Herbs and Spices
It’s not uncommon for inexperienced cooks to shy away from recipes that use herbs and spices they’re not familiar with, especially when entertaining. But herbs and spices can take an ordinary dish and make it a “wow” dish. It’s also not hard to find most herbs and spices in local supermarkets, whether you’re urban or rural. Most supermarkets have a selection of dried herbs and spices, and many even have a variety of fresh.
What’s the difference between a herb and a spice?
Herbs are the leaves harvested from low growing shrubs. These include parsley, chives, marjoram, thyme, basil, dill, oregano, rosemary, savory, and sage. They can be used either fresh or dried. When purchasing dried, there are several options – whole, crushed, rubbed or ground.
Spices are the bark, roots, buds, seeds, berries or fruit of tropical plants and trees. Some examples of spices are cinnamon, ginger, garlic, cloves, saffron, yellow mustard, allspice, pepper, paprika, poppy seeds and sesame seeds. Some spices are used fresh such as ginger and garlic, but many are only used in their dried form which is then sold either whole or ground.
Are Fresh Herbs and Spices better than Dried?
Like most things, it depends on what you’re using the herb or spice for. Dried herbs have a more intense flavor which is great for baking, stuffings and in sauces where the herb will be reconstituted. Fresh herbs have more moisture, so they’re great for salads. There are some herbs, like cilantro, which lose their flavor and punch when dried. Be guided by the recipe when purchasing ingredients.
Purchasing Herbs and Spices
- Wherever possible, buy whole spices and grind them as you need them, either in a coffee grinder which you can dedicate to grinding spices or in a mortar and pestle. A food processor can be used when grinding a significant quantity.
- Rather than buying every type of dried herb and spice possible all at once, try purchasing based on what you know you’ll use immediately and what you would like to try – i.e., buy for a specific recipe you would like to try. This will help prevent wastage and will also be kinder on your pocket as you can spread out your herb and spice purchases over multiple shopping trips.
- Like everything, you get what you pay for – buy cheap and you’re more likely to get a cheap inferior product. So get the best you can find/can afford.
Storing Spices and Herbs
Like most baking and cooking supplies, dried herbs and spices need to be stored in appropriate conditions to ensure they stay fresh for as long as possible. Here are some helpful tips for storing and using dried herbs and spices:
- Store your spices and herbs in a cool dark place – humidity, light and heat will cause spices and herbs to lose their flavor faster.
- Use air tight containers, preferably not glass.
- Don’t have your spice rack above or directly next to your stove.
- A good alternative to using a spice rack is storing spices in a drawer.
- If a spice or herb smells musty or faint, it has most likely lost it’s flavor, so it’s time to be replaced.
- Whole spices usually last between 3 to 5 years whereas ground spices only last 6 months to 1 year.
- Place a sticker on the bottom of your spice jars and write when you purchased them, that way you know when to replace them.
Spices aren’t all made equal, and some require special preparation before use. Here are some common preparation methods to follow when using spices. Be sure to read your recipes carefully before starting to cook, to ensure that you prepare the spice in the method specified in the recipe.
Toasting or roasting spices gently before grinding will intensify their flavor. Simply heat a heavy dry saute pan over a medium low heat. Add whole spice and toast for 2 to 3 minutes. Constantly toss the spices so they don’t scorch. This technique works with coriander, cumin, fenugreek, mustard, nigella, poppy and sesame seeds.
Some whole spices are better if they are bruised, which can be done by using a mortar and pestle, or by placing the spice in a plastic bag and tapping them with a rolling pin. Spices that benefit from bruising include dried ginger, juniper berries and cardamom pods.