Whether you’re a kitchen pro or a “nuke it in the microwave” kind of home cook, it’s safe to say that you probably know your way around a salt and pepper shaker. Adding salt or pepper is an ideal way to add flavor and seasoning to a variety of dishes that would otherwise be plain.
But when it comes to some of the more intense spices and herbs – such as turmeric, cardamom, cilantro – many people shy away from using them since they’re unfamiliar with their different textures and flavor profiles.
Read this list of herbs and spices to become acquainted with some of the best and most useful herbs and spices available, many of which have played an important role in cooking for centuries. You’ll know your way around the spice aisle in no time.
What’s the Difference Between Herbs and Spices?
Herbs are used for two main purposes: to add flavor to all different kinds of foods and in natural medicines. For example, when consumed on a daily basis, basil is said to reduce inflammation and prevent signs of aging. Holy Basil, an herb extract made from basil, is also good for reducing stress when taken regularly over a few months.
Spices are usually smaller than herbs because they’re made from smaller parts of the plant, unlike herbs, which come from the leaves of the plant. Like herbs, spices add flavor to food and have health benefits. Examples of common spices include paprika, nutmeg and turmeric. When using a spice, keep in mind that a little goes a long way since spices have a stronger flavor than herbs.
Essentially, an herb typically comes from the leaf of a plant, while spices originate from other parts of the plant, including seeds, dried bark or twigs.
This herb, which belongs to the mint family, is also known as Saint Joseph’s Wort. It's commonly used in Italian cuisine, particularly in tomato dishes, which makes it a perfect add-on for pizzas. You may have eaten a margherita pizza, which is essentially tomato, mozzarella and basil.
You can also add basil to pasta sauces, soups and salads (mozzarella balls and basil make a great combo).
If you’re cooking chicken, you have “thyme” to use a dash of thyme in your dish. It’s similar to rosemary in that it’s a fragrant herb that goes well with the flavors of chicken, particularly roast chicken.
With a slight minty flavor that doesn’t overpower the dish, it also pairs well with eggs and custards.
Parsley is an herb that’s often considered a mere garnish and is sometimes overlooked as a result. However, its mild bitter taste and freshness mean it's good in salads, mixed with melted butter to top fresh bread, or in glazes for meats and vegetables. Freshen your breath after a meal with a pinch of parsley.
The two types of parsley are curly and Italian. Curly parsley has a mild taste and crinkly leaves, and it should be finely chopped before use, while Italian parsley is flat and more flavorful.
Crushed Red Pepper/Red Pepper Flakes
When you’re trying to spice up a dish, use either crushed red peppers or red pepper flakes. They have the same flavor and differ in texture only.
Use either crushed or flaked red pepper to infuse a spicy kick to sandwiches, tomato soups and Mexican dishes. The flaked version is often offered as a condiment in Italian restaurants or pizzerias to sprinkle on pasta or pizza.
Ginger, a spice from China, is available fresh or ground, and both versions add a sweet and warm aroma and a spicy flavor. Although you can substitute ground ginger for fresh, it’s more often used in baking. Fresh ginger, on the other hand, adds some zest and is a frequent ingredient in Thai, Chinese and Indian cuisine.
Thanks to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, ginger is a good addition to smoothies. If you’re suffering from nausea or dizziness, try taking ginger in candy or capsule form.
Find cinnamon at the supermarket either ground or in cinnamon sticks. Ground cinnamon is often used to add a sweet flavor to desserts, such as pull-apart cinnamon bread, sticky buns and apple cinnamon pie. You can also use some cinnamon for sweetness in your morning coffee instead of sugar.
Cinnamon bark or sticks, on the other hand, are often used in winter and fall drinks, such as mulled wine or hot apple cider.
A bay leaf is an herb that’s often used in hearty soups, stocks and stews. However, you should remove the leaf or leaves prior to eating the dish. Bay leaves have a hard stem that’s difficult to chew. Bay leaves add a piquant flavor.
Use dried bay leaves, not fresh, since fresh bay leaves can overpower the dish. If you do elect to use fresh bay leaves, remove them before the dish is fully cooked.
This herb comes from the same plant species as coriander. Coriander is the spice made from the seeds of the plant, while cilantro is the leaves.
Cilantro is often used in sour cream or in Mexican and Spanish dishes. It has a mild soapy flavor to many people that’s caused by the aldehydes in it.
