Food is always better when properly seasoned. You'll enjoy cooking a lot more once you've mastered the herb and spice basics. The food will taste better, smell better, and impress your friends/family/coworkers/pets. Hooray!
I'm going to go over the seasonings I keep in my kitchen and use frequently. You don't necessarily need all of these to cook - I just tend to go a little nuts. ;)
These will also be listed in alphabetical order so you can find what you're looking for easily!
Have any suggestions for ways to use a certain herb/spice or a herb or spice that should be added? Tell me in the comments section. Let's collaborate! :D
( I apologize for the duplicate pictures and the one that I stole from wikipedia. Turns out I need to go shopping for a few things. ;) )
Step 1: Herb Basics!
Fresh herbs are great for garnishes and they provide bold flavor. They have great aromatic qualities and work very well for roasting and sauteing, or for chopping and mixing into foods such as mashed potatoes. Yum!
I haven't had a ton of luck growing herbs... well, except for mint. Mint is very low maintenance! I tend to buy fresh herbs and store them in the fridge in a ziploc bag with a slightly damp paper towel wrapped around the stems. Parsley, cilantro, and basil have all stayed nice and fresh with this method. :)
Dried herbs are best when used with oil (or butter, fat) or water - this way they can infuse the oil or cooking liquid. Make sure to crush the herbs with your fingers or saute them a bit to wake them up. Crushing a bunch of them in a mortar and pestle also works very well.
I tend to use more when I use a dried herb. Most dried herbs lose a significant amount of spunk when dried - especially basil, oregano and sage. Rosemary and thyme hold up a little better.
This is why it's so important to keep tasting during cooking!
Step 2: Spice Basics!
Spices are much more varied in flavor than herbs and tend to pack a bigger punch.
When storing both spices and dried herbs, it is best to keep them away from air, heat, and sunlight. They'll last longer that way. I try to keep most everything in a covered cupboard. The ones I use most often and go through more quickly, though, they sit on the windowsill within easy reach.
We all cheat at something, and this is it for me!
Step 3: Allspice.
Similar to nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon in flavor (though I think it's even more peppery than the strongest clove!), it can be used in both savory and sweet ways.
I think allspice goes great with beef, it's a good addition to curry powder mixes, and works really well when added to anything containing apples. (Apple muffins, for example!)
It can be very strong, so it's best to experiment with a smaller amount at first to suit your tastes. :)
Step 4: Basil.
Fresh basil is very temperamental - once it's cut from the plant you need to be very careful in how you store it. The best way I've found of keeping it is to wrap the bottoms of the stems in a slightly damp paper towel and throwing the whole thing in a ziploc bag. Many other people freeze it, as seen in these ibles:
Frozen basil bullets
Basil and olive oil ice cubes
I tend to use dried basil more than fresh. Fresh basil can be expensive and I've had very little luck growing it! When using dried basil, I always use more than the recipe calls for.
Basil goes really well with tomatoes, mild cheeses, and pork. I really love it with pork. It is the primary ingredient in pesto, and used extensively in Mediterranean and Asian cooking. It's very good chopped and mixed into pasta with a little butter. Also compliment peppers and potatoes quite nicely, as seen by the recipe below, which I actually made up the day I was typing this ible. :)
Red pepper, potato and onion home fries with basil!
1 small red pepper
3-4 red potatoes, skins on
1/2 red onion
5-6 basil leaves cut by chiffonade
salt and pepper
small bit of olive oil
Cut the potato, red onion and pepper into a 1/2 dice.
Add olive oil to skillet and and heat over medium high heat until the oil shimmers. Add potatoes and cook for about five minutes, until you can smell them cooking and they're getting slightly brown. Stir occasionally. Then add the pepper, and lower the heat a bit. Cook for another ten minutes or so, until the onions are soft and the potatoes nice and soft. (Taste test the potatoes a lot during cooking, that's the only way you'll know they're at a good level of done-ness for you.) Then add the peppers and toss for a few minutes, until just beginning to soften. Turn off the heat and throw in the basil, salt and pepper to taste. Toss liberally and serve right away.
Step 5: Bay Leaves.
Bay leaves are used most often in soups and stews, and normally used to flavor braised meats. Bay leaves can also be found in bouquet garni.
Bay leaves are an integral ingredient in Cuban and French cuisine. They're also excellent to use in bean soups. I always throw one in when I cook dried beans.
Just remember to remove the bay leaf when serving. They taste awful. Very bitter!
Step 6: Cardamom.
Cardamom comes in two common varieties: black and green. Both can be found ground and in whole pods. I'd say green is more common where I live - I can find nearly anywhere these days!
