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Flavour 101: How To Easily Use Herbs and Spices In Cooking

Updated on November 27, 2016

Introduction

If you enjoy cooking at home you’ve no doubt made a few recipes that call for the use of various herbs and spices. You may even have a growing collection of different flavours from around the world, waiting to be used in the right recipe.

The question is: how do chefs decide which herbs and spices to use in which recipes? More importantly: how can you learn to use herbs and spices quickly and easily in your cooking to make better recipes?

The Difference Between Herbs and Spices

So what defines an ingredient as an herb, and what defines it as a spice? The answer is in what part of the plant the ingredient comes from:

  • If the ingredient/flavour is a herb, that means it comes from the leaves of the plant
  • If the ingredient is a spice, that means it comes from the roots, bark and seeds

Some plants actually have both herbs and spices, for instance cilantro (the leaves of the plant) and coriander (the seeds of the cilantro plant). These two ingredients, although coming from the same plant, actually do have different flavours.

The distinction is a basic one but an important one – understanding the origins of the ingredients will help you to use them more effectively in your own cooking.

Common Herbs and Spices

In this section we’re going to walk you through a few basic and common herbs and spices, covering their flavour, their common uses and common combinations with other spices. The best way for you to experience them, however, is to taste them – use them in a simple, fairly mild-flavoured food such as turkey and pick out the flavour that the herb/spice adds.

Some common herbs:

  • Rosemary – Often used in Italian cooking (such as in braised Italian chicken) in combination with garlic, it lends a natural and fresh flavour to the dish. You can use it when cooking steak by brushing the top of the steak with the rosemary to add an extra dimension to the meal.
  • Thyme – Thyme is commonly used in seasoning blends for turkey and chicken, and also goes well with lamb. It is a subtle flavour with a hint of mint.
  • Basil – Basil leaves are most commonly used in pesto with garlic, olive oil, parmesan and pine nuts. It smells and tastes wonderfully fresh and is ideal for garnishing pasta dishes. It is definitely best when fresh, but dried basil can also be used effectively as an addition to sauces.
  • Bay Leaf – Bay leaves are added to stews and slow-cooked sauces to add subtle but important additional flavours. The trick with bay leaves is to cook them for a long time so that the initially harsh flavour is replaced by a lovely tea-like aroma.
  • Sage – Sage is another herb that can withstand long cooking times without losing all of its flavour. It has a strong smell and a slightly bitter taste which means that a small amount of sage goes a long way. It is ideal for roasts (such as in the popular sage and onion stuffing), and goes well with chicken and pork.

And now some spices:

  • Chilli – this is great for adding a kick to curries and Mexican dishes (such as fajitas), or adding warmth to certain foods. It is the typical “spiciness” and although it is more flavoursome in its fresh form, the powdered or flaked variety is still effective. Try combining it with a traditional tomato sauce to add an exciting element of heat and extra flavour.
  • Coriander – coriander goes very well with the previously mentioned chilli, and is often used in curries and Mexican food. Try combining it with chilli, cumin, black pepper, cloves and turmeric for a nice and simple curry.
  • Cumin – the flavour of Chilli con Carne. Cumin is the dominant flavour in that dish, despite the name. Combine it with coriander, paprika, fresh chillies and lime juice and add it to chicken for some great fajitas.
  • Paprika – paprika is great to use in meat goulashes, and adds a wonderful extra dimension to stews. Its bright colour also makes it ideal for making dishes brighter, such as making a curry look even more flavoursome.
  • Cayenne Pepper – this one, like chilli, is hot. Use it sparingly and it will add a wonderful “zing” to meat-based dishes, as well as giving extra flavour to vinegar-based sauces.

Fresh or Ground: Which is Better?

Now that you’ve had an introduction to various kinds of herbs and spices, you should have a better idea of how and when to use them in your cooking. The question still remains, however – is it better to use fresh ones or ready-ground?

Fresh herbs and spices have much stronger aromas and tend to taste better, but they also don’t last as long. They also tend to be more expensive, and it can be a hassle to prepare them for use when the ground alternative can be poured straight in.

Ground herbs and spices, on the other hand, last far longer and are much more convenient. You also use less of the ground version to get the same intensity of flavour, so they work out much cheaper that their fresh counterparts. If you’re looking for the utmost quality of flavour, however, ground herbs and spices will always fall short of fresh ones.

At the end of the day it’s a matter of flavour vs convenience – if you have a lot of time to cook and don’t mind spending the extra bit of cash, go fresh. If convenience is more important and you’re content to cook with the ground spices, then use those instead.

Conclusion

Hopefully this article has given you a good introduction to herbs and spices and how to use them in your cooking. To finish off we’re giving you four flavour combos from countries around the world to give any dish a unique and exotic taste within minutes. You’ll notice that lots of the flavours overlap, allowing you to buy just a few ingredients and get lots of different flavours.

  • Mexico – Chilli, Coriander, Cumin, Lime Juice
  • India – Cumin, Coriander, Cloves, Cardamom
  • Italy – Garlic, Rosemary, Basil
  • Hungary – Onion, Lard, Paprika

What's Your Favourite Combination?

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© 2016 Tom Boddison

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