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How to Use Herbs and Spices in Cooking

How to Use Herbs and Spices in Cooking

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Food is always better when properly seasoned. You'll enjoy cooking a lot more once you've mastered the herb and spice basics. The food will taste better, smell better, and impress your friends/family/coworkers/pets. Hooray!

I'm going to go over the seasonings I keep in my kitchen and use frequently. You don't necessarily need all of these to cook - I just tend to go a little nuts. ;)

These will also be listed in alphabetical order so you can find what you're looking for easily!

Have any suggestions for ways to use a certain herb/spice or a herb or spice that should be added? Tell me in the comments section. Let's collaborate! :D


Step 1: Herb Basics!

Herb Basics!

Most herbs can be found dried or fresh and can be used either way with ease. Herbs are considered ro be the leaves and greener parts of the plant - the seeds, bark, roots, etc. are normally considered a spice. Some plants are both. :)

Fresh herbs are great for garnishes and they provide bold flavor. They have great aromatic qualities and work very well for roasting and sauteing, or for chopping and mixing into foods such as mashed potatoes. Yum!

I haven't had a ton of luck growing herbs... well, except for mint. Mint is very low maintenance! I tend to buy fresh herbs and store them in the fridge in a ziploc bag with a slightly damp paper towel wrapped around the stems. Parsley, cilantro, and basil have all stayed nice and fresh with this method. :)

Dried herbs are best when used with oil (or butter, fat) or water - this way they can infuse the oil or cooking liquid. Make sure to crush the herbs with your fingers or saute them a bit to wake them up. Crushing a bunch of them in a mortar and pestle also works very well.

I tend to use more when I use a dried herb. Most dried herbs lose a significant amount of spunk when dried - especially basil, oregano and sage. Rosemary and thyme hold up a little better.

This is why it's so important to keep tasting during cooking!

Step 2: Spice Basics!

Spice Basics!

Spices are almost always used in their dried form. They can be found whole (peppercorn, nutmeg, strips of cinnamon bark, various seeds, roots) or ground.

Spices are much more varied in flavor than herbs and tend to pack a bigger punch.

When storing both spices and dried herbs, it is best to keep them away from air, heat, and sunlight. They'll last longer that way. I try to keep most everything in a covered cupboard. The ones I use most often and go through more quickly, though, they sit on the windowsill within easy reach.

We all cheat at something, and this is it for me!

Step 3: Allspice.

Allspice.

Allspice is available whole (looks a bit like a large peppercorn) or ground. Most times you will find it ground.

Similar to nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon in flavor (though I think it's even more peppery than the strongest clove!), it can be used in both savory and sweet ways.

I think allspice goes great with beef, it's a good addition to curry powder mixes, and works really well when added to anything containing apples. (Apple muffins, for example!)

It can be very strong, so it's best to experiment with a smaller amount at first to suit your tastes. :)

Step 4: Basil.

Basil.
Basil.
Basil.

Basil can be found both fresh and dried. There are many varieties, as well, though sweet basil seems to be the most common. Sweet basil has a slightly sweet, bold flavor with a bit of a peppery bite. Sometimes it can be almost minty!

Fresh basil is very temperamental - once it's cut from the plant you need to be very careful in how you store it. The best way I've found of keeping it is to wrap the bottoms of the stems in a slightly damp paper towel and throwing the whole thing in a ziploc bag. Many other people freeze it. 

Step 5: Bay Leaves.

Bay Leaves.
Bay Leaves.

Can be found fresh, but are more commonly sold dried. Fresh bay leaves have a more mild flavor. I would describe the flavor as similar to oregano, but more pungent.

Bay leaves are used most often in soups and stews, and normally used to flavor braised meats. Bay leaves can also be found in bouquet garni.

Bay leaves are an integral ingredient in Cuban and French cuisine. They're also excellent to use in bean soups. I always throw one in when I cook dried beans.

Just remember to remove the bay leaf when serving. They taste awful. Very bitter!

Step 6: Cardamom.

Cardamom.

I love, love, love cardamom. It has a sweet, spicy flavor I can't get enough of. It's extremely aromatic - just smelling it is like eating a whole bowl full of your favorite comfort food!

Cardamom comes in two common varieties: black and green. Both can be found ground and in whole pods. I'd say green is more common where I live - I can find nearly anywhere these days!

Most food snobs agree that cardamom is best freshly ground. I am very lazy, though, and I've always used it ground from a can. I have no problems with this! As long as you're buying high quality stuff (try your local ethnic grocer!) you'll be just fine!

Cardamom is everywhere in Indian cooking (especially curries!) and baking all over world. It is also a main component of chai - which is a spiced black tea.

