Herbs and Spices - Is There Really a Difference?

Oregano Herb by Thomas Then on wikimedia commons.
Oregano Herb by Thomas Then on wikimedia commons.
Spices by judepics on wikimedia commons
Spices by judepics on wikimedia commons

As you get into cooking, you find that you use quite a bit of herbs and spices in your cooking.  They flavor foods and can take a plain piece of chicken and turn it into thousands of different dishes just by using different herbs and spices.  As you get more experience in your cooking, you begin to notice that the phrases “herb” and “spice” tend to be interchanged in many places.  Are they really the same?  Are people just too confused with cooking terminology?

What would you say if I said “yes” to both of these?  To understand where we stand today using these terms, let’s look at the history of them.

Over 400 years ago, a spice route to India was sought after.  This search let to the Europeans discovering the Americas.  What were they searching for? 

Europeans had plenty of herbs.  An herb then was defined as the leafy part of a plant that was either used fresh or dried.  They were also heavily used for medicinal purposes.  What they did not have were spices such as cinnamon and cardamom.  These were found only in tropical reasons and came from seeds, fruits, stems, barks, and roots.  Spices became something only the rich could afford since they had to be imported and could not be grown at home in the small cottage gardens.  They gave food such a unique taste that they were actively sought after and cost much more than we pay today.

This stayed the definition of the herbs and spices for many years.  Since both were used in cooking, they became companions on grocery shelves and even in our kitchen cabinets.  Since their purposes were so similar (seasoning food), they began to be treated the same.

Today, many culinary sources point out the differences and stick by them.  An herb is an herb, and a spice is a spice.  Others have adopted a different approach.  They look at herbs being spices, but spices are not herbs.  The term “spice” has become to represent all spices and herbs or other seasonings that we use to liven up our food.

No matter what approach you use, these culinary tools are a delight to use.  Not sure what is an herb or a spice or how to use them?  Read on and see what you can do with all of these delectable seasonings.

Angelica by Kristian Peters on wikimedia commons
Angelica by Kristian Peters on wikimedia commons
Basil by Paul Goyette on wikimedia commons
Basil by Paul Goyette on wikimedia commons
Bay laurel by Andrew Butko on wikimedia commons
Bay laurel by Andrew Butko on wikimedia commons
Catnip by Jon Sullivan on wikimedia commons
Catnip by Jon Sullivan on wikimedia commons
Chamomile by Mussklprozz on wikimedia commons
Chamomile by Mussklprozz on wikimedia commons
Chives by Jerzy Opiola on wikimedia commons
Chives by Jerzy Opiola on wikimedia commons
Cilantro by Rlevse on wikimedia commons
Cilantro by Rlevse on wikimedia commons
Dill in public domain on wikimedia commons
Dill in public domain on wikimedia commons
Fennel by Magnus Manske on wikimedia commons
Fennel by Magnus Manske on wikimedia commons
Lavender by Sherry Kang on wikimedia commons
Lavender by Sherry Kang on wikimedia commons
Lemon balm by Datkins on wikimedia commons
Lemon balm by Datkins on wikimedia commons
Marjoram by Forest & Kim Starr on wikimedia commons
Marjoram by Forest & Kim Starr on wikimedia commons
Mint by Gogo on wikimedia commons
Mint by Gogo on wikimedia commons
Oregano by Frank Vincentz on wikimedia commons
Oregano by Frank Vincentz on wikimedia commons
Parsley in public domain
Parsley in public domain
Rosemary by Raul654 on wikimedia commons
Rosemary by Raul654 on wikimedia commons
Rue by Polyparadigm on wikimedia commons
Rue by Polyparadigm on wikimedia commons
Sage by Nnorbu on wikimedia commons
Sage by Nnorbu on wikimedia commons
Savory by Shalonmooney on wikimedia commons
Savory by Shalonmooney on wikimedia commons
Tarragon by yves Tennevin on wikimedia commons
Tarragon by yves Tennevin on wikimedia commons
Thyme by Donovan Govan on wikimedia commons
Thyme by Donovan Govan on wikimedia commons
Verbena by KENPEI on wikimedia commons
Verbena by KENPEI on wikimedia commons

Herbs

The leafy part of a plant used to season foods and various medicinal purposes.

