No wonder they're our constant kitchen companions.
Along the way, spices and herbs have helped build empires--and been the cause of wars. Serious stuff for something that literally grows on trees!
Spice or Herb?
Herbs and spices. We often say these words together: “flavored with herbs and spices.” But what’s the difference between them? Both are seasonings, of course. But of the two, spices are generally stronger smelling and often stronger tasting. Spices typically come from the bark, buds, fruit, roots, seeds, or stems of plants and trees; while herbs are the more gently fragrant leaves of plants.
Cooking with Herbs
When do you add herbs and spices? It depends on the kind of herb or spice you’re dealing with and the cooking time the recipe calls for. Herbs with mild flavors, like basil and parsley, work best when added right at the end, while strong-flavored herbs like bay leaves and sage work fine over the length of the cooking.
Compared to whole spices, the flavor of ground spices is more concentrated; ground spices will infuse sauces with flavor more quickly than whole spices. If you have a short cooking time, add ground spices at the start. If your recipe calls for a slow simmer, it’s okay to add them near the end of cooking. Long-simmering stews and soups are also great for whole spices, whose flavors will release at a leisurely pace.
Before adding leafy herbs to a dish, place them in the palm of your hand and rub them gently with your fingertips to help release flavors and aromas. Toasting seeds and certain spices (like cumin) in a dry skillet can also enhance flavors and aromas.
Converting and Doubling
Here’s an easy trick for converting dried herbs into fresh. If the recipe calls for teaspoon amounts of dried herbs, simply convert to tablespoons of fresh herbs! One teaspoon of dried basil becomes one tablespoon of fresh. Just remember to add fresh herbs toward the end of a recipe’s cooking time. And, of course, it works the same way in reverse: 1 tablespoon of fresh basil becomes 1 teaspoon of dried.
If you’re doubling a recipe, you’ll want to more than double the herbs and spices. Start with one-and-a-half times the amount, then taste and add more as needed.
Caring for Herbs and Spices
Store dried herbs and spices in a cool, dark place. Dried leaves and ground spices will keep for about six months. Whole spices can last a bit longer.
You can tell if a dried herb is still useful for cooking by rubbing a small amount between your fingers and smelling. If the herb still gives off a strong scent, it’s good. A weak or faint smell means it’s probably time to replace it.
Fresh herbs will stay fresh in the refrigerator for about five days. If you need to store fresh herbs longer, place them in a bouquet stem-end down into a tall glass of cold water. Change the water every two days to maintain freshness. They should keep for about 10 days.
Finally, avoid introducing moisture into your dried herbs and spices. Always use a dry spoon to scoop them out of the bottle. When adding herbs and spices to a steaming pot, pour them first into a measuring spoon or the palm of your hand. When moisture intrudes into the bottle, it can tamp down flavors and reduce the life of dried herbs and spices.