Step 7: Cayenne Pepper, Chiles, Crushed Red Pepper, Chili Powder.

Cayenne Pepper, Chiles, Crushed Red Pepper, Chili Powder.
Cayenne Pepper, Chiles, Crushed Red Pepper, Chili Powder.
Cayenne Pepper, Chiles, Crushed Red Pepper, Chili Powder.

I frequently use all of the above in cooking. Cayenne and dried red chiles are the most common for me, though.

Cayenne is very, very hot and bright red/orange. You'll find it in any grocery store. It's not so much about the flavor as the heat that it brings to a dish as far as I'm concerned. If I have something that needs a little pep, I'll add a pinch of cayenne.

I always keep dried red chiles on hand. They add color, flavor and heat to a dish. I don't even soak them before chopping. I just cut the end off, dump out the loose seeds, and slice thinly.

Step 8: Cilantro, Coriander.

Cilantro & Coriander.

When I say cilantro, I am referring to the leaves of the plant.
When I say coriander, I am referring to the seeds, which are typically ground.

I know we Americans look at this a little different than the rest of the world, so it's best to clarify up front.

Cilantro is one of the most pungent of herbs - citrus-y and bold to some, soap and metallic to others. I personally don't care for it as much as other herbs, but I will put it in salsas, tortilla soup, curries, etc. I think it can do a really good job of balancing the sweet flavors of onion and tomato, for example.

Coriander is one of my most favorite spices. I use it to make my curry powder. When combined with dried oregano and rubbed into porkchops, it's heavenly. It has a strong citrus flavor, and it's a bit peppery.

Step 9: Cinnamon.

Cinnamon.

Cinnamon can be found in rolled bark form (cinnamon sticks!) or ground. I normally keep both on hand.

Cinnamon is sweet and spicy and extremely aromatic. It can be used in savory and sweet dishes.

Cinnamon goes well with apples, beef, chocolate, in curries, stews and spicy dishes. I really like the way it tastes with chickpeas and carrots. It's used a lot in baking. It's also great for flavoring teas and coffees.

Step 10: Cloves.

Cloves.

Cloves can be found dried whole or ground. I would describe the flavor as a cross between cinnamon and allspice.

Ground cloves are often used in curries and in baking, and whole cloves are used to add flavor to broths, meats, vegetables, desserts, etc. Whole cloves can simply be pushed into the item being cooked to add a bit of flavor and removed before serving.

A little bit of clove goes a long way, so it's best to use a little and add more as needed.

Step 11: Cumin.

Cumin.
Cumin.
Cumin.

Cumin can be found ground or as whole seeds. Cumin has a very strong flavor and taste that nothing else can compare to. I suppose earthy and pungent are two good ways to describe it!

I use cumin powder in curries, soups, stews, with beans, in spice rubs, for taco seasoning, etc. Cumin seeds are great sauteed in a little butter or olive oil - I normally cook rice this way - just dump it in the butter and saute along with the seeds until the rice is translucent and then cook the rice acccording the package directions. Very tasty!

Step 12: Curry Powder.

Curry Powder.

Curry powder is something that varies so much from recipe to recipe that you'll never find two that are alike. You can buy curry powder ready made or mix it yourself. I do a little bit of both.

Common spices used in curry powder include:
turmeric
cumin
coriander
chili powder
cardamom
cinnamon
ginger
garlic

Curry powder is great for seasoning meats and, beans and vegetables. I would suggest trying several different curry powders, or making your own each time you make a curry.

I typically use equal amounts of cumin, coriander, and chili powder (say maybe a couple teaspoons each?), and then half the turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon/cardamom if I make my own. I normally use a mix like this with potatoes, cauliflower and onions. Delicious!

Step 13: Dill.

Dill.

Dill is best when fresh. I actually used to eat it right out of my grandmother's flower beds. It's so good. It's kinda like spicy, tangy parsley, and it's really aromatic.

Dried is not bad, but not nearly as tasty.

Dill goes well with lemon, fish, vinegar and potatoes. It is also used in pickling. :)

Step 14: Ginger.

Ginger.

Ginger can be found fresh in root form, or ground and dried. You can buy it grated or minced in little jars. It's also pickled and dried! It's very versatile.

Ginger is hot, sweet and lemony. When fresh, the inside is very fibrous. Like most of the sweeter herbs and spices, it can be used in sweet and savory dishes.

I love fresh ginger in stir frys, marinades, grated into sugar cookies batter, in muffins, curries, etc. Ground ginger works well in curry powders and other spice mixes, and in general baking.

Step 15: Mint.

Mint.

