Herbs and spices have been around for years and years. In the old days herbs were used more often for medicinal than culinary purposes but today, however, cooking with herbs and spices allow us to be creative as they alone – or mixed together in a million different ways and means – always succeed in satisfying our ever-changing taste buds. Used in small amounts herbs and spices add flavour and colour to otherwise fairly bland food.
Culinary herbs are usually fresh leaves and stems of a plant, or crumbled or powdered dried leaves. Cooking spices, on the other hand, are typically from other parts of a plant – such as seeds, berries, bark and roots. Whole, ground or powdered, spices can often retain their flavour for up to six months – when stored properly in a dry, cool and dark place. Dried herbs, however, normally loose their flavour after about three months – which is why it’s better to cook with fresh herbs in most cases.
There are a huge number of herbs and spices readily available to us today and they each add something unique to a dish. Let’s take a brief look at a few essential herbs and spices your kitchen shouldn’t be without – featuring 10 of the most popular and widely used.
Pepper is one of, if not the, most popular cooking spice in the world. Black pepper is produced from the still-green unripe berries of the pepper plant, while white pepper consists of the seed only – with the skin of the fruit removed. Pepper gets its spicy heat mostly from the piperine compound, which is found both in the outer fruit and in the seed. Two other popular variants of pepper are paprika – a powder made from dried sweet peppers and available in mild, sweet or hot, as well as chili flakes – dried whole red chili peppers that are crushed or coarsely ground.
Salt is an essential cooking spice as just one small pinch has the power to bring out the flavour of the food terrifically. There are a few different types of salt – such as sea salt and table salt. Sea salt is made from evaporating seawater in protected bays and has the purest, freshest flavor, while table salt is mined from rock salt deposits of ancient sea beds and is highly processed with additives. You also get different flavoured salts – such as garlic salt or celery salt.
Garlic, a member of the onion family, is classified as a culinary herb. It has a characteristic pungent, spicy flavor that mellows and sweetens considerably with cooking. As a fundamental component in many dishes – especially popular in Mediterranean cuisine – a garlic bulb divides into cloves that can be chopped, minced or used whole when cooking.
Basil is a culinary herb prominently featured in Italian cooking. The plant – the most common being Sweet Basil – has a strong, pungent flavour and aroma. The leaves have a warm mint and clove flavour with hints of citrus and anise. Basil is commonly used fresh in cooked recipes and generally added at the last moment – as cooking quickly destroys the flavour. Sweet basil is a great addition to tomatoes and tomato-flavoured dishes. Together with olive oil and pine nuts, basil makes a tasty Italian pesto.
Thyme is a good source of iron and is used widely in cooking. This culinary herb is flavourful but does not overpower, and blends well with other herbs and spices. Depending on the dish you are making the whole sprig may be used, or the leaves removed and the stems discarded. Leaves may be removed from stems either by scraping with the back of a knife or by pulling through the fingers or tines of a fork. Thyme is slow to release its flavours, so it’s usually added early in the cooking process. It is commonly used in fish, chicken and beef dishes to enhance the flavour.
Parsley is a bright green culinary herb – very popular in stews, soups as well as in potato and rice dishes. Curly leaf parsley is often used as a garnish or chopped and sprinkled on top of dishes, while Italian parsley has a subtle, fresh celery and mild pepper flavour and can be used in cooking when added late. Both types can be added to virtually any dish to add flavour.
Rosemary is a shrub and a woody herb with fragrant evergreen needle-like leaves – native to the Mediterranean region. The fresh and dried leaves have a bitter and sharp taste, so it’s best to use this herb sparingly. Rosemary has a piney, lemony scent and complements a wide variety of foods – especially lamb. This culinary herb is extremely high in iron, calcium and Vitamin B6.
Coriander is a culinary herb, but the plant’s dried fruit – known as coriander seeds – is used as a cooking spice. Coriander can be described as warm, nutty, spicy, and orange-flavoured. The herb leaves – often used in salads, chicken or fish dishes – have a very different taste from the seeds and are rich in vitamins A and B1, calcium, riboflavin and niacin.
A popular culinary herb, especially in Italian and Greek cuisine, oregano’s dried leaves are more flavoursome than the fresh leaves. Also called wild marjoram, oregano is peppery with hints of pine and very often described as the pizza herb. Oregano (together with basil) goes well with tomato-based sauces and is therefore often used as the basis of many Italian dishes. A warm, aromatic and slightly bitter flavour, oregano is also high in antioxidant activity.
Ginger is a warming spice with a pungent taste and very popular in the form of ginger ale and ginger beer. Dried ginger is a popular ingredient in cakes and biscuits, while the root itself is popular as a cooking spice – especially in curries, but also in other meat and vegetable dishes. Ginger is also known to soothe a sore throat as it has a sialagogue action which stimulates the production of saliva and makes swallowing easier.
Apart from these herbs and spices, there are a lot of others your kitchen shouldn’t be without – such as lemongrass, cinnamon, mint, chives, dill, nutmeg, sage and tumeric. But with the 10 above, you are well on your way to producing tasty meals – whether it’s for a dinner party, for your partner and kids, or just for yourself!