Most food snobs agree that cardamom is best freshly ground. I am very lazy, though, and I've always used it ground from a can. I have no problems with this! As long as you're buying high quality stuff (try your local ethnic grocer!) you'll be just fine!
Cardamom is everywhere in Indian cooking (especially curries!) and baking all over world. It is also a main component of chai - which is a spiced black tea.
If you'd like to try it in the best way possible, try my ible for kheer! It's a rice pudding. It's also one of the tastiest things in the world.
Step 7: Cayenne Pepper, Chiles, Crushed Red Pepper, Chili Powder.
Cayenne is very, very hot and bright red/orange. You'll find it in any grocery store. It's not so much about the flavor as the heat that it brings to a dish as far as I'm concerned. If I have something that needs a little pep, I'll add a pinch of cayenne.
I always keep dried red chiles on hand. They add color, flavor and heat to a dish. I don't even soak them before chopping. I just cut the end off, dump out the loose seeds, and slice thinly. They rehydrate in whatever I'm cooking. I normally add these to vegetable dishes, stir frys or dried beans while they cook. They're also super cheap. I got a 1 lb. bag for $4 at the ethnic grocery across from where I work!
Crushed red pepper is an old standby. I use it with pasta, in sauces, with vegetables, while marinating meats, etc.
Chili powder is typically much more smoky than the above. I use it for Cuban, Spanish, Mexican, and Indian cooking. It's great in ground beef for tacos or chili.
Step 8: Cilantro & Coriander.
When I say coriander, I am referring to the seeds, which are typically ground.
I know we Americans look at this a little different than the rest of the world, so it's best to clarify up front.
Cilantro is one of the most pungent of herbs - citrus-y and bold to some, soap and metallic to others. I personally don't care for it as much as other herbs, but I will put it in salsas, tortilla soup, curries, etc. I think it can do a really good job of balancing the sweet flavors of onion and tomato, for example.
Keep in mind that cilantro can get bitter very quickly if overcooked (go to Qdoba and eat their rice to get a taste of that.) so add it right at the end of cooking or keep it raw.
Coriander is one of my most favorite spices. I use it to make my curry powder. When combined with dried oregano and rubbed into porkchops, it's heavenly. It has a strong citrus flavor, and it's a bit peppery.
I use it in Indian, Cuban and Mexican cooking the most.
Step 9: Cinnamon.
Cinnamon is sweet and spicy and extremely aromatic. It can be used in savory and sweet dishes.
Cinnamon goes well with apples, beef, chocolate, in curries, stews and spicy dishes. I really like the way it tastes with chickpeas and carrots. It's used a lot in baking. It's also great for flavoring teas and coffees.
Step 10: Cloves.
Ground cloves are often used in curries and in baking, and whole cloves are used to add flavor to broths, meats, vegetables, desserts, etc. Whole cloves can simply be pushed into the item being cooked to add a bit of flavor and removed before serving.
A little bit of clove goes a long way, so it's best to use a little and add more as needed.
And you can make necklaces from the whole ones!
Step 11: Cumin.
I use cumin powder in curries, soups, stews, with beans, in spice rubs, for taco seasoning, etc. Cumin seeds are great sauteed in a little butter or olive oil - I normally cook rice this way - just dump it in the butter and saute along with the seeds until the rice is translucent and then cook the rice acccording the package directions. Very tasty!
If you'd like to try cumin in something, try my tortilla soup.
Step 12: Curry Powder.
Common spices used in curry powder include:
Curry powder is great for seasoning meats and, beans and vegetables. I would suggest trying several different curry powders, or making your own each time you make a curry.
I typically use equal amounts of cumin, coriander, and chili powder (say maybe a couple teaspoons each?), and then half the turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon/cardamom if I make my own. I normally use a mix like this with potatoes, cauliflower and onions. Delicious!
Step 13: Dill.
Dried is not bad, but not nearly as tasty.
Dill goes well with lemon, fish, vinegar and potatoes. It is also used in pickling. :)
Step 14: Ginger.
Ginger is hot, sweet and lemony. When fresh, the inside is very fibrous. Like most of the sweeter herbs and spices, it can be used in sweet and savory dishes.
I love fresh ginger in stir frys, marinades, grated into sugar cookies batter, in muffins, curries, etc. Ground ginger works well in curry powders and other spice mixes, and in general baking.
Instructables user woomyse also gave a really nice tip in the comments:
"When I buy fresh ginger, I get about a pound and give it a quick rinse. Then chop it into the usual size chunks I use for recipes and freeze it. When frozen it also shreds/grates easily."
Step 15: Mint.
I much prefer fresh mint over dried - dried lacks much of the flavor that fresh possesses. Plus, mint is amazingly easy to grow. It spreads like wildfire and needs very little care.
