Seasoning Basics

Different herbs and spices on the table.
Herbs are the leaves of various plants while spices are the seeds, buds, fruits, flowers, bark, and roots of plants. SGAPhoto / Getty Images

Herbs are the leaves of various plants. They are available fresh, dried, or ground. Spices are the seeds, buds, fruits, flowers, bark, and roots of plants. Spices are much more pungent than herbs. In some cases, a plant produces both a spice and an herb. Other seasonings are made from a mix of spices, such as chili powder, or a mix of herbs, such as bouquet garni.

Herbs and spices should be stored in airtight containers in a cool cupboard. Most ground spices store well for about a year, twice as long as ground or dried herbs, which only have a shelf life of about six months.



Below are some of the most commonly used herbs in cooking.

  • Basil: Fresh or dried, the sweet taste of basil is essential in Italian dishes.
  • Bay leaf: The dried whole leaves of this herb add tang to stews and meat dishes, but make certain that you remove the bay leaf before serving.
  • Chives: Chives have a delicate flavor and are generally used as a fresh garnish.
  • Dill: A member of the parsley family, dill weed is the dried, soft, feathery leaves of the dill plant. Its distinctive flavor can easily dominate any dish, so use it sparingly.
  • Marjoram: With a taste close to oregano, marjoram is typically used in fish, meat, and poultry dishes and in tomato sauces.
  • Mint: Available both fresh and dried, mint is used in vegetable and fruit dishes, as well as teas.
  • Oregano: The strong flavor of oregano can easily overpower delicate dishes, but it is perfect in most Italian dishes.
  • Parsley: When purchasing fresh parsley, look for bright green bunches with a fresh aroma. To store, wash parsley well, shaking off excess water. Wrap parsley in paper towels before placing it in a plastic bag. Refrigerate until ready to use. Parsley is usually used as a garnish.
  • Rosemary: Although it does not combine well with other herbs, the distinctive flavor of rosemary makes it a good choice for meats and poultry or on any grilled food.
  • Sage: Fresh sage is much stronger than dried sage, but either combines well with game, poultry, and stuffing.
  • Tarragon: Tarragon is widely used on chicken, fish, and vegetables, as well as in many sauces. Dried tarragon loses much of the pungency of the fresh leaf.
  • Thyme: Thyme is widely used to add flavor to vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, soups, and cream sauces. English thyme is one of the most popular varieties.



Add a little spice to your life with the following.

  • Allspice: This spice gets its name because it resembles the combined flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.
  • Capers: These are the pea-size buds of a flower from the caper bush. Found mostly in Central America and the Mediterranean, capers add pungency to sauces, dips, and relishes.
  • Cayenne: This hot red pepper needs to be used sparingly to avoid overpowering a dish, but it is essential in many Latin American and Southwestern dishes.
  • Chili powder: Like curry powder, chili powder is a blend of fairly hot spices and ground chilies.
  • Cinnamon: While the ground bark is used mainly in desserts, whole bark sticks can be used to flavor cider and other hot drinks.
  • Clove: This sweet spice is available whole and ground and is used in both baked meat dishes and desserts.
  • Cumin: Ground cumin is used in many Latin American and Southwestern dishes for its smokey and hot flavor. Use it sparingly.
  • Curry powder: Curry powder is formed by blending together a number of spices, including turmeric, cardamom, cumin, pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and sometimes ginger. Chilies give it heat, and ground dried garlic provides a depth of taste. Curry blends vary depending on their use.
  • Ginger: A gnarled tan root, ginger adds a distinctive aroma and flavor to foods and is used extensively in Asian dishes.
  • Nutmeg: This spice has a pungent fragrance and a warm, slightly sweet taste that is used to flavor baked goods, candy, puddings, meats, sauces, vegetables, and eggnog.
  • Paprika: Ground paprika adds zip without much heat to dishes such as potato salad and seafood.
  • Saffron: This fragrant spice is used most often in soups and rice dishes.
  • Turmeric: Related to ginger, turmeric is an essential component of curry powder and was once known as Indian saffron. Use it sparingly -- a little goes a long way.

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