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An Easy Guide To Some Herbs, And Spices

Updated on March 23, 2011

Know your herbs, and spices.

Herbs, spices, and other seasonings are used to make food taste better. They should never overpower the other ingredients but should enhance them while adding a subtle flavor of their own. Herbs are best when fresh, both, in taste, and in color. Many herbs can be grown in a small garden plot, in among your flowers, and, in the winter, under a grow light or in a sunny window. If fresh herbs are not available, use dried, but replenish your supply often.

Spices are almost always dried, then sold whole, or ground. If you seldom use a spice, buy it whole and grind it yourself when needed. The flavor will be better freshly ground.

Everyone has their favorite herbs and spices, just as they have their favorite foods. The uses to which you can put herbs and spices are as vast as your imagination, so if you enjoy the scent and the taste, do some experimenting. You may start a whole new trend.

Allspice is used in baking, but also as part of a 'jerk' spice mix in Jamaican food, as well as in pickling. Allspice is actually a dried berry. It may be used whole or ground. It originated in the Caribbean.

Anise, with its strong licorice flavor, is used in baking, to flavor cough medicines and to scent soaps and perfumes. It is also used to make licorice and liquors such as anisette and ouzo.  Anise is also used for medicinal purposes. It is also a berry. It originated in the Mediterranean.

Basil is easily grown in gardens or in a sunny window. Fresh chopped basil leaves make a delicious topping on fresh salads and sliced tomatoes. It is used fresh or dried in soups, and stews, and is a prominent ingredient in many Italian dishes. There are several varieties of basil. It originated in Asia.

Capers are used with seafood, mutton, in sauces and salads, and on pizzas. They are prepared for use by pickling in vinegar or packing in salt. If salted, they are rinsed before use. Capers are the small buds of a bush grown in the Mediterranean.

Caraway Seed has a distinctive flavor and aroma and is commonly found in rye breads. It is also used in cole slaw, cheese, curry, sauerkraut, noodle dishes, liqueurs, and baking. Caraway seed is actually not a seed at all but a fruit, originating in Europe or Asia. The fruit is generally used whole.

Cardamom is used in both sweet and savory dishes. In some areas cardamom is still used for medicinal purposes. Cardamom is commonly used in seafood, meats, poultry, liqueurs, pickles, custards, pastries and other desserts. The ground form comes from the seed of the plant.   A popular addition to foods in India, cardamom may have originated there, where the pods are also eaten.

Celery Seed is from a plant similar to the celery we commonly eat. It originated in the Middle East and is commonly used in soups, salad dressings, casseroles, and for pickling. It is also valued for its medicinal properties. Celery Seed may be used whole or ground. The ground form is combined with salt to form celery salt.

Chervil has a very delicate flavor and is used mainly in fish and egg dishes, as well as in salads and cream sauces. It is often used in conjunction with parsley and chives. Chervil probably originated in the middle east where is is extensively grown today. Chervil is easy to grow both outdoors in the summer and indoors by a sunny window during the winter months.

Chile Powder can be made from a variety of ground chilies. It is classed as only mildly hot, if it is pure. It is often combined with other ingredients which changes the flavor and the heat. Chili powder is used in chilies, hamburgers, casseroles, and as a meat rub. It is a popular ingredient in Mexican and Indian food. The chilies used to make chili powder came originally from the Americas, but today, because of the popularity of the spice, chilies are grown throughout the world.

Cinnamon, in its ground form, is used in baked goods, main dishes, and drinks. It is also tasty mixed with sugar on cinnamon toast, french toast, or pancakes. In the stick from, cinnamon is used in mulled drinks and in syrups for preserving. Cinnamon comes from the inner bark of an evergreen tree and came originally from Sri Lanka. Cinnamon is also used for medicinal purposes.

Cloves, in their ground form, are used in baked goods. They are used to flavor applesauce and cigarettes. Whole cloves give excellent flavor when studded into the outside of a cooking ham. The whole form, wrapped in a removable gauze bag, can be used to add flavor to stews, soups, and casseroles. Cloves are the unopened buds from an evergreen tree and come originally from Indonesia.

Cilantro (also known as Chinese Parsley) and Coriander are two different parts of the same plant. Cilantro refers to the leaves and Coriander to the seeds. Cilantro is used a great deal in Mexican and Indian dishes. It can be substituted for parsley but has an entirely different flavor so try it first and use with caution. It is an acquired taste. Coriander, the ground seeds, is used in seafood, stews, soups, curries, as well as in baked goods. It is also used for pickling. Chinese Parsley comes from Morocco.

Curry is not a single spice but a blend of from twenty to thirty spices, the most common being coriander, cumin, fenugreek, and cloves. Curry is a popular ingredient in Indian food. It is also used in sauces and egg dishes.