Oregano is a go-to herb for a reason: It pairs well with many dishes, particularly Greek and Italian cuisine. The word oregano comes from the Greek, and it translates as “joy of the mountain.” Expect a slightly bitter, woodsy flavor when you add oregano.
Many people grow up consuming mint in a variety of ways, whether in a cup of relaxing peppermint tea, in minty-flavored toothpaste, or as a mouth-freshening mint candy before a date. Mint is also used in peas and bean dishes and in Middle Eastern salads like tabbouleh.
Mint has a soothing effect on the stomach, which is why peppermint tea is the perfect drink to sip on after a big meal.
Turmeric is an Indian spice that helps with inflammation thanks to the compounds it contains called curcuminoids. Turmeric has large amounts of curcumin, which is linked to many health benefits, including an improvement to brain function.
Use turmeric in curries (it’s what gives curry that yellow color), smoothies, cauliflower steaks and even turmeric lattes. Just be careful when using turmeric; it can stain your clothes, hands and countertops.
Why Do We Use Herbs and Spices?
Besides adding flavor, texture and aromas to food, both herbs and spices help define a culture’s identity. They give the rest of the world a glimpse into that specific culture through their national dishes that utilize these flavoring agents.
In Indian culture, for example, a wide variety of spices have been used for centuries. Some Indian families pass down their knowledge of spices from generation to generation and even prepare their own unique spice blends. Indian cuisine contains many flavorful spices, including curry powder, cardamom, garam masala, cilantro, basil and more.
Fresh Herbs vs. Dry Herbs: Which Is Better?
It turns out that fresh isn’t always better when it comes to herbs. When you are making a dish that requires a cooking time of 15 minutes or more, you will actually cook away the benefits that make herbs so useful in the first place. On the other hand, if you’re making a dish that requires little to no cooking, such as a salad, then fresh herbs are a great choice.
The thing to remember when using dried herbs instead of fresh is to use the 3-to-1 ratio (1:3). For example, if a recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of fresh basil, use only 1 teaspoon since 3 teaspoons equals 1 tablespoon.
What Are the Uses of Herbs and Spices?
Spices and herbs are quite literally the spice of life in cooking. They elevate dishes in ways that a lot of other foods can’t, and they often have several health benefits. Use them to add flavor and seasoning to a dish without the need to rely on salt, sugar or fat.
If you’re on a low-calorie diet and eating a lot of chicken breasts, for instance, instead of adding flavor to your chicken with butter, you can save calories by using fresh garlic and rosemary to elevate the flavor.
The same goes for vegetables. While growing up, you may not have eaten your daily minimum requirement of veggies. Now, as an adult, you may find that even the strongest-tasting vegetable, such as Brussels sprouts, is delicious when roasted with some salt, garlic and sage.
Why Are Herbs and Spices Beneficial to Our Health?
The health benefits of spices and herbs vary. In a nutshell, though, most spices and herbs, if not all, provide nutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and other benefits.
Herbs and spices have been studied so closely over the centuries that a specific job title exists for a specialist in their use: an herbalist, a person trained in using and growing herbs. Herbalists meet with clients and help them use herbs to cure various mind and body ailments, such as anxiety, stress, body pain and inflammation.
- Medical News Daily: Why Everyone Should Eat Basil
- The Spruce Eats: What Are Herbs?
- Masala Mommas: 7 Essential Indian Spices
- Tasty Indian Recipes: Indian Food Spices
- Martha Stewart: Ratio of Fresh Herbs to Dry Herbs
- One Green Planet: 20 Cinnamon-y Desserts Perfect for Fall
- Good Food: Fresh V Dry Bay Leaves: What's The Difference?
- Bon Appetit: Do Bay Leaves Actually Taste Like Anything?
- Dr. Weil: Cooking With Spices: Cilantro
- Britannica: Why Does Cilantro Taste Like Soap to Some People?
- Cals Arizona: Oregano
- Almanac: GROWING MINT PLANTING, GROWING, AND HARVESTING MINT
- Healthline: Cilantro vs Coriander: What's the Difference?
- Healthline: 11 Proven Health Benefits of Ginger
- Real Simple: Basic Spice Checklist
- Food Facts. Mercola: What Is Parsley Good For?
- Serious Eats: Parsley: It's More Than Just a Garnish
Sarah is a multi-platform writer and editor. Her work has appeared in USA Today, Vital Proteins, Healthline, Diply, and more. When she's not writing, she's trying to keep up with her border collie, Emmy.