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9 Benefits of Cooking with Herbs and Spices

“Good cooking is an art, as well as a form of intense pleasure… A recipe is only a theme, which an intelligent cook can play each time with a variation.” – Madame Jehane Benoit, chef

a mortar and pestle with fresh herbs1. The first and most obvious reason for cooking with herbs and spices is that they can transform your ordinary recipes into exciting culinary experiences. But there are even more good reasons to master the magic of cooking with herbs and spices.

2. They will stretch your budget. By using herbs and spices in your everyday cooking, you can turn cheap staple ingredients into tasty dishes.

3. They offer you variety and gastronomic delight for every individual in the family.

4. You can easily make your own connoisseur pantry products like herb oils, vinegars, and mustards, which make great gifts. You can even turn this into a part-time or full-time business venture.

5. It is always a pleasure to receive compliments for our culinary creations. Herbs and spices will certainly earn you compliments when entertaining friends and family. Used skilfully they really are the ‘cherry on the cake’ for all your dishes.

Then for the more health conscious amongst us, there are many more advantages:

6. Fresh herbs especially are wonderful sources of concentrated micro-nutrients, like antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. All of these are in an unadulterated natural form.

7. In these times of ‘instant’ vegetables – in tins and frozen packs – it is clear that herbs and spices can do much to improve the taste and nutritional value of our veggies.

8. Certain herbs and spices will stimulate your appetite and improve your digestion and general health and well-being.

9. They are vital in special diets such as low salt and low fat diets.

One can truly say that herbs and spices give your cooking that ‘something special’!

What do you regard as the most important benefit of cooking with herbs and spices?

This article is also available in Afrikaans.

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How To Make Your Own Herb and Spice Blends

Making your own herb and spice blends is the ultimate in culinary adventure. With a mere handful of different herbs, spices and other flavourings you can create a nearly endless variety of healthy gourmet dishes.

Your aim in making a blend should be to produce a balanced, complex flavour that makes your diners want to take another bite, not analyze it.

You will soon find that by simply using one or two herbs and spices you won’t be able to achieve this aim. You will, most likely, be using three or four herbs, plus a spice or two, resulting in greater depth to your finished dishes.

How do you formulate blends?

The easiest way to start is to copy classic recipes. These have endured the test of time because they work. And making them to perfection comes with automatic bragging rights.

“Classic dishes typically consist of combinations – of flavours, textures, even aromas and colour – that history has been hard-pressed to offer improvements upon. Their having stood the test of time speaks to the elegance of their form, in combining flavours harmoniously but, in many cases, synergistically, such that the whole is indeed greater than the sum of the individual parts” – Dornenburg and Page.

How To Deconstruct the Classic Herb and Spice Blends

Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When you study the classic herb and spice blends a good learning tool is to deconstruct the recipe. This will deepen your understanding and appreciation of why these blends have stood the test of time. And it allows you to develop your savoir faire for creating your own blends.

When we deconstruct a recipe we build it up ingredient by ingredient, technique by technique, tasting at each step to determine how the ingredient/technique contribute to the recipe. Doing this with most herb and spice blends is very easy as no cooking is involved.

Let me give you an example…

Fines Herbes is a fresh herb blend consisting of equal proportions of finely chopped parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon. When deconstructing the recipe you start with a simple blend of say parsley and chives (assuming you know how both taste and smell on their own).

Taste and smell the parsley and chive blend then blend in the chervil. Taste and smell. Then blend in the tarragon. Taste and smell. Is the whole indeed greater than the sum of the parts?

A Basic Blending Formula

Once you’ve tried and mastered the classic recipes you’ll have the skill and flair to adapt them to suit your own palate.

“Mastering the classics doesn’t mean doing the same things the same way they’ve always been done – it means making them exactly right for you today. There’s genius in those classic dishes that isn’t always appreciated.” – Rick Bayless chef-owner of Frontera Grill in Chicago.

Formulating your own blends is easier than most people think. What’s more, it is a wonderful creative outlet. Start by tweaking the proportions of any classic or add or omit one or two ingredients. I also like to make traditional dry blends with as many fresh herbs as is possible.

Finding the correct proportions can sometimes be a challenge, but over the years we’ve develop a loose proportion guide which you can try when you start making a new blend from scratch. It looks as follows:

  • Fusion herbs – 6 parts in total
  • Mild herbs – 4 parts in total
  • Robust herbs and spices – 2 parts in total
  • Other flavourings – 1 part in total

Remember that the proportions of the different herbs and spices in a blend will determine the character of the blend. Equal parts of both mild and robust herbs for example will result in the robust ones masking the mild one

Recipe 1: Dried Barbecue Spice Blend

Say you are going camping and you would like to make a dried general use Barbecue Spice Mix to take along.

Starting with the fusion herbs you know that most of them don’t retain their flavour well when dried. So you can safely omit the fusion herbs in this recipe or you can say “what the heck – lets use them anyway.” You only have dried Italian Parsley and, heaven forgive, some dried chives on hand. So you decide on 4 parts Italian Parsley and 2 parts chives. Giving you a total of 6 parts fusion herbs.

As you can see this is where the endless variations start. You could just as well have tried 5 parts and 1 part, or you could have used more chives and less Italian Parsley. Just ensure that you “roughly” use 6 parts in total.

You can use any measure for measuring out a part. It can be a teaspoon, tablespoon, cup or a wheelbarrow. It depends on the final quantity you want to make. Just don’t change your measure during the recipe.

Next comes your mild herbs of which you need 4 parts in total. You decide on 2 parts marjoram and 2 parts lemon thyme.

For the robust herbs you decide on adding 1 part winter savory and 1 part rosemary to the mixing bowl . Making 2 parts in total.

You want the mix to have a bit of a bite so for the “other flavourings” you add ½ part black peppercorns and ½ part dried chillies. Making up 1 part in total.

Your resulting recipe thus looks as follows:

  • Fusion herbs – 4 parts Italian Parsley and 2 parts chives = 6 parts
  • Mild herbs – 2 parts marjoram and 2 parts lemon thyme = 4 parts
  • Robust herbs – 1 part winter savory and 1 part rosemary = 2 parts
  • Other – ½ part black pepper and ½ part chilli = 1 part

After mixing the ingredients thoroughly you grind it using a mortar and pestle, or an electric grinder, which allows you to put it into a shaker.

Next you have a taste. It lacks a bit bite and “body”, so you add another pinch of chilli, a little bit of herb salt and a dash of brown sugar. Mix again, taste. Perfect.

Recipe 2: Fresh Barbecue Spice Blend

For our next example let us pretend that somebody did not like your idea of making a dried mix to take along on your trip.

Fresh is always best and they insist on having a fresh Barbecue Spice blend. You duly oblige.

  • Fusion herbs – 3 parts parsley, 2 parts garlic chives and 1 part bay leaves
  • Mild herbs – 2 parts basil, 1 part cilantro and 1 part lemon thyme
  • Robust herbs – 2 parts oregano
  • Other – ¼ part garlic, ¼ part pepper, ½ part fresh chilli and some lemon zest for extra measure.

You combine all the ingredients in a food processor and chop them evenly.

Next you start adding olive oil teaspoon by teaspoon and continue chopping till you have a smooth paste.

Taste. Perfect.

If you stored this in a small sterilised airtight jar it should keep for up to 2 weeks in your camping refrigerator.

Now it’s your turn.

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3 Guiding Principles when Cooking With Herbs and Spices

Basket with freshly harvested herbs and spices.
Your primary aim when cooking with herbs and spices is to highlight certain flavours and to create new ones. As with anything, there are some exceptions. Photo Copyright iStockPhoto

When cooking with herbs and spices, as with all else in life, there are principles you can follow that will guarantee your success. The three you’ll discover below are the most important ones and when ignored they have ruined many a dish.

Principle #1: Herbs and Spices Must Compliment Your Main Ingredients

Your primary aim when cooking with herbs and spices is to highlight certain flavours and to create new ones. As with anything, there are some exceptions. But generally speaking, herbs and spices are meant to compliment a dish, not overwhelm it.

That being said, be careful of using too small amounts of herbs and spices in your cooking. If you can’t taste the difference, you’re just wasting your time, money and effort.

You need to find just the right amount to use, i.e. the right balance.

To achieve this, learn to use the ‘Salt Principle’. From your own experience you will know that once you have added salt to a dish, you can’t remove it. The same goes for herbs and especially spices.

Rather add just a touch of herbs/spices and allow the flavours to develop. Taste and add more if needed.

If it is your first attempt at cooking with a specific herb/spice, rather halve the amounts asked for in the recipe and apply the ‘Salt Principle’. It is preferable to err on the side of caution rather than overdoing it.

Remember that it is very easy to spoil a dish when using dried herbs and when using spices. However, when you make the switch from dried herbs to fresh herbs, keep the ‘Salt Principle’ in mind.

Tip: If you want to replace the fresh herbs in a recipe with dried herbs, use the following guideline:

1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs =

1 teaspoon crushed dried herbs =

¼ teaspoon powdered dried herbs.

Principle #2: Use Tried and Tested Combinations

It is logical that not all herbs and spices go together well. For some reason, though, many people (including some writers) seem to believe that you can add them willy-nilly to any dish and expect a good result. They seem to believe that ‘what doesn’t kill you must be good for you!’

The only solution to this common error is to learn which herbs and spices complement each other and which herbs suit which type of dishes. But that is just the start. You will also need to learn how much of a herb or spice to add if you want to ensure a balanced dish.