Dill is best used fresh. As it is quick to lose it's flavor, it should be used fresh or added at the end of the cooking period. Dill is used in seafood, sauces, on vegetables, both cooked and raw, in soups, as a garnish, and in pickles. It originated in the Mediterranean. Dill is also used as a medicinal herb.

Fenagreek is most commonly known as an ingredient in Curry. The leaves are eaten green or dried, and are used to flavor other meat and vegetable dishes. The seed was used in ancient times to make a coffee-like drink. It is still used to make a tea, often drunk for medicinal reasons. The ground seeds are used in curry, pickles, and breads. Fenagreek probably originated in the Mediterranean area.

Fennel is considered to be both a vegetable and an herb. The bulb of the fennel may be eaten raw in salads, or cooked, as any other vegetable. When the seed is ground, it may be used in seafood, dressings, breads, and cakes. It is also used in some liquors. Fennel originated in the area of Europe around the Mediterranean.

Ginger, in its ground form, is used in baked goods. The root itself is commonly used in Chinese cooking. If the root, which can now be found in most supermarkets, is peeled, grated, brewed, and sweetened, it makes a soothing drink for sore throats, as well as relieving nausea. Ginger originated in Eastern Asia.

Horseradish makes an excellent topping for meats and fish. It can be used in egg dishes, mashed potatoes, sauces, dressings, dips, or as part of a glaze on meats or meat loaves. Horseradish goes well with seafood and chicken. Its uses are virtually limitless. Horseradish originated in Europe.

Juniper Berries are actually cones of the juniper and must be slightly crushed before use. Their flavor is quite strong so they should be used sparingly. Juniper Berries first became popular in Europe and are used today in marinades, stuffing, sauces, pickles, and meat dishes. They are especially recommended for use with game. There are some health concerns surrounding the use of Juniper Berries so research before using.

Mace comes from the middle east. Mace is the dried outer covering of nutmeg. It is used in cakes, cookies and other baked goods. It is also used in curries, soups, cream sauces and with roasted meats. If possible, it is best to add mace at the end of the cooking cycle so it will retain its flavor. Mace has a much milder flavor than does the nutmeg itself.

Marjoram has a pungent flavor. It is used with grilled fish, egg dishes, sauces, sausage, and with meats, especially veal. If marjoram is dried, it quickly loses much of its flavor. Marjoram comes from the Mediterranean.

Mint, when fresh, is used in iced tea, with fruit, on vegetables, in salads, in sauces, in some cold soups, on meats, fish, poultry, and especially as mint sauce on roast lamb. It is also used as flavoring in many items such as gum, toothpaste, and candy. Mint was first grown in Europe. It can also be used dried, but much of the fresh flavor is lost by drying.

Mustard Seed is used whole for pickling and crushed to enhance the flavors of meats, fish, and poultry, as well as in sauces and salad dressings. When ground and made into a paste it has a hot pungent flavor, especially popular with beef. Mustard originally grew wild and was first cultivated in India, where it remains a popular ingredient in Indian cuisine. When using mustard in a recipe, make sure to use only the type specified.

Nutmeg refers to the inside, minus the outer covering used to make mace. Nutmeg, ground, is used mainly in baking and desserts, but also adds a distinct flavor to vegetables and sauces. As ground nutmeg loses its flavor quickly, buy the whole nutmeg, and grind only what you need.

Oregano is used in cooking meats, fish, and vegetables. It is especially delicious with tomatoes. It is also used as a flavoring in wine as well as being a popular ingredient in pizza. Oregano originated in the Mediterranean, possibly around Greece. Dried oregano leaves are more fragrant than fresh leaves. Oregano today comes mostly from the Mediterranean and Mexico, with Mexican oregano being stronger.

Paprika is made from ground bell peppers. It is usually mild but can have some warmth, depending on the peppers from which it is made. Paprika originated in the Americas and is used today in meats stews, sauces, soups and as a rub for grilling. It adds attraction to deviled eggs and potato salad. Hungarian cooking often makes use of paprika.

Parsley is widely used both as a garnish and for flavoring. It is much better fresh and is readily available in most supermarkets, year round. It is also easy to grow, both indoors and out. Parsley is used in salads, sauces, and stews, as well as with fish, game, pasta, seafood, and vegetables. There are many different types of parsley, the most common of which are Italian, and curly parsley. It is often used in conjunction with other herbs.

Pepper is best when freshly ground. It ranges from mild to hot and from white to orange to green to black. Pepper can be used with any meat dishes, fish, soups, stews, on salads, pastas, and even in desserts. Pepper comes from India and is probably the most common herb in use today.