Angelica–This is an ornamental herb with pretty white flowers. It can reach six feet in height and is mainly used for medicinal purposes. With nutrients like Riboflavin, Iron, Zinc, and B12 it is used for a variety of ailments. The root is considered poisonous and should not be eaten. Pregnant women should also avoid this herb. According to legend, this herb is great to ward off evil spirits.

Basil –This is a very familiar herb to most people. It is also one of the easiest to grow at home. Fresh basil is great in salads, pasta dishes, vinegar, and pesto. A wonderful herb containing antioxidents, beta carotene, Vitamin A, and Vitamin C. According to legend the use of the herb was to fend off and treat the bite of a basilisk.

Bay Laurel –The bay leaf is one of the most common herbs. It comes from a small tree or shrub and is great for sauces and cooking meats. It can also be used in pickling. Bay laurel supplies us with calcium, iron, magnesium, Vitamin A, and Vitamin C to name a few. What most people do not realize that is that it has many medicinal benefits.

Catnip – When you think of this herb, you think of cats acting weird. Yes, it does have an effect on cats, but it also has its culinary uses. A little bit of the leaves in a salad adds flavor. It also gives some zinc, calcium, iron and Vitamin A.

Chamomile –This is another herb that is very well known. It is mostly used in teas and other beverages. It is an easy plant to grow and give us lots of potassium and calcium. A great way to add minerals while enjoying a cup of tea.

Chives – Chives resemble blades of grass. It has a pretty flower and is a very versatile herb. It goes good with fish, eggs, cheese, and in soups. It has an oniony flavor. It is high in Vitamin K and in calcium.

Cilantro – Here is another popular herb. Use it in sauces, meat, and rice dishes. It gives us a ton of Vitamin K and the much needed calcium. Add it to just about anything.

Dill –This herb is most know for its part in making dill pickles. It adds flavor to dips, soups, and meat. Don't use too much as the flavor can get too powerful. With this herb you get potassium, folate, and calcium.

Fennel –The fennel is extremely popular in Mediterranean cuisine. The entire plant is used and is quite delicious and crunchy. Use it by itself sauteed or use it in a salad. Fennel gives us loads of Vitamin C, fiber, and calcium.

Lavender –This is an herb most known for its relation to the fragrances. But there is so much more that lavender can bring to the table. Use it in cookies, breads, meat dishes, desserts, and jellies. The flavor will amaze you.

Lemon Balm –This herb works great in salads and drinks. Add it to meat dishes and enjoy the flavor it provides to the meat.

Marjoram – What can marjoram not go with? Add it to meat dishes, vegetables, or even fish. This is another versatile herb that is used a lot.

Mint –This is an herb that you can smell long before you see it. It is used in drinks, sauces, gravies, stews, and anywhere a minty flavor is desired. You can even use it in ice cream. The most popular drink that is made with it is the Mint Julep that most everyone drinks at the Kentucky Derby.

Oregano –This herb is everywhere. You can find it in pizza, pasta, vegetables and fish dishes. It goes everywhere and everyone uses it. It is an easy herb to grow at home and have handy for all those wonderful dishes.

Parsley –This has to be the most used herb of all. There is nowhere it cannot be used. You find in salads, side dishes, and main dishes of all kinds. There is no place that parsley has not ended up.

Rosemary –This is a great herb to use in your meat dishes. Pick some fresh rosemary leaves from its small bush and rub them on your meat. Add some sprigs underneath the meat to flavor all sides.

Rue –This an herb not much used in today's cuisine. It has a bitter taste and should not be used in large quantities. History shows wide use of this herb, but today most people shy away from bitter flavors.

Sage –To most of us this herb is only used at Thanksgiving to give us that tasty stuffing. It can do so much more. It adds flavor to breads, soups, meat dishes, and is really great with almost all vegetables.

Savory –This herb is great with beans, fish, eggs, and cheeses. It is widely used in Europe to create dips and creams.

