring chilli peppers, I have done this on my windowsill before now and they are great – but do watch out, in my experience they are often far hotter than shop bought chillies!! And doesn’t lemon thyme make a great change form its bog-standard relative – though mine is growing wild at the moment – all that great sun we’ve been having in London.

Happy cooking

Jon

DBK said:

Actually, what really makes me happy is how much you can get out of a small space. I’ve been growing herbs in that pot every summer for three years and this year is the best crop yet. Anyone wth a sunny window can grow a very fine garden of herbs. And yes, lemon thyme is a great break from the regular variety. It also smells phenomenal.

Wendy Leibowitz said:

Spices add so much to bland dishes (like omlettes, which are one of the few things i can make), that I started building my spice collection. A good site is Spices Etcetera, at http://www.spicesetc.com
I have no connection with the site, but just live in a neighborhood with very erratic availability of even basic spices, so going online is a good alternative for me.

Christa said:

I’ve had pretty good luck keeping fresh basil in a class of water on the countertop. Make sure to give the stem a fresh cut before you put it in the water. Sometimes, you’ll need to cut a couple inches off the stem. A lot of times, it wilts initially, but if you leave it for a while, it will come back and be just fine. Keep it in a cool spot, out of the direct sun. I’ve been able to keep stems of fresh basil in a glass for about two weeks.

It can also be grown inside. It will do best if you have a windowsill with direct sunlight. My apartment does not get direct sun, but I once grew a basil plant anyway. It had small leaves, but they still tasted great and they definitely beat the dried basil.

Good luck!

Kathy (Maister) said:

Thanks Christa! You make it sound so easy…I may give growing basil on the window sill a try!
Cheers!

Edna McLean said:

Could you please mail me some ideas for which spices compliment certain foods, most espically, meats? This would be much appreciated , as I am just learning to cook with spices!!

Bobbi C. said:

Hi Kathy! Basil is easy to grow inside, as long as you give it plenty of water (not too much) and sunshine. You can also grow it on a porch or right outside your door in a small pot. If you buy the fresh stuff from the store, you can put it in a small glass of water like a bouquet and keep it fresh that way. Or you can keep it in a plastic bag in the crisper of the frig for over a week. If it turns brown so what? The flavor is the same.

HTH,

bobbi c.

Kathy Maister said:

Thanks Bobbi, who knows, maybe someday I will develop a “green thumb”!

Mackenzie. k said:

Hi, Kathy

I’m a newly engaged 21-year-old woman who only knows the basics of cooking.I absolutely love your step-by-step video instructions. My cooking experiences became more enjoyable and he can’t wait to see what I make next!

Thanks,

Mackenzie

Kathy Maister said:

Mackenzie, Congradulations! Not just on your engagement but also on learning to cook! I am so very happy for you! Let me know if you have any questions!

Sarah said:

Kathy,

Basil is really quite easy to grow. My supermarket never stocks fresh basil, and as it is easily my favorite herb, I was forced to buy a plant! I keep mine near the window and water it every day or two. You just need to ocassionaly prune the plant a bit to keep it from growing out of control!

Kathy Maister said:

Hi Sara, two days ago I bought two small plants of basil at the grocery store. They were in small plastic containers with holes on the bottom. The directions said to keep them sitting in two inches of water. Yesterday I trimmed off about 1/3 of the leaves for some pasta sauce. Today my two small plants look like they are in shock! I’m wondering, will they last another day???

Jon (Sacker) said:

Kathy,

I bought a pot of Basil from a supermarket last May and it’s still growing on a windowsill in dad’s kitchen! The key I have discovered is not to over water, wait until the leaves start to wilt and then put a little water on the soil, but not so much that it drenches the soil.

Hope this helps

Jon

Kathy Maister said:

Thanks Jon! BTW my basil from three days ago is looking so very sad – actually I think it might be dead. Perhaps I drowned it! I’ll try your way next! :)

diann said:

Kathy,

How long can you keep spices?  I’m guessing it isn’t a good idea to buy the racks of about 20 spices in the stores.  There are no dates on them and I never use all of them( It is just kitchen decoration for my counters).  Do you buy your spices individually?
Thanks and I love your site, D

Kathy Maister said:

Great question Diann! Environmental conditions will effect the longevity of dried spices. I buy them individually and store them in a jar with a tight fitting lid. The best way to tell if your spices are still fresh is to just smell them. If there is no scent then they have undoubtedly lost their flavor.
Buying a whole set of spices may be more economical than buying each one individually. You can always refill the decorative jars when you have used up all the spices.

Dentist Orange said:

Great stuff you have here! I’m constantly searching for herb-related blogs and I stumbled your site. I found your blog on Google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work! Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

- Shane

startcooking said:

Thanks Shane!
Nothing better than cooking with fresh herbs!
Cheers,
Kathy

Pam said:

Can anyone direct me to where I can find a large list of spices and what foods they go with. My cooking is so drab because I do not know what spices to use with what foods to give it some taste. Thanks

startcooking said:

Excellent question Pam!

The University of Delaware has an fantastic post that will help to explain the basics.

One rule of thumb when using dried spices is to open the jar and give it a smell before adding it to your dish. Dried spices do not last forever. If there is no scent then don’t bother adding it to your recipe.

Personally, I love fresh thyme. I add it to soups, stews, salad, and pasta and it really brings the dish alive!

Cheers,
Kathy