Real mint is so much better than any mint candy you've ever had. It's fresher, stronger, and just as sweet. It also comes in many flavors - some taste like lemon, some are warmer, spicier.

I much prefer fresh mint over dried - dried lacks much of the flavor that fresh possesses. Plus, mint is amazingly easy to grow. It spreads like wildfire and needs very little care.

Step 16: Nutmeg.

Nutmeg.
Nutmeg.

Nutmeg can be found whole or ground. It's better whole. Alton Brown says so. And we should all listen to the great AB.

Nutmeg is strong and sweet, and often used with cheese sauces. It's also a frequent flier in pastries and sweets. Like cloves and allspice, a little goes a long way!

Step 17: Oregano.

Oregano.

Oregano is amazing fresh, but can be just as good if you use a good quantity of dried. It's peppery, aromatic and earthy.

It's used primarily in Mediterranean, Greek, Italian, Mexican and Cuban cooking. Most Americans are very familiar with it thanks to pizza and pasta, but it can do much much more!

Step 18: Paprika.

Paprika.

Paprika is also known as that red stuff people sprinkle on deviled eggs.

It can be sweet, hot, or smoky. Most are labeled as such. It's bright red in color, and is used for both color and flavor.

Also very good with roast potatoes, as part of a dry rub, a garnish for potato salads or other creamy concoctions, or in soups and stews.

Step 19: Parsley.

Parsley.

Parsley is probably the most famous of all the herbs, and used the most widely. Its leaves can be curly or flat, I prefer flat. It has a very fresh, green taste and works well with spicy or heavy foods. It can also be used to perk up soups, stews and sauces. It's a very common garnish.

It can also be found dried. One of my favorite uses of dried parsley is in plain white rice. Just add some butter, salt and pepper and a generous amount of dried parsley and you have the only way my grandmother would make rice. Simple but satisfying.

Step 20: Pepper.

Pepper.

Pepper comes in two forms: peppercorns and ground.

I am a pepper snob. I am a firm believer of copious amounts of chunky, freshly ground pepper on everything. I only use tellicherry peppercorns - I love them because they're fruity, complex and warm. I could talk about tellicherry all day, so you should probably just go buy some before I talk your ear off. (Or eyes out?)

Step 21: Rosemary.

Rosemary.

Rosemary is very good dried or fresh. Fresh it has a stronger pine-y flavor, but that's about it. The only problem with dried is that it can become very hard and it can be a little nasty to bite into a large piece of it. I combat this my crumbling the leaves in my fingers while adding them to things.

Fresh rosemary still on the stem is great for adding to soups and stew for flavor - just pull it out when you're done simmering. You can also stuff poultry with a few sprigs of it during cooking. Many people also use it during grilling - when laid in coals it gives a great flavor to meat and vegetables. I also love it with potatoes - especially gnocchi. A little rosemary and butter with gnocchi is amazing.

Step 22: Saffron.

Saffron.
Saffron.

Saffron is the most expensive of spices, but it is used sparingly. (I really only use a pinch anytime I use it!) A small tin can last a good while and it imparts a wonderful bitterness to food. While this sounds bad, it's not. When used in dishes with lots of sweet or acidic flavors, it balances it out.

Saffron should be dark red/orange in color, and when added to cooking liquid it will begin to turn the dish a lovely yellow color. It is used mostly with fish and rice, and is a key ingredient in paella. I also like it with chickpeas and with chicken.

I do not recommend buying it in powdered form, because it's harder to tell if you have the real thing. Saffron is very commonly mixed with other spices and sold as pure saffron and that's not what you want!

Step 23: Sage.

Sage.

Sage is available dried and fresh. When fresh, the leaves are dark green and fuzzy, very pungent and earthy. Dried sage can be found rubbed or as whole leaves.

Sage is another herb that can greatly overpower other flavors in a dish, so use it sparingly. It is often paired with poultry, cheese and vegetables. The fresh leaves are amazing when fried in a little bit of olive oil or butter.

Step 24: Thyme.

Thyme.

Thyme is more often available dried, but can also be found fresh. I find the flavor similar to rosemary, but not as strong and more grounded. Perhaps a cross between rosemary and sage? And like basil, it comes in lemon varieties as well!

Like rosemary, I use thyme with each and every root vegetable. It's also good in butter sauces. It's a common part of a bouquet garni in French cooking. I love it with most beans - especially with a lot of onion.

Step 25: Turmeric.

Turmeric.

Turmeric is a deep orange color, with a bitter, slightly spicy taste. It is used in many curry powders for color and flavor. I also add it to soups and stews for extra color.

Turmeric is sometimes used as a substitution for saffron in packaged foods, and it's also used as a food coloring and dye.


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