Tarragon –This one comes with the taste of licorice. It is great in sauces, creams, cheeses, and even fish and chicken. Use on potatoes for a nice side dish.

Thyme –This herb is a great garden piece and even a lawn all by itself. It is also great in cooking. Use it with fish, pork, beef, or chicken. Add it to vegetables.

Verbena –This herb is great in tea, rice dishes, salads, and on roasted vegetables.

Allspice in public domain
Allspice in public domain
Anise by David Monniax on wikimedia commons
Anise by David Monniax on wikimedia commons
Cumin by Sanjay Acharya on wikimedia commons
Cumin by Sanjay Acharya on wikimedia commons
Caraway in public domain
Caraway in public domain
Celery seed by Howcheng on wikimedia commons
Celery seed by Howcheng on wikimedia commons
Cinnamon by photo8 on wikimedia commons
Cinnamon by photo8 on wikimedia commons
Cloves in public domain
Cloves in public domain
Coriander by Novalis on wikimedia commons
Coriander by Novalis on wikimedia commons
Ginger by Nino Barbieri on wikimedia commons
Ginger by Nino Barbieri on wikimedia commons
Nutmeg in public domain
Nutmeg in public domain
Sesame seeds in public domain
Sesame seeds in public domain
Turmeric in public domain
Turmeric in public domain

Spices

Spices

Food seasonings coming from seeds, roots, fruits, and bark. Usually found only in tropical regions.

Allspice –This spice smells very similar to many others including cinnamon and nutmeg. It is used in the famous "jerk" rub from the Caribbean. You can find it pies, cakes, sweets, stews, and puddings.

Anise –This spice is most known for its uses in desserts including cookies and cakes. Some cultures use them in meat and vegetable dishes, too.

Cumin –This is a spice that is really spicy. It is used in many of the spicy dishes you eat and is great on salads, meats, and vegetables.

Caraway –You can find this spice in rye bread, sauerkraut, pasta dishes, cookies, and even vegetable dishes. It is that small seed you find in these various dishes.

Celery seeds –This spice is zesty and is great in potato salad, coleslaw, Bloody Mary's, fish, meat, and eggs.

Cinnamon – Of all the spices this one is the most loved and used. It is used in cookies, cakes, coffee, candy, tea, and even in meat dishes. It is wonderful and everyone loves cinnamon.

Clove –This spice can be very powerful. It is usually used on meats especially wild game. It is used a lot in pickling and also in drinks around the holiday seasons.

Coriander –This spice is used in curry, breads, sweets, and meat dishes. It is also used in chili sauces

Ginger – This spice is a root that is used in many dishes. It can be found fresh, ground, pickled, or candied. Ginger is used in tea, cakes, cookies, breads, and about everything else you can imagine. It does have a bit of a bit to it when taken in large doses.

Nutmeg –This spice is wonderful when used in sweets such as cookies, cakes, pies, and puddings.  It is also used in soups and meat dishes.  Even vegetables can take this sweet spice and look very nice.

Sesame – In the West most sesame is used as a coating of breads and rolls.  It is mostly used in the Middle East and the Far East in various dishes ranging from sweets to meat dishes.

Turmeric -This spice is used more than you really realize.  It is heavily used in Middle Eastern and Asian foods.  It is a main ingredient to curry and gives yellow curry its color.

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Comments 4 comments

Saree Anderson profile image

Saree Anderson 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

GREAT Article!! So full of information, and I love that you added the believed properties of old! Great reading! :) Thanks!


Butterfly Lady profile image

Butterfly Lady 6 years ago from Broken Arrow, OK

I am going to keep this. It is great. I never knew some of the things you have given in this article. Such detail..Thanks for the great hub.


LaDolceVitaGirl profile image

LaDolceVitaGirl 4 years ago

Wow! What a fantastic article, it's almost a book! Voting up and useful..plus following! Thank you for all the hard work :)


ismartpc profile image

ismartpc 19 months ago from USA

Good article. Another spice is Fenugreek. It has some health benefits too.

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