Mint can be used in a variety of ways - in hummus, with chocolate, in teas, in alcoholic drinks (such as mint juleps or mojitos), mixed into a fruit salad, with meats, peas, etc.
It will typically overpower other flavors in a dish, though, so be careful!
Step 16: Nutmeg.
Nutmeg is strong and sweet, and often used with cheese sauces. It's also a frequent flier in pastries and sweets. Like cloves and allspice, a little goes a long way!
Step 17: Oregano.
It's used primarily in Mediterranean, Greek, Italian, Mexican and Cuban cooking. Most Americans are very familiar with it thanks to pizza and pasta, but it can do much much more!
It's great with vegetables, in beef stew, in sauces, with meat and fish, and with beans. I especially love it with parmesan cheese and white beans. I used it dried most of the time - especially in homemade tomato sauces, like the one I use in my lasagna. Combine it with lemon, garlic and olive oil - marinate some beef or pork in a mixture of that and you'll be in food heaven.
Step 18: Paprika.
It can be sweet, hot, or smoky. Most are labeled as such. It's bright red in color, and is used for both color and flavor.
It is necessary to make goulash. Mmm. Goulash.
Also very good with roast potatoes, as part of a dry rub, a garnish for potato salads or other creamy concoctions, or in soups and stews.
An addition from TheJovialOne:
"Also, it's a great way to kick up your hamburgers. Just sprinkle some on either the raw meat before mixing or across the top when on the grill. It's great!"
Step 19: Parsley.
It can also be found dried. One of my favorite uses of dried parsley is in plain white rice. Just add some butter, salt and pepper and a generous amount of dried parsley and you have the only way my grandmother would make rice. Simple but satisfying.
You can top almost any dish with parsley to make it better: curries, anything with a tomato based sauce, dishes heavy with lemon or garlic, nearly any dish with Asian flavors, fish, etc.
Plus, it keeps very well in the fridge using the damp paper towel and ziploc bag trick. I've been able to store it for a few weeks. A $2 bunch of parsley can greatly improve your cooking and eating. :D
Step 20: Pepper.
I am a pepper snob. I am a firm believer of copious amounts of chunky, freshly ground pepper on everything. I only use tellicherry peppercorns - I love them because they're fruity, complex and warm. I could talk about tellicherry all day, so you should probably just go buy some before I talk your ear off. (Or eyes out?)
You can, however, get pink, green, white or assorted black peppercorns. Or find them all mixed together.
Black pepper & white pepper at the top - red is in the middle, and green is on the lower end of the hotness spectrum.
Black pepper looks the way it does because it's dried in the sun. White pepper is basically the same as black, but they're allowed to ripen more fully and the outer shell is removed. Red peppercorns are fully ripened a freeze dried. Pink peppercorns actually aren't pepper at all, even though they're included in peppercorn blends. :)
Green peppercorns are typically pickled and found in small glass jars, but you can also find them dried. I actually just bought a jar of the pickled ones a few days ago, and when I get around to trying them I'll report back. I hear they're similar to capers!
Oh, and I refuse to talk about pre-ground pepper. SHAME ON YOU FOR ASKING!
This is one of my only food snobbery bits. Please allow me this moment of eliteness!
Step 21: Rosemary.
Fresh rosemary still on the stem is great for adding to soups and stew for flavor - just pull it out when you're done simmering. You can also stuff poultry with a few sprigs of it during cooking. Many people also use it during grilling - when laid in coals it gives a great flavor to meat and vegetables. I also love it with potatoes - especially gnocchi. A little rosemary and butter with gnocchi is amazing.
Rosemary is a great partner for any root vegetable, honestly. Try it with everything!
Sea salt and rosemary is also an amazing combination.
Step 22: Saffron.
Saffron should be dark red/orange in color, and when added to cooking liquid it will begin to turn the dish a lovely yellow color. It is used mostly with fish and rice, and is a key ingredient in paella. I also like it with chickpeas and with chicken.
I do not recommend buying it in powdered form, because it's harder to tell if you have the real thing. Saffron is very commonly mixed with other spices and sold as pure saffron and that's not what you want!
Step 23: Sage.
Sage is another herb that can greatly overpower other flavors in a dish, so use it sparingly. It is often paired with poultry, cheese and vegetables. The fresh leaves are amazing when fried in a little bit of olive oil or butter. I think a good example of this is one of my favorite recipes on ibles, sage gnocchi.
(image from wikipedia)
Step 24: Thyme.
Like rosemary, I use thyme with each and every root vegetable. It's also good in butter sauces. It's a common part of a bouquet garni in French cooking. I love it with most beans - especially with a lot of onion.
Step 25: Turmeric.
Turmeric is sometimes used as a substitution for saffron in packaged foods, and it's also used as a food coloring and dye.