Here is an herbs and spices guide for you. I always use herbs and spices in my cooking. I find that they make all the difference in my meals. As a child I was used to seeing my soup garnished with chopped parsley or being served spice rubbed meats with chimichurris or home-made hot sauces. I find there is huge difference between a plain piece of baked fish which is simply seasoned with salt and one that has lemon juice, lemon zest, parsley or cilantro (coriander) or dill, capers, salt and white pepper. You simply cannot compare the two, in my opinion.
Spices are pungent or aromatic seasonings that are used to improve the flavor of foods and drinks. They come from the buds, seeds, roots, fruits or stems of different plants and trees. Herbs, on the other hand, come from the leafy part of plants. Both of these add so much gusto to your food they are well worth it.
Spices come in whole or ground form. Ground ones do not keep their aroma and flavor for too long so make sure you buy small quantities at a time, especially if they are seasonal and you do not use them often – i.e. Christmas cookie spices. Generally, ground spices will last for 6 months. Whole ones can be ground as needed and tend to last a little longer. One should store spices in a cool place in an air tight container in order to keep them at their best.
Herbs come in fresh and dried form. I generally purchase fresh herbs because the amounts one uses in a week are not huge so they are not expensive. However, dried herbs are a perfectly acceptable substitute. They do tend to go stale and are not as pure as fresh ones so make sure they are green and strongly aromatic when you crush them. As with spices, make sure you store them in an air tight container away from the sun. When using dried herbs, in lieu of fresh ones, use them in a ratio of 1 to 3. In other words, 1 tsp. of dried oregano would equal 3 tsps. of fresh.
Herbs and spices are a fantastic way to recreate left overs. Consider this. Say you have left over chicken. What do you do with it? You could simply re-use it and bore your family to death or you could shred it, place it in a skillet and add minced onion, minced garlic, chopped tomatoes, cumin and cilantro (coriander). Season it with salt and pepper and let it cook for a while. Voila! You have chicken for tacos or quesadillas. Not into Mexican fare. Fine. How about this? Shred it and add it to a white sauce with mustard. Mix it in with some mushrooms, cheese and pasta. Top it with some grated Parmesan and bake it. Voila! You have a delicious chicken, noodle casserole. The point being – if you have herbs and spices at hand you are giving yourself the tools to create extra-ordinary meals instead of the plain boring same-old, same-old ones.
Naturally, the types of herbs or spices you are going to use will depend on the types of foods you like to cook and eat. These are the spices and herbs you will always find in my kitchen. I will list them in alphabetical order and this has nothing to do with how important they are to me. For some reason I never use Marjoram or Tarragon.
All-Spice – Allspice is a brown, medium sized berry that tastes like a combination of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. I seldom use this spice so I store a small container of it. I use it for rubs and mostly in the Holiday season when baking.
Basil – To be honest, I do not always have fresh basil in my kitchen. I do have it in dried form but I only buy it fresh for specific recipes such as Basil Aioli or to use in sandwiches and salads. Basil leaves will not last very long, unless you blanch and freeze them, so it is important to use them fast. Dried basil will not last very long either as they quickly lose their flavor and aroma.
Sweet basil is the most commonly used kind in the US. It is also the kind you need for Italian cooking. Asian basils are slightly different in appearance and taste – some of them a little more like licorice or anise. Generally it is best to add the fresh leaves at the end of a dish to really experience their full taste and aroma. I use basil when cooking Italian dishes, aioli, pesto and in some salads and sandwiches. I absolutely love their subtle peppery, sweet and minty flavor and find that they add a lot to many dishes.
Bay Leaves – I always have a small amount of bay leaves available. I love adding it to stews, stock, and braises. Bay leaves have a hint of wood, eucalyptus and they are a little floral. You only need 1 to 2 leaves in your recipes so you really do not need to store a lot of these at one time.
Capers – Capers are the unopened flower buds of a Mediterranean bush. They are kept in brine, vinegar or dry-salted. I buy the ones in brine. Capers are not expensive at all. They also last for a long time in the fridge. I love adding capers to fish, eggs and stews. Capers have a sour-salty flavor that adds a lot to your food.
Cayenne – Cayenne is the powdered form of a red, hot chili pepper. It is quite spicy but, if you are into spicy food like we are, it is a must in your kitchen. You have to be careful not to overdo it with this spice as you could easily make a perfectly beautiful dish into an inedible one. Been there, done that! I sue cayenne in rubs, marinades and stews.
