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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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