Where will you learn all this?

Download a copy of our Feast on Flavour guidebook.  It features more than 1 300 tried and tested flavour combinations.

Principle #3: Manage Your Team Members

This principle of cooking with herbs and spices goes hand-in-hand with the previous principle. But where the previous refers to the combinations of herbs and spices you can use, this one refers to how and when you use your herbs and spices in the cooking process.

It’s not enough to simply know that dill goes well with beetroot. You also need to know how much dill to use and when to add it.

Example: Listen to the experience of my good friend Anton. He makes a really top class Oxtail Potjie. Two of the ingredients he adds at the start are parsley and sweet basil. I explained to him (very diplomatically) that both herbs lose their flavour when they are cooked for long periods and suggested that he should try Italian Parsley – which can handle the longer cooking times – and that he should add even more of both just before serving, to add some impact.

What a gastronomical result! Achieved just by using the different ‘players’ more effectively.

Fortunately information on when to add herbs and spices to a recipe is readily available. See my post on 3 Handy Flavour Building Cheat Sheets.

If you are unsure about when to add a specific herb or spice, rather add it towards the end of the cooking process, than at the beginning.

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Tips for Buying and Storing Herbs and Spices

“When you are selecting herbs and spices for your own pantry, there is no better way to judge character than with your senses of taste and smell. Buying spices and herbs should be a tactile experience, not just pulling a jar from a shelf.” – Tony Hill author of The Spice Lover’s Guide to Herbs and Spices

herbs and spices at the marketBuying Dried Herbs and Spices

You can readily buy dried herbs and spices at your local supermarket, fruit and vegetable shop or butcher. It is preferable that you purchase whole products (like the leaves, seeds, bark etc.) rather than the crushed form. Although it is a little more trouble to crush these whole products, the effort will be worth it in the final tasting.

Dried herbs and spices should be as fresh as possible. Once they become old and stale, they can easily ruin a dish.

Don’t buy large quantities. Buy only what you will use within 6 months or less.

If you grow your own herbs, you can also dry them for your own use.

Buying Fresh Herbs and Spices

You can purchase fresh herbs at your supermarket or green grocer, or you can grow your own, or you can get some from a friend who gardens.

When you shop for fresh herbs, watch out for leaves that are wilted, discoloured (yellow) or covered in black speckles. These are all signs that these herbs are not very fresh, and may be past their prime.

Remember to only purchase fresh herbs when you need them, and store them in the fridge in a clean plastic container or plastic zip packets. Beware of buying more than you will be able to use immediately.

Growing your own, even if it is just one or two herbs is a rewarding experience.

Storing Dried Herbs and Spices

The enemies of dried herbs and spices are light, air, moisture and heat. The best place to store them would be in airtight, dark containers in a cool place. Above your stove is definitely not a cool place, just as under the washing up sink in not a dry place!

Rather keep that beautiful spice rack (the one your mother-in-law gave you on your first wedding anniversary!) at a convenient height in the food cupboard. That’s after you have disposed of those ancient bottles that used to clutter it. And by the way…maybe the spice rack was a subtle hint from your mother-in-law that your cooking is dull and bland?

Dried herbs and ground spices can keep for up to a year, if they are stored correctly. Whole spices can keep for up to two years. After this, you should rather throw them away and replace them with fresh ones. Label the bottles clearly with the date when they should be thrown away.

Your fresh herbs will also lose their flavour and wholesome qualities soon after they have been harvested. Rather use them as soon as possible after harvesting, or if you need to, store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

How does your current storage space compare with the above? Is it suitable for storing your herbs and spices? Where will be a better place?

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3 Handy Flavour Building Cheat Sheets for Chefs

Chef tasting a dish flavoured with herbs and spices.Aroma is responsible for as much as 80 per cent of the flavour of a dish. This helps to explain the popularity of cooking with herbs and spices. Incorporating them in a dish enhances the aroma of the dish and, in turn, its flavour.

Remember that most herbs and spices do not like to be categorized into rigid boxes. Some will fit into more than one box. And then there will be those that don’t seem to fit in anywhere.

When cooking with herbs and spices use these cheat sheets as a guide to create new flavour combinations, or to enhance your favourites. Follow your own palate. If for example you can’t distinguish between spicy and pungent, group them together.

Cheat Sheet 1: Basic Tastes

This cheat sheet is handy when you’d like to balance the basic taste of a dish.

Bitter
Most herbs and spices are essentially bitter.

Salty
Capers, celery, fenugreek, hyssop, lovage.

Sweet
Stevia.

Sour or Tangy
Lemon, lime, sorrel.

Cheat Sheet 2: Basic Aromatic Groups

Use this cheat sheet to compliment the flavours of the main ingredients in your dish.