Chili Powder – Chili powder is a combination of paprika, cumin, cayenne, oregano and garlic powder. It is relatively easy to make at home. However, I always have some store bought available. I use it in my chilies and to make rubs and marinades.
Cilantro – Perhaps this is my favorite herb of all. I love the freshness and citrus undertones that it delivers. I use it in my salsas, guacamole, curries, some ceviches, some stir fries, tacos, certain soups, some marinades and some chutneys. A lot of people hate the taste of cilantro so, if you have never used it, make sure you get a taste test first before adding it to your food!
Cilantro is also known as coriander, Chinese parsley or Japanese parsley. Generally, the leaves are chopped and added to foods. However, the stems are loaded in flavor and are a great addition to marinades and sauces. Coriander seeds are sold dry in the spice section of the super market and are widely used in Indian cuisine – mainly in curries.
Fresh cilantro will not last a long time. I have found that storing it in water on a window sill will keep it fresh the longest – which is not more than 3 to 4 days. Therefore, buy it in small batches so it is always green and at its best. I only use dried cilantro when I have no other choice.
Cinnamon – I use a lot of cinnamon in my cooking. It is the dried inner bark of trees in tropical Asia. Cinnamon has a subtle, sweet, and complex flavor with floral and clove notes. I have ground and whole cinnamon at home. I use ground cinnamon in rubs, marinades, desserts and for sprinkling on coffee. I use whole cinnamon for flavoring compotes, boiled fruit juices, milk for desserts and to freshen up the air at home and in the kitchen. Try boiling some in some water while you are cooking things like fish and fried foods. It will absorb the bad odors.
Cloves – Cloves are another one of those spices I use sparingly. They are strong and have a distinctive aroma to them. I generally keep a little bit of whole cloves to add to fruit compotes or for roasting meats. I keep a small container of ground cloves to use in baking and desserts. Sometimes I will add a pinch to chili and to some rubs. This is truly a strong spice and a pinch will be more than enough to flavor your food so you really do not need a whole bunch of it.
Cumin – This is one spice I use a lot of. I use it in rubs, stews, salsas and sauces. Cumin has a distinct aroma to it and is a must in most Latin American cooking. It is also used a lot in Asian and Mediterranean cuisine.
Curry – Curry is a mixture of up to 20 ground spices, herbs and seeds. Among those most commonly used are cardamom, chiles, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel seed, fenugreek, mace, nutmeg, red and black pepper, poppy and sesame seeds, saffron, tamarind and turmeric. It will make your food spicy hot so make sure you don’t go overboard when using it. Also, too much of it will make your food bitter. I keep a small container of it in my kitchen to use in stews and s¬oups. I like making curries occasionally using coconut milk or plain yogurt. I also love it with lentils and in my chicken salad with apples. Curry does not last for more than 2 months so, unless you use a lot of it, buy¬¬¬ it in small containers.
Dill – I only buy fresh dill in small quantities and for specific recipes. This is another one of those herbs that do not last long unless frozen. Even then they will spoil quickly. Dried dill does not fare well for a long time either so, unless you use it a lot in your cuisine, I don’t recommend you stock up on it.
Dill has a citrusy, licorice-like flavor. I use it mainly to cook fish and in some pasta dishes such as Bowtie pasta and shrimp. It is commonly used for making pickles.
Dry Mustard – I keep a small container of ground yellow mustard for using in sauces and rubs. I do not use a lot of it but I like to have it available. I usually use the condiment in Dijon form to make marinades and vinaigrettes.
Garlic – Although garlic belongs to the onion family and is not an herb or spice, I will go ahead and include it on this list. I always have at least a couple heads of fresh garlic available and I use it a lot. I do not purchase pre-minced garlic as I find the flavor is superior when you mince it fresh. I also have garlic powder in my kitchen which in essence is a spice. I use it for garlic bread and rubs.
Ginger – I love ginger and I usually use it in fresh form. I always have a small sized piece of the root in my fridge. However, I do keep a small container of ground ginger handy mainly for making rubs and baking cookies.
Horseradish – I always have a jar of horseradish at home. It’s pungent and strong flavor add a complexity to some foods that makes all the difference. I use it in some sauces mainly BBQ, Cole-Slaw dressing and cocktail sauce. It will keep for a considerable amount of time in your fridge but should be used sparingly. Use too much of it and you will clear up your sinuses and bring tears to your eyes.
