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Herbs and spices, where do they come from, how do we get them and what can you do with them

Updated on January 20, 2013

Bouquet garni

Herbal infusion
Herbal infusion

A bit About herbs and spices

Nothing brings people back to the table better than a menu full of wonderful flavours. The proper seasonings and herbs added to the right foods will make every meal a true culinary adventure.

Here are a few things you might like to know before you choose the ingredients you will need to enhance your favorite foods.

When you talk about “SPICES” you are talking about over 50 different spices, herbs and seeds. Each has its own personality and flavor.

Strength and quality should be the most important consideration when purchasing the herbs and spices you will need, some spices are extremely expensive, but the actual amount of the spice used negates the cost.

When storing your spices, herbs, and seasonings, store them in a sealed container and keep them out of the air and direct sunlight as much as possible.

Spice refers to herbs, aromatic seeds and seasoned salt. There are also oriental and tropical spices.

Spices, spices and more spices

sacks of spice
sacks of spice

Parsley, sage, Rosemary, and Thyme

Name that herb


Here are a few of the plants referred to as herbs and spices,

·         Herbs:  Thyme, Tarragon, Savory, Sage, Rosemary, Parsley, Oregano, Mint, Marjoram, Chervil, Bay Leaves, Basil

·         True Spices: Allspice, Cayenne, Cinnamon, Cloves, Ginger, Mace, Nutmeg, Paprika, Black pepper, White pepper, Red pepper, Saffron, Turmeric

·         Blended or Spice Mix: Chili powder, Curry powder, Fine herbs, Pickling spice, Poultry seasoning, Pumpkin spice

·         Seasoned Salts: Celery salt, Garlic salt, Onion salt

·         Aromatic Seeds: Anise seed, Caraway, Cardamom, Celery, Cumin, Dill, Mustard, Poppy seed

Herbs are leaves from plants grown in a more temperate zone than true spices. Herbs include bay leaves marjoram, oregano, basil and many others. The leaves are dried, left whole or crushed.

Seeds used for cooking are of plants which grow in tropical and temperate zones around the world. They include celery seed, chili pepper seed, dill seed and many more.

Spice Blends are simply a mixture of several spices and herbs. Curry powder is a blend of 5-7 different spices. Chili powder is a blend of hot spices. There are salt blends used in meat cooking and for marinates. Garlic salt and onion salt are a mixture of dried and ground seasoning with salt.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Some recipes will ask for fresh herbs instead of dried herbs. This is an easy conversion,

·         15ml of fresh herbs= 5ml of dried herbs,

·         5ml of dried herbs = 2ml of powdered herbs.

Spices that are improperly stored for too long tend to have a dust like aroma. This is due to mold. The spice has lost its potency. Spices have no calorie value.


Herbs, by the box, bag, or basket

fresh herbs
fresh herbs

More herbs and what to do with them

A few herbs you may like to try.

The Bay leaf is a herb known around the world and has been used in kitchens for thousands of years. It is native to the eastern Mediterranean, but is found growing in gardens around the world. It can be grown indoors; enabling you to have fresh bay leafs all year long. Bay leafs are used in soups and stews, on meats or in combination with other herbs to help enhance the flavors of many different foods. Bay leafs can be used fresh or dried and are usually whole. Bay leafs are famous for being a necessary ingredient in a Bouquet Gari, a small bundle of herbs used in the making of stocks and soups.

Thyme is also an herb that is native to the Mediterranean. Thyme that grows wild is a very nice find because even though it may not be as beautiful a bush as a cultivated one, I believe the wild thyme comes out far ahead in the flavor department. For the most part the leaves and flowers are used in cooking. You can save the branches for your BBQ. Make a small bundle of dried thyme stems, tie them together with butchers twine and soak them for a couple of hours. When you are ready to cook put the wet branches on your BBQ, close to a flame (but not in it). When you start to see the smoke rise, ad your meat to the grill and let it cook. The flavor of the smoke will be enjoyed by all. Store your fresh thyme in a plastic bag for up to a week in the refrigerator. Dry thyme will last about 6 months, keep it dry, sealed and in the cool darkness. 

