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
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.
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.