Herbs and spices 101

If the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, herbs and spices are the mitichondrias of the kitchen.

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 is an herb and what is a spice?

The difference between them is the part of a plant they come from. Keep in mind that I’m talking about culinary herbs here, not actual botanical herbs. Both of them are considered different from fruits and vegetables because they are only used in small amounts to alter taste or smell.

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 both herbs and spices.


What about salt?

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 be coming soon).


Spice mixes

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 mizes. 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 or frozen, and lately 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.

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 depending where you buy them. Mainstream supermarkets will usually care 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 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 the little supermarket container.

If you’re after harder to find spices, online stores are your friends.


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, clear glass ones are acceptable but not ideal. Dried peppers and chillies can be kept in the fridge to extend their life, and dried herbs can be kept in the freezer.

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 flavour. If you are using older herbs and spices, simply 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 half a teaspoon can make or break a dish!


Using herbs and spices

In terms of amounts, if 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 2-to-1, but proportions vary. 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 relase all their flavour. And yes, I am aware I used the word ‘flavour’ 3 times in the same paragraph.

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.

You want to avoid shaking your containers on top of your cooking pot as the steam will make them get humid and they could go bad. Instead use a clean and dry spoon. If you’re roasting, add fresh herbs and spices at the end so they don’t burn.

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.

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