Cilantro is by far at its best when used fresh and yes it is a native to the Mediterranean and the western parts of Asia. Cilantro gives fresh salsa a delightful and delicious kick. The leaves the stem and even the roots are tasty. Cilantro is available pretty much every where and anywhere you can buy fresh herbs and spices. When cooking with fresh Cilantro leaves it is best to add them last. The longer the leaves are cooked at a high temperature the more flavor loss occurs. The roots are used for curry paste in some Asian regions.

Parsley grows in the temperate zones on the planet. You will find it, in one form or another in most, if not all kitchens in North America. Parsley is used to enhance and bring out the flavors of the other herbs being used. Parsley is great with most vegetables, egg dishes, soups and fish, along with many other foods. Parsley can be bought at most grocery stores, open markets or you can grow your own. Parsley mixes very well with chives, garlic, basil, chili and any number of herbs and spices. Parsley is native to the eastern Mediterranean.

Basil is not native to the Mediterranean; it is from the tropical regions of Asia. It has been grown and harvested in Asia for over 3 thousand years. You can now find basil just about everywhere. Basil is part of the Mint family and grows just as prolifically as any other mint. Sweet basil is best when picked and used right away. When cooking basil with tomato’s, the basil holds its entire wonderful flavor, but turns black. So don’t think you’ve burnt your dinner if you see black flacks in the tomato sauce. Purple basil is the good-looking brother to Sweet Basil. It is just as tasty and flavorful and turns just as black in tomato sauce. Purple basil is also known as opal basil.

Sage is native to (you guessed it), the Mediterranean. In North America sage is best known as one of the key ingredients in the Thanksgiving turkey stuffing as well as a key ingredient in pork breakfast sausage. It is used to enhance the flavor of bread and is used in a bouquet garni. Purple sage is not as fragrant as common sage. The color of the leaf is a soft purple and when its flowers bloom the flowers are blue. There are a number of types of sage that vary in color, leaf shape and taste.

1. Black Currant sage

2. Pineapple sage

3. Variegated golden sage

4. Greek sage

5. Multi color sage

Sage is also known as Salvia and there are over 700 varieties of Salvia.

Fresh sage leaves should be used as soon as possible. You can store dried sage for up to six months as long as it is kept out of the light and is stored in an airtight container.

Dill is a native to several areas. The western parts of Asia, southern parts of Russia and where else but the eastern Mediterranean. Dill has a stand alone flavor all unto itself. You can preserve dill by drying it or you can freeze it. You lose little or no flavor by freezing it. When you dry your dill you loose a lot of the flavor. Freeze the stem and all. When you need some just take what you need and leave the rest frozen. Dill seed is very nice to use when you use a slow cooker or crock pot. Dill weed or dill seeds are very good in salad dressings. Dill is now very common in most kitchens in North America and the UK. Dill is probably most famous for the wonderful flavor it gives to Dill Pickles.

Oregano is from The Mediterranean and the western regions of Asia. Oregano is a key ingredient in many Italian recipes. It is also a key ingredient in many Mexican dishes. It blends well with basil and thyme. When dried oregano has a much more intense aroma and flavor than when it is fresh. Fresh oregano is very nice when served with cheeses like Old Cheddar or Mozzarella cheese. The leaves and flowers are the parts of the plant that are most used. You can also use the dried stems in you barbeque or you can use it in your meat smoker. There are a number of varieties of oregano available.

1. Common Oregano

2. Golden oregano

3. Syrian oregano

4. Greek oregano

5. Mexican oregano.

Oregano goes well with pork, chicken, beef and is wonderful mixed with olive oil and drizzled over hot steamed vegetables.

Herbs on a platter


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