Aniseed or Liquorice
Anise, chervil, dill, fennel, liquorice, star anise, tarragon.

Citrus
Citrus, lemon balm, lemon grass, lemon thyme, lemon verbena.

Fresh (or cool)
Borage, parsley, salad burnet.

Minty
Apple mint, chocolate mint, eau de cologne mint, ginger mint, mint, pineapple mint, peppermint, spearmint.

Nutty
Sesame seed, poppy seed.

Onion-flavoured
Chives, garlic, garlic chives, shallot, Welsh onion (spring onion).

Pungent
Allspice, arugula (rocket), chilli, cloves, ginger, horseradish, mustard, nasturtium, pepper, watercress.

Spicy
Cilantro, curry bush, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, sage, savory, thyme.

Sweet
Bay leaves, cassia, cinnamon, coriander, juniper, paprika, pineapple sage, rose geranium, stevia, sweet basil.

Warm and Earthy
Caraway, cardamom, cumin, curry leaves, mace, nutmeg, saffron, turmeric.

Cheat Sheet 3: Loudness Groups

You can also group herbs and spices according to their volume or loudness.

This cheat sheet is handy when you want to determine:

  • How overpowering a herb or spice is. The louder the more overpowering.
  • How much of the herb or spice to add to a dish. The louder the less you’ll use.
  • When to add it to a dish. The louder the longer they can withstand long cooking periods.
  • Which flavours will complement each other. A loud herb will silence a soft one. To balance their marriage you’ll need to use more of the soft one than the loud one.

There are two basic loudness groupings: soft to moderate (the mild herbs and spices), and loud (the robust or strong herbs and spices).

Soft to Moderate Volume

The soft to moderate volume herbs have the following characteristics:

  • Predominantly annual herbs.
  • They combine well with most other low volume herbs and spices.
  • They combine well with louder flavours; and most can be paired with a loud herb, if the two complement each other.
  • Their flavours become more moderate when used in cooked dishes.
  • They are mostly used in larger quantities and with greater variation, than their loud cousins.
  • They work very well in raw dishes or recipes that have very short cooking periods.
  • Examples are sweet basil, bay leaf, chervil, chives, dill, marjoram and parsley.

Loud Volume

The loud herbs (and most spices) have the following characteristics:

  • Predominantly spices and a few perennial herbs.
  • With the exception of garlic, most pair well with other loud herbs and spices in duets.
  • They are often used in stews and casseroles and recipes that use long cooking periods. They are well suited to the ‘slow cooker’ used by many of today’s busy cooks.
  • Their aromas change subtly during the cooking process. Some aromas will fade slightly while others may intensify.
  • They retain their flavour profiles well when dried.
  • Examples are garlic, oregano, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme, and the spices.

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A Stew of Words: Is it a Herb or a Spice?

herbs and garlic in a mortar with pestleSpices and herbs for the culinary world are harvested from the entire spectrum of plant species. Most commonly the seeds and leaves of these botanical treasures are used to impart flavour, but bark, roots, nuts, flowers and berries also have much to offer, depending on which plant you have before you. What just about all these species, in their many forms, have in common is a unique pungency compared with other crops. A spice or herb destined for the kitchen is likely to have a strong signature not duplicated elsewhere.” – Tony Hill, author of The Spice Lovers Guide to Herbs and Spices (2004)

There are many interpretations of the difference between herbs, spices and flavourings. From a culinary viewpoint they can be described as follows:

Herbs

Herbs constitute the aromatic leaves and flowers that are used, either fresh or dried, to liven up culinary dishes. Some good examples are sweet basil, thyme and rosemary. The shelf life of most dried herbs is much shorter than that of spices. With a few exceptions, herbs should be used fresh for the best effect.

Spices

Spices are the seeds, bark and roots of plants that are used, mainly in a dried form. For this reason, spices have a longer shelf life than most herbs. Examples of spices are pepper (seeds), ginger (root) and cinnamon (bark)

Flavourings or Aromatics

These are products that are often used just like herbs, but are also seen as food sources in their own right, for example fennel bulbs, honey, nuts, citrus and onions.

A Stew of Words!

Sometimes the ability to distinguish between herbs, spices and flavourings becomes quite confusing. Take horseradish for example. Some might say it is a spice, while others believe it can also be a food source. The same can be said of garlic and onions.

There are also a number of plants that confusingly fall into the category of both a herb and a spice because we use their leaves fresh or dried and also their seeds. Good examples are fennel, dill and coriander. Or is the latter cilantro?

My advice to you…

Make the distinction between herbs and spices if you must. But don’t let that limit your possibilities. When you cook, it doesn’t really matter whether fennel is a herb or a spice. That is really just semantics, and after all, if you know how to get the best out of fennel, the effect and taste stays the same.