More than just seasonings, herbs and spices are as essential as any ingredient, enhancing, complementing and often defining the flavors of a dish. Fresh or dried, whole or ground, judicious use of herbs and spices elevates your cooking to a new level. Familiarize yourself with the most commonly used herbs, spices and blends; build a collection of jars in your pantry; and maybe even cultivate some greens on a windowsill. Doing so might inspire a new culinary world for even novice cooks.
Herbs are distinguishable from spices in that they are usually the leaves and stems of plants. Fresh herbs are nearly always superior to dried, but dried herbs are still a vital pantry staple and the next best alternative.
Basil is ubiquitous in Italian cuisine and the best friend of tomatoes and olive oil. The fresh leaves, whole or torn, shine in a caprese salad, on a pizza and blitzed into homemade pesto. Sprinkle dried basil into sauces, soups or bread dough.
Bay leaves, which come from a species of laurel tree, are one of few herbs that are better dried than fresh. The leaves have a slightly bitter and woodsy flavor. They are most often simmered whole in a stock, stew, soup or sauce, but removed before eating. Use them to subtly flavor a pot of lentils or beans.
Thin, tubular and bright green chives are a member of the onion family and have a sweet, mildly oniony flavor. Snip them with scissors to enhance scrambled eggs, omelets, baked potatoes and fish dishes. Stronger-flavored foods will overpower chives and you won’t notice their presence.
Cilantro, also known as coriander or Chinese parsley, has a distinctive peppery flavor and is used liberally in Mexican, Middle Eastern and Asian cooking. Discard all but the most tender stems and tear them along with the leaves, or use them whole as a raw garnish or near the end of cooking. Cilantro shines in guacamole and seviche, on fish tacos, in Thai curries and over chow mein.
Dill is leafy, light and fernlike in appearance with a sharp flavor that pairs well with sour cream, cucumber and smoked fish. Use it in homemade dips, in quick pickles and alongside lox.
Aromatic and slightly citrusy, marjoram and its close cousin oregano (or sweet marjoram) are common in Mediterranean cuisine. Greek and Italian fare, from salad dressings and marinades to kebabs and roast lamb, benefit from either herb.
Mint is fresh, clean tasting, fragrant and familiar. Use fresh peppermint leaves to make refreshing tea with nothing more than hot water. Spearmint lends itself to desserts, whether garnishing berries or paired with chocolate, as well as savory fare like grain salads, fish and lamb.
Parsley, once relegated to the role of a useless garnish, is one of the most versatile of all herbs. Curled and Italian (or flat-leaf) varieties add a freshness to dishes from northern Europe, the Mediterranean, Middle East and the Americas. It’s essential in falafel and tabbouleh. Mince it with garlic and lemon zest to make gremolata, a fantastic seasoning for vegetables, meats and fish alike.
Rosemary is piney and resiny with a very strong and distinctive aroma. Go easy with rosemary, whether stripped fresh from its woody stems or dried, to prevent unpleasantly strong bites. Rosemary is great with roasted meats and vegetables, especially pork and lamb.
Sage has a strong piney, peppery flavor that’s best limited to certain applications. British pork sausages and sage and onion stuffing for poultry would not be the same without sage. It’s also essential in some Italian dishes, including saltimbocca,
Tarragon is common in French cuisine and pairs well with poultry. It’s essential in a bearnaise sauce and is often infused in vinegar, which in turn makes a nice salad dressing.
Unlike leafy, green herbs, spices can be seeds, roots, fruits, vegetables or even bark. Their flavors are complex, sometimes adding heat and always offering flavors that have no substitute.
Cinnamon comes in stick or ground form, both sources from the dried bark of a tree. The spice has many sweet and some savory applications. You need it for desserts from apple pie to doughnuts and cookies, and a little goes a long way in defining the flavors of Greek moussaka and Persian rice dishes.
Cloves, dark brown, woody stems, are hard, astringent and strongly aromatic. Traditional European Christmas fare, including mince pies and Christmas pudding, require cloves. They are also used to decoratively stud a whole ham. Ground cloves should be used in small amounts; pick out whole ones before eating.
The herb and spice aisle of the supermarket offers a number of blended seasoning mixtures intended for specific applications. They can be quite useful.
Poultry seasoning, usually a blend of parsley, thyme, tarragon, marjoram and bay leaf, is perfect for seasoning the skin of a roast chicken or turkey. Bouquet garni is whole stalks of parsley, thyme and whole bay leaves. Tie them in a bundle with kitchen twine or inside a piece of cheesecloth to simmer with a sauce, stock or stew. Remove and discard a bouquet garni before serving the dish. Fines herbes comprise equal amounts of parsley, chives, tarragon and chervil. Herbes de Provence is rosemary, oregano, marjoram, thyme, savory and lavender.
The most common spice blends used in Indian cuisine are curry powder, with considerable variance in components, proportions and heat; and garam masala, which is usually added near the end of the cooking time. Curry powder nearly always includes cumin, coriander and turmeric. Chinese five-spice powder combines Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, clove, fennel and cassia. Chili powder for seasoning chili is usually a blend of ground red chili powder with cumin and other spices. Pumpkin pie spice, a seasonal offering, is cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger.