(Approx. reading time 4 mins 38 secs, last updated 02/June/2021)
A kitchen without herbs and spices is a sad, boring kitchen. Any dish can be made exciting and tasty by adding herbs and spices. And there are so many to choose from that you won’t have time to get bored!
- what are herbs and spices
- what about salt? (and sugar and MSG)
- spice mixes
- buying herbs and spices
- storing herbs and spices
- using herbs and spices
What is an herb and what is a spice?
The difference between herbs and spices is where from a plant they come from. Keep in mind that I’m talking about culinary herbs here, not actual botanical herbs.
Herbs can be leaves or flowers from a plant. Spices are everything else: arils, barks, flower buds, fruits, resins, roots, seeds, and stigmas. Sometimes the same plant can provide herbs and spices (for example, coriander and coriander seeds), and the same plant can also be the source of different spices (like in the case of mace and nutmeg).
Both herbs and spices are considered different from fruits and vegetables because they are only used in small amounts to alter the flavour or smell of foods, and in most cases the flavour and the smell.
What about salt? (and sugar and MSG)
Salt is a mineral, so it’s not included with herbs or spices even though we use it in a similar way when cooking.
Salt is a complex topic and it deserves it own article (that will, hopefully, be coming soon). I include salt in my 10 basic ingredients list.
Something similar can be said of MSG (monosodium glutamate) and sugar.
Spices mixes are blends of herbs and/or spices which can also have other ingredients, like salt or sugar.
They are very convenient as a way of simplifying cooking. Instead of adding every spice every time you make a dish, you can just add a bit of the pre-made mix and you’re done.
The most popular spice mixes can be bought, but they are very easy to make at home (and usually cheaper). You can also get a bit creative and make up your own spice mix or customise popular mixes. For example, I love Chinese 5 spice but I’m not the biggest aniseed fan, so I make my own mix with just a tiny amount of it.
Buying herbs and spices
Herbs can be bought fresh, dried, frozen, and even in paste form. In some stores you can even buy plants. If you get these treat them like a house plant, they won’t live forever but with care they can last a long time. Herbs are also relatively easy to grow from seed, and make a great first indoor growing experience.
Spices can be found fresh or as paste (ginger and chillies for example), but they are usually dried. The dried varieties could be whole or ground. Whole ones will last longer, but ground are more convenient.
Spices in particular can vary in price widely depending where you buy them. Mainstream supermarkets will usually have a good variety at somewhat expensive prices in relatively small containers. Ethnic food stores will carry a large variety of specialist and generic spices at a cheaper price, but usually they come in large bags. Avoid wholesale bulk places (unless they are very busy) as old and new herbs and spices will usually be mixed together.
To find a happy medium with all of these possibilities the first time I buy a spice I get it from a supermarket. The sizes are small enough that I can get through it if I don’t love it, and big enough that I get to experiment with it. Once it’s finished, if I like it, I get the larger bags of whole spice and grind just enough to fill in the little supermarket container.
If you’re after harder to find spices, online stores are your best option. Especially if you are after specialist or organic herbs and spices.
Storing herbs and spices
Fresh herbs are best kept wrapped in a kitchen towel (cloth or paper) inside a plastic bag or container. If the stalk is long enough, they can be kept in water like cut flowers. They can also be frozen whole or chopped.
Fresh spices can be treated like most vegetables, and they will usually last for a long time. Like herbs, they can also be frozen.
Dried herbs and spices are best stored in a dark, cool, and dry place. Dark glass or metal containers are best, clear plastic containers are the worst option. Dried peppers and chillies can be kept in the fridge to extend their life, and dried herbs can be kept in the freezer. If you live in the UK, I am a fan of the Sainsbury’s herb and spice jars. They have a metal lid, and made of glass, and they are wide enough to be able to use measuring spoons. The size is also perfect for most drawers, which means the herbs and spices won’t be exposed to light too much. The glass is also good quality and doesn’t break easily, and they are very easy to clean and reuse.
Whole dried spices will last between 3 and 4 years, ground dried spices 2 to 3 years and dried herbs between 1 and 3 years. They won’t actually go bad, they will just lose some of their flavour and aroma. If you are using older herbs and spices, you will need to add more.
This is one of the reasons why I’m not the biggest recipe proponent out there: my spices, your spices, and the recipe writer’s spices will all taste completely different, and a difference as small as half a teaspoon can make or break a dish! When following a recipe, always err on the side of caution. You can always add more later.
Using herbs and spices
In terms of amounts, when using fresh herbs you will need 3 times as much as dried herbs (and the other way around). So 1 teaspoon of dried basil would be the same as 3 teaspoons (or 1 tablespoon) of fresh basil. Spices are closer to a 2-to-1 proportion, but the exact number will vary depending on the spice and whether it is ground or whole. Keep in mind that the flavour won’t be the same, for example fresh ginger tends to be spicy while dried ginger is sweeter.
In general, spices will be the first thing to go in a dish and herbs will go towards the end. That’s because herbs are delicate and the flavour can get lost if put in too early, but spices need that time to infuse their flavour. If you are using either for a cold or raw recipe give them at least 1 hour to release all their flavour.
Dried spices can be dry roasted or quickly fried in oil for a few seconds to make them more fragrant, but be careful not to burn them. The same can be done with fresh spices, but those in paste form will usually burn very fast.
If you’re cooking something in the oven, you will want to add dried herbs and spices at the beginning, fresh herbs and spices at the end so they don’t burn.
You also want to avoid shaking your containers on top of your cooking pot as the steam will make them get humid and they could get mouldy. Instead use a clean and dry spoon.
And the most important tip of all: don’t be scared to experiment! The same basic dish can be taken all around the globe just by changing the herbs and spices that you use.