Herb vs Spice
Although I sometimes refer to herbs as spices or visa versa, they’re not technically the same thing. Herbs are the leaves or flowers of a plant, where spices are (mostly) the fruit, the seeds, pods, stems, bark, roots and other parts of the plant. Both are used to season food.
According to The United States National Arboretum, “Herbs, in the culinary sense, are leaves of plants that can be used either fresh or dried to season food. In the botanical sense, an herb is any plant that does not have woody perennial stems like a tree or shrub.” Now that we’ve cleared that up, on to the fun stuff.
Fresh vs Dried
One of my memorable “Oh, NOW I GET IT” moments regarding the use of fresh vs dried herbs happened while making “Gram’s Meat & Mushroom Sauce” — a recipe from my husband’s grandmother on his mom’s side. This dish is the stuff of legends. If and when I ever get the family blessing to adapt and share this recipe, you want it. Anyhow, it calls for FRESH SAGE AND OREGANO, and a cup of red wine, preferably (in my opinion mostly for flavor but also because its Pa Brien’s favorite…Gram’s husband and one of my heroes) really good chianti. I made the recipe the third or fourth time and due to life happening, didn’t have fresh sage or red wine. BIG FAIL.
Sure it was edible, Even good. Really good, I’d say (the recipe gets all the credit). But once you’ve had it the right way, you can really miss that magic. Part fresh sage, part good chianti. So now I’m sold. My favorite resource for a quick-check when I write a recipe is here. I can’t hope to write it better, so I give you my favorite place to check in on fresh vs. dry. IT MATTERS!
Whole vs Ground
Whole herbs and spices last longer on the shelf. So if you can purchase your spices whole and grind them later or use them whole in slow-cooked dishes, you’ll get more life out of them. Another option is to purchase in smaller quantities at a spice shop. Be sure to ask the experts there about what is the best way to store each spice or herb. When in doubt: Airtight!
Be sure to get yourself a great grinder for your spice blends. This makes it easy to keep the spices whole until you need them.
Growing herbs and spices can be fun, affordable and will give your dishes an added layer of freshness. Fresh herbs can be used on salads, sandwiches, pizzas and even in cocktails. You can also dry or freeze, and store them.
You can choose plants ready to put into a pot or in the ground, or you can start herbs from seeds. Be sure to get high quality potting soil, peat moss and a good organic plant food suited for edible plants. Ask your local nursery for tips about growing in your zone.
Some of the easiest herbs and spices to get started with are mint, basil, chives, dill, cilantro (when it goes to seed you get coriander!!!), sage, oregano and thyme.
These make an excellent window sill container garden, or can be planted in the ground where they get the appropriate amount of sun, water and drainage. Be sure to prune basil often, as it encourages more growth.
Shopping for spices
Spice shopping makes an excellent hobby for when you travel, and can be much more exciting than just throwing jars in a cart at the grocery store.
Even just picking something out in a nearby town on a day trip makes your spice cabinet more interesting and inspiring. Buy blends from the region you’re visiting, and ask the seller for advice on how to use them.
Spices look pretty displayed in small mason jars, or boston rounds. Be creative and let your spices set your imagination to work. When you love your ingredients, cooking becomes more fun. What’s better than reminiscing about a great vacation while you cook with a glass of wine and some beautiful spices?
This little trick wakes up flavor in your whole spices. All it takes is a pan and the spices plus heat. Simply place your whole spices such as cumin seeds, coriander, cardamom, peppercorns…you get the drift….in a dry pan and turn the burner on underneath.
The aroma tells the story. Be sure to shake the pan a bit as the spices heat up, and if you see smoke, you’re done! Pour the spices out into a metal or glass bowl and let them cool down. Now it is time to use them…ground or whole, depending on your recipe. There really never seems to be a bad situation for toasting. So if you have time, do it!
Try different methods of storing herbs and spices, including freezing, drying, infusing into oils or vinegars, and even decorative swaths or wreaths.
Grind and blend your own spices for recipes you use frequently in your kitchen. They last about six months in a cool, dry place so consider making spices for marinades and rubs for the Summer months in the late Winter, and for soup, chili, stew, holiday cooking and baking at the end of Summer for Fall and Winter.
Freeze fresh herbs for up to three months. These can be used just like fresh herbs in finishing dishes, and even as garnishes. Here’s a great freezing tool that I use with all of my fresh herbs when they’re about to take a turn in the fridge.
Mortar and Pestle
If you love your mortar and pestle, you know how this works. Place your herbs and spices in the mortar and get on down with that pestle. Crushing your whole herbs and spices feels great. It can be tough to achieve a quick result, so if you’re impatient (or if you have a broken arm or a bad back) you might go for the grinder. But for my money, I love the visceral and fragrant technique provided by a great mortar and pestle.
Bouquet Garni & Infusions
Admittedly, I am somewhat new to this term. I always just called it “spices in cheesecloth“, which describes it well. But once I learned the term (thanks Mom!!), I realized this concept has roots in multiple schools of cooking. I came to the concept via necessity. Knowing that cooking sauce and stock with whole veggies yields a great slow-cooking result, I figured whole herbs must add to the slow and low concept. But I got sick of all the straining and filtering at the end. So there you have it….I thought hey, wrap those whole spices in cheese cloth and tie the herbs by the stems. Make it easy on myself. Ha! I am not the first to think of it. But I’m excited when this kind of thing happens. I described this little technique to my mom, who promptly told me the term “bouquet garni”. Well, I’ll be dipped in stock! You can even use these handy little muslin bags instead of cheesecloth.
Salt & Pepper
The backbone of seasoning savory dishes: salt and pepper. Yet another opportunity to step up the game. Sometimes less is more, and salt & pepper don’t need any friends. But when they do, they both kinda go with everything you cook in the savory realm. A little salt brings out the magic of garlic, spicy spices like cayenne or chili powder, and so on. Keep it next to the stove…use it fresh and give it respect! The pepper mill and salt & pepper shaker set are custom work by Pearle Northrop. Her work can be found here.
I was going to add some recipes for spice blends and rubs, but I will be breaking that into a new post because there are too many to list in an already lengthy post. Link to come.
Herb and spice tools
I am an active member of The Herb Society of America.