I didn’t always love herbs and spices. I couldn’t tell the difference between cardamom and cumin, fennel and fenugreek, or tarragon and thyme… mostly because I didn’t know what any of them were. That all changed when I got my first cookbook and saw strange words in the ingredient lists. Once I started learning about them, I was hooked. I wanted to try these magical ingredients that hailed from around the world.
I now regularly indulge in well-seasoned foods, which may or may not be spicy. (But often are.) I love curry, chili, paella, you name it, and I regularly adorn my sautéed vegetables, grilled fish, and baked potatoes with seasonings.
Apparently I am unusual among white people, who are the butt of jokes for their lack of spice. I must admit that’s a fair stereotype: I’ve rarely had a white roommate who stocked more than salt, pepper, and perhaps a container of garlic powder, and you can definitely taste the difference between savory “ethnic” cuisine and what you get at Cracker Barrel.
I believe, though, that herbs and spices are for everyone. So, I’ve put together some thoughts on how to start incorporating the wide variety of herbs and spices into the food you make at home.
The Difference Between Herbs and Spices
What is a spice, anyway? Or an herb? Where do they come from? Generally, spices are derived from the fruits, roots, bark, seeds or stalks of a plant, while herbs are the leaves. It’s that simple.
Here are some common sources of herbs and spices:
Chili: Dried, ground chili peppers can be made into a wide variety of chili powders, as well as paprika.
Coriander: This plant produces both cilantro (the leaves) and the spice, also called coriander (the seeds).
Piper nigrum: The fruits of this vine are called peppercorns, and black pepper is a ground-up version of it.
It’s always a good idea to use fresh herbs when possible, but they don’t keep well. In a pinch, dried herbs work well if you store them in a cool, dark place, then rub them slightly before you add them to your dish.
Spices are most potent when they’re freshly ground, so you should consider investing in a spice grinder so that you can buy whole peppercorns and make your own black pepper!
How to Build a Flavor Palette
You want to have your herb and spice blend touch each part of your taste buds. As you may have learned in school, different parts of your tongue register different taste profiles. The back of the tongue registers bitterness, the sides register sour tastes, the sides of the front register saltiness, and the tip tastes sweetness. This map of your tongue provides some guidance for how to plan your flavor palette.
The areas registering bitterness and sourness are larger than the parts registering sweetness and saltiness, which is why it’s important to avoid overusing bitter or sour components.
Balance your blend by choosing a base spice, then adding ingredients that touch on the base flavor profile. For example, let’s look at this common curry powder recipe:
- 2 tbsp. turmeric
- 1 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. ground coriander
- 1 tbsp. ground cumin
- 2 tsp. cinnamon
- 2 tsp. ground ginger
- 1 1/2 tsp. mustard powder
- 1 tsp. ground cardamom
- 1 tsp. ground cloves
- 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
- 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
The turmeric has a woodsy, broad flavor that can tie the other spices together. The next ingredient is coriander, which has a slightly zesty flavor but is still earthy. Then, we add cumin, which has smoky notes. Already, we’ve got zest balanced with smoke, but still with an earthy base.
Next, we add cardamom and cloves, both of which are highly aromatic. Adding too much of these would overpower the other flavors. Notice that the smallest proportions go to the peppers — one derived from peppercorns, the other from chiles. It’s important to let these be the background to your spice blend, not the dominant flavor.
When building a spice blend for a dish, think about the flavors you want to draw out, then find something that complements them on the tongue. For example, citrus-y herbs such as parsley and smoky spices such as paprika both enhance the mild, buttery flavor of whitefish. Savory herbs such as basil and earthy spices such as curry bring out the deep flavors of steak. And aromatic herbs such as rosemary combine with fragrant ginger to enhance the bitter flavor of asparagus.
How to Use Herbs and Spices
A lot of people add spice after the food is done cooking. A bit of extra salt or black pepper is fine to add after the fact, especially if you want your guests to be able to adjust the saltiness to their taste. But usually, you’ll want to add your spices to your food before cooking it; that’s when meats and vegetables are most absorbent. Note that salt removes moisture from raw meat, rendering it tougher. So save your salt for the dinner table.
The opposite is true for herbs. Herbs almost always lose their flavor when they’re cooked, so to maximize their taste, add fresh herbs after the dish is cooked. If you want to add herbs into your food before it’s cooked, you’ll want to use dried herbs. Then, create a basic marinade with your herb/spice blend and douse the food in it. (Note that dried herbs are more potent, so use a bit less than you would fresh.)
You should add spices to foods while they’re chilled or at room temperature. Many spices lose their flavor or even become bitter when you add them to hot environments. If you’re sautéing something, season the oil before you heat it up, with your hot spices, then rub any sweet or mild spices directly into the meat or vegetables. As mentioned above, you can create a basic marinade with your herb/spice blend and some broth to help the food soak them up. That way, the flavors get absorbed into the food before the heat kills them.
I have experienced the heartbreak of good food covered in burned herbs, which is why in addition to the above, I recommend slow-cooking your food. Whether you use a slow-cooker or simply sauté or roast the dish at a lower temperature for a longer time, you’ll prevent the flavors from being zapped. (Note: Please check the internal temperature of meats to ensure that all microbes have been killed.)
My spice cabinet currently has everything from anise to tarragon. I recently invested in a new spice rack to hold my collection, and I tend to spend way too long in the grocery store admiring the amazing range of dried herbs and spices and agonizing over whether I can afford saffron. There’s a reason that spices were the reason for trade routes and empires, more so than many other natural resources. There’s something about them. They draw out the best qualities of our food, and they blend together in a symphony of flavor.
A lot of people say that cooking is art, but I think it’s music. One of my favorite things to do is to season my food, to find the best version of a dish. As the saying goes, variety is the spice of life — and a variety of spices makes life better.
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