Poppy Seeds, are used, whole, almost exclusively in baked goods, such as bagels, rolls, cakes, and muffins, though they are also a tasty ingredient to add to salads, pastas and salad dressings. They can also be used ground. Poppy seeds should be roasted slightly before grinding. Poppy seeds originated in the Mediterranean. The seeds have also been used to make tea. Remember that heroin is made from poppy seeds so use cautiously.

Rosemary grows well in gardens. Rosemary goes well with chicken, fish, pork, lamb, as well as with vegetables such as squash, tomatoes, and mushrooms. It is a tasty addition to egg dishes and stuffings. Rosemary originated in the Mediterranean and is another herb well known for its medicinal properties.

Saffron is the most expensive of all herbs so it is generally used sparingly. It comes from the stamen of a type of crocus and has a beautiful yellow color which it imparts to the food in which it is used. Saffron can be bought in threads or ground. For the best flavor, buy the threads and grind it yourself. Hot liquid is necessary to get the most flavor from this herb. Saffron is used in dishes such as paella and risotto. Saffron is typically only used when recommended in a recipe. Saffron originated in the Mediterranean.

Sage has a wonderful pungent aroma is used in stuffings, with pork and in making sausages. The leaves may be used chopped in salads and in pickles, but it is the ground form we see most. Sage comes from the Mediterranean.

Savory is another herb which originated in the Mediterranean. It is used both fresh and dried. Winter savory is a perennial and has a much stronger flavor than summer savory which is an annual. Fresh savory is used in salads and on grilled meats. Dried savory, which should be crushed before use is found in soups, pates, stuffings, bean dishes, and meat marinades. It is also good on omelets.

Sesame Seeds are used whole or ground. They are an oil rich seed, found in breads, cakes, candies, buns, and as a topping for bagels. They are used in soups and chili, dressings and on vegetables and noodles. Sesame seeds are often ground to form a paste called Tahini which has a nut-like flavor and is used in dips and spreads. Sesame oil is an excellent cooking oil, often found in Chinese cooking.

Sorrel has been used in Europe since ancient times. It has a slightly sour taste and is used in soups, stews, sauces, salads, omelets, and souffles. There are several types of sorrel, varying in tartness. It is prominent in French cuisine. The leaves of the sorrel are rich in vitamin C and are described as having a spinach-like flavor.

Tarragon is thought to have originated in Asia. It is used both dried and ground. Tarragon is another herb prominent in French cuisine. It is used with poultry, pork, fish, and such vegetables as broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, mushrooms, and potatoes. Tarragon is an essential ingredient in Bearnaise sauce. French tarragon is considered to have the best flavor.

Thyme was used in ancient Egypt for embalming. Today, the herb is used both fresh and dried. It is one of the few herbs that maintains its fresh flavor when dried. Thyme is used in soups, stews, and with fish and lamb. It goes well with tomatoes. Thyme releases its flavor best when added at the beginning of the cooking process. It originated in the eastern area of the Mediterranean.

Turmeric probably originated in southern Asia. The root, when ground, brings both color and flavor to food.  It is used primarily in Indian cuisine and has what is described as an exotic taste. Turmeric is used in cooking chicken, duck, rice, vegetable, and turkey. It is also used in chutneys and salad dressings. The yellow dye of turmeric may stain clothing.

Herbs and spices have been used by man for many centuries. Herbs were written of in the Bible, in Sanskrit, and in Hieroglyphics. They were probably originally harvested for nutrition until their flavoring ability, and, proven or suspected, medicinal properties were discovered. Whatever they are used for, herbs add significantly to our lives.


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    • billips profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Central Texas

      Dried spices, if well sealed, can last a surprising length of time - just think how long some sit on the supermarket before you purchase them - however, if you change them out every four months you will certainly have the freshest of the fresh - thanks for commenting - B.

    • alphagirl profile image


      6 years ago from USA

      Voted useful! What is the shelf life of dried spices! I toss mine every 4 months!

    • Movie Master profile image

      Movie Master 

      6 years ago from United Kingdom

      A very comprehensive guide to herbs and spices thank you, I didn't realise 'all spice' was part of the 'jerk' spice.

      Very useful and voted up.

    • billips profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Central Texas

      Thanks for reading and commenting Christy - glad you found this hub to be useful - B.

    • ChristyWrites profile image

      Christy Birmingham 

      6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I vote this as 'useful'. I am not well-versed in spices so this is a list I can use for reference. I like that the list is alphabetical as well.

    • billips profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Central Texas

      Glad you find this useful - herbs certainly spice up our lives - B.

    • YogaKat profile image


      6 years ago from Oahu Hawaii

      Very informative and thorough hub.


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