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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 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 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.