Herbs and spices are a vital ingredient in cooking. Without them, dishes such as curry wouldn’t exist. Here are some of the most common herbs and spices and their uses.
Herbs and spices can enhance just about anything you cook. A pasta dish can be lifted to new heights with fresh basil or parsley; warm spices such as cinnamon and star anise lend themselves to all kinds of Asian cuisine. Here are some of the most popular herbs and spices, and ones that I use all the time.
Basil. This fragrant, aniseed-scented herb is used most often in Italian cooking. It goes particularly well with tomatoes and is used to make pesto, a favourite sauce for pasta. A puree made from fresh basil leaves and extra virgin olive oil is wonderful stirred into home made tomato soup.
Bay Leaves. These glossy green leaves have a subtle aroma and flavour. Unfortunately, the fresh leaves can have quite a bitter aftertaste, so dried bay leaves are used instead. To dry your own bay leaves, just hang a branch in an airy spot and the leaves will dry in a couple of weeks. You can, of course, buy them ready-dried. They are used to flavour soups, casseroles, sauces and marinades.
Chives. A member of the onion family, chives have an almost sweet oniony flavour that goes well with just about anything. They are easy to grow in the garden and last from April through to October. To prepare chives, hold a bunch of the stems in your hand and snip them into pieces with a pair of kitchen scissors.
Dill. This herb has delicate green fronds rather than leaves and has a subtle aniseed flavour similar to fennel. Dill goes well with fish, potatoes, cucumber and salad dressings. My favourite way to use it is in a potato salad.
Mint. This herb is very easy to grow at home, but the plants can go wild and take over the entire garden if you allow them. It’s best to grow them in a tub to keep them contained. Mint is the ideal herb to go with lamb, but also potatoes, fish and marinades. A couple of fresh mint sprigs in a pan of new potatoes will make your kitchen smell wonderful.
Parsley. This is the most popular of all herbs and has lots of different uses. It’s easy to grow and comes in many varieties. I use both the curly leaf parsley and the flat leaf kind. They taste the same so it’s a matter of preference. Use it to make parsley sauce for fish, or to garnish pasta dishes. Parsley butter is lovely melted over grilled steak. It has a lovely fresh taste and aroma.
Rosemary. This is a fragrant herb with thin, spiky leaves. A rosemary bush will grow happily in your garden with minimal attention. The stalks are tough so strip the leaves off the stalk and chop finely before using. Rosemary goes particularly well with pork and lamb and a sprig dropped into a tomato pasta sauce imparts a lovely, subtle aroma and taste.
Sage. This herb has pale green leaves and a very strong flavour and aroma, so use it sparingly. Sage has an affinity with pork and poultry and can be used to make a savoury stuffing, like sage and onion. Sage is also said to have medicinal properties.
Tarragon. This has a distinctive aroma and is used a lot in French cooking. It goes well with meat, especially pork and chicken. It is the star ingredient in bearnaise sauce, which is a great partner for steak. Use tarragon sparingly so that the taste doesn’t overpower the other ingredients in your dish. It’s not as easy to grow as some other herbs but you can buy it in packets from the supermarket. Use a couple of sprigs to infuse some white wine vinegar.
Thyme. This herb can be used fresh or dried. A sprig or two in a beef stew gives a subtle but noticeable flavour and it’s good in salad dressings too. A couple of sprigs put inside a chicken before roasting adds flavour. Thyme is easy to grow at home and the leaves can be harvested for most of the year.
Black Peppercorns. These are actually berries, picked and then dried. They are a favourite condiment on tabletops throughout the world and deliver a spicy, fragrant hit of flavour. The inside of the peppercorn is the hottest part. Green peppercorns are often preserved in brine without drying first.
Cardamom. These fragrant little pods are usually added to Indian food and are pale green in colour. The little black seeds inside are what give cardamom its flavour, which varies between flowery-citrus and eucalyptus, depending on the country of origin. Black cardamoms are available but the green ones are much more common. They can also be used in sweet dishes.
Cinnamon. A sweet, fragrant spice, cinnamon can be used in sweet and savoury dishes. It’s made from the bark of the Cassia tree, rolled into tubes and sold as cinnamon sticks. It’s also available as a ground version. An important ingredient in curry powder and garam masala.
Coriander Seeds. These are tiny, round, light brown seeds with a citrus flavour like burnt oranges. They lose their fragrance very quickly once ground so it’s best to buy the whole spice and grind it as and when it’s needed. Used in Indian cooking and good in marinades.
Cumin Seeds. These are tiny, oblong seeds, dark brown in colour with a strong, distinctive flavour. When dry-roasted and crushed, the flavour changes completely to nutty and citrussy. A vital ingredient in curry powders and pastes and used to give warmth and flavour to chilli con carne.
Fenugreek. These golden little nuggets have a strong, almost bitter taste but the smell is wonderful, almost like curried celery! Used in curries, pickles and chutneys and sauces, the seeds are very difficult to grind. So if a recipe calls for ground fenugreek, it’s best to buy it ready-ground.
Mustard Seeds. These tiny seeds from the mustard plant come in white, yellow and black varieties, with white being the mildest and black the most pungent. Frying the seeds in oil brings out a nutty taste and aroma. Good in curries and pickles.
Nutmeg and Mace. Nutmeg is another spice that can be used for sweet or savoury dishes. Nutmeg is the inner part of the fruit and mace is the outer casing. Mace is much milder, so more suitable for fish dishes. Grown in Indonesia, this spice is perfect for lamb dishes, aubergines, grated into a bechamel sauce or added to sweet rice pudding.
Saffron. This has been called ‘the spice of the gods’ and no wonder – it’s the most expensive spice in the world. A single gram of high-quality saffron costs around $65. Saffron is made from the stamens of the crocus plant and harvesting is done by hand. It has a deep golden colour, almost orange, and can be used in sweet and savoury dishes. Although very expensive, you only need a few strands so it will last a long time.
Star Anise. This is a most attractive-looking spice. The seed pod is shaped like an eight-pointed star, with the glossy brown seeds nestling in the grooves. Used to add a warm aniseed flavour to Indian and Chinese cooking and it can also be used in sweet recipes like chocolate cake and rice pudding.
Turmeric. This bright yellow spice is used a lot in Indian cooking, its vivid colour and subtle earthy flavour add interest to dishes such as pilau rice. Turmeric has many medicinal properties that are used in home remedies in various parts of the world. It grows as a root, similar in appearance to fresh ginger.
I really hope you’ve enjoyed finding out about all the different herbs and spices and that this article has given you some ideas on how to use these wonderful herbs and spices in your cooking. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below.
Garlic is important for adding flavour to your food. For more information please go to how to cook with fresh garlic
For recipes using spices go to authentic Indian food recipes
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