Mint – Like dill, I only buy mint for specific recipes. I use it when making some salads like taboulleh and cocktails. I will also make tea from it. Mint is very refreshing.
Nutmeg – I keep a small container of ground nutmeg handy mainly to use in white sauce and eggnog. Nutmeg is used in sausages, hot dogs and doughnuts as well. It is especially popular during the Holidays for making cookies and other baked goodies. Nutmeg has a woody flavor with hints of pine, flowers and citrus.
Oregano – This is an herb that I seldom buy fresh, mainly because I cannot find it very easily. However, I always have a stock of dried oregano. I use it in some stews, some sauces, some marinades, to sprinkle on meats and in my Italian recipes. It also goes well in some salad dressings and sometimes in the salad.
Oregano has a pungent sometimes bitter taste so it is better to use it sparingly. It adds a lot to a meal and is very important in my kitchen. There are various kinds of oreganos which come from completely different plants. Greek and Mexican oregano for example are not the same thing. Greek oregano comes from the mint family and the Mexican variety comes from the lemon verbena family. When I was living in Southern California I had access to large Middle Eastern and Hispanic supermarkets. Naturally, I always had both varieties and used them accordingly. For example, I always used Greek oregano in my Greek salad dressing. But, if I have to be completely honest, the difference in flavor between these two is not all that noticeable. Same happens with oregano in Latin America. So, I use them interchangeably.
Paprika – Paprika is obtained by grinding a variety of dried up red peppers. It is a red powder that is not spicy hot but adds a lot to many dishes. I keep the regular kind and a small bottle of smoked paprika at home. I use this spice in rubs, seasonings , BBQ sauces, soups and stews.
Parsley – I always have parsley at home. It is a resilient herb that lasts longer than most. I store it in a container with water on a window sill. I use parsley in my stews, taboulleh, for garnishing soups, for making stocks, in some sauces, in some salad dressings and in some salads. You can find both flay and curly and, honestly, I have yet to taste any difference between the two. I have heard that the flat variety is stringer in flavor but I simply cannot detect it.
In my opinion, parsley has a woody, fresh flavor which is hard to describe. I find that it adds that extra freshness to my meals and is definitely a great color for garnishing. I use it in my potato salad, for example, for the color more than the taste. I also know that it is rich in vitamins K, A, C and E. I will sometimes add it to my vegetables in the juicer as well. I never use parsley in dried form.
Pepper – I always have whole black peppercorns in my pantry. I favor them over ground black pepper because I find their flavor to be superior. I keep the peppercorns in a mill close to the stove and another one on the table. I love black pepper and probably use too much of it but I find that adding it fresh to the end of a meal makes a world of difference. Often, ground black pepper is not pure as it is mixed with other spices. However, there is nothing wrong with using only the ground variety if one prefers it. I also keep a small amount of white pepper at home. I use it when cooking fish.
Rosemary – I grow rosemary in my garden so I always have it handy. I admit I don’t really use a lot of it but it is great to have handy. I like adding it to braises, marinades and roasts. Rosemary resembles pine needles. It has a strong scent with hints of wood, pine, eucalyptus and cloves. This is one herb that keeps very well dry.
Saffron – I read somewhere that Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice. It takes about 70,000 flowers to produce 5 pounds of threads that in turn dry up to only 1 pound of commercial Saffron. Needless to say, this is one of those spices you will only buy in very small quantities. Saffron has a distinct, unique flavor and it will turn your food yellow. I use it in paellas and when cooking rice.
Sage – I usually only buy sage during the Holidays. I do use it for specific recipes as well. I keep a small amount of dried sage for cooking poultry sometimes. Sage has floral and sweet notes.
Thyme – I like having fresh thyme in my refrigerator but don’t always have it. I do, however, always have dried thyme. I use it a lot because I find it adds richness to food without overpowering the dish. For me, thyme has a lemony, subtly minty and woody flavor. I like adding it to roasted chicken and meats, braises, scrambled eggs and some sauces. When cooked, thyme releases oils that bring that amazing depth to your meal so add it early on to allow this to happen.
Turmeric – Turmeric is a yellow powder that is in the ginger family. It is widely used in Indian cuisine and is woody and pungent. I use it to make rice and vermicelli, a dish I learned from my ex-mother in law. It gives the rice a distinct taste and dies it yellow. If you do not ever cook Indian food or rice in this form you really do not need this spice. I keep a small container of it handy.