Instructables

How to use herbs and spices in cooking

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Picture of how to use herbs and spices in cooking
Or, cooking 101.

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. ;) )
 
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Step 1: Herb basics!

Most herbs can be found dried or fresh and can be used either way with ease. Herbs are considered ro be the leaves and greener parts of the plant - the seeds, bark, roots, etc. are normally considered a spice. Some plants are both. :)

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!
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Lunatic06 months ago
One of my fav spice. And besides, Goulash is the kind of food that makes my mouth water! Yummy
Lunatic06 months ago
Really enjoyed the instructable! Nice work there, spices and herbs are the heart of a nice meal!

I have some experience growing basil, both in my yard (I live in a a farm ATM) and in plant pots.

From my experience, get medium light (can grow in direct sunlight, if well watered) and water once a day, or less if the earth is not very dry (get dirty! Put your finger and check it!). Some nutrients once in a while never hurt.

If you live somewhere cold, put it indoors, close to a window . Remember, most basil plants are annual, except for warm climates, like my beloved country Brazil, that have perennial plants. Take a green branch from your basil, put it on water for a week and voila! You have roots! Plant the new one on a pot and watch it grow!

Read the first two pages of comments - very interesting. And entertaining. I've just retired and never cooked since I was in business for myself and we all know what those hours are like. I love good food, though, and I've always really liked a good bowl of chili con carne. So, I've been experimenting, and have found a recipe that I REALLY like - so does family (I think; they say they do, and they clean their bowls). My question is: Given that there are so many brands of spices, can it be said that the more expensive the spice, the "better" the spice? Without naming names, I've priced out Basil, and the range is $7.98/oz, $8.38/oz, $2.07/oz, $5.48/oz, something from a "dollar" store at $0.80/oz, and finally something called Mediterranean basis at $16.19/oz. Is Basil Basil or is there high end and low end Basil? Also, one of the labels says the Basil is "sweet". Is there non-sweet Basil? Thanks!
I've actually found "cheap" spices to have better flavor than the expensive stuff. The cheap stuff comes in plastic bags, and there's so much that you could consider them "bulk." I assume the cheap stuff gets packaged, and perhaps has more turnover than the expensive stuff? I don't know why, but they're far more "fresh" and "powerful" than the jarred stuff. So we just keep the jars and refill them with the stuff in the bags.

This said, we only do this for the stuff we wouldn't normally grow ourselves. (Such as paprika, allspice, cloves, ginger, etc.) Most of the leafy stuff you can grow year-round (just bring it indoors for the winter) in pots. We have basil, mint, oregano, thyme, dill, chives, and rosemary fresh year-round. In fact for some of them (mint/oregano) I would strongly recommend you NOT plant in a garden. They'll grow so fast you'll play hell keeping them under control. Most herbs are, after all, considered "weeds" in the way that they grow. (I know basil and chives do well to keep pests out of the garden, and don't tend to go crazy, though.)
There are different breeds of basil. Sweet basil is the stuff that gets used in a proper pesto. Thai basil has a more intense anise flavor. If you're near a good spice store, like Penzey's, for example, you can pick up bulk bags of dried basil for not a lot of money. The only difference I've seen in herbs & spices is the speed with which a vendor can get the product to market. It sounds wierd but the fresher the dried herbs & spices, the better. After a year or two, the oils fade or start to go rancid.

Another great place to go for a limited selection of herbs & spices is Trader Joe's. Good quality, great price.

For all that I mentioned Penzey's above, never buy their Five Spice Powder. They took out the pepper and replaced it with anise. Tastes wrong. Hit Whole Foods for their 365 Brand Five Spice Powder or hit a Chinese or Vietnamese grocery.

Indian groceries are fantastic places to buy bulk spices, too. Much better on your budget.
jessyratfink (author)  chiliroberto2 years ago
Herbs, not so much. When I'm buying herbs I only try to make sure that I'm buying them in a glass container so I can see how they look. You want them to retain their shape, not be crushed or brown, that sort of thing. If you can find a local place where you can smell before buying, even better! :D

Oh, and basil is always kinda sweet, but some varieties are much sweeter than others!

Spices are a little different - many times more expensive is better. Spices are easier to add fillers to. I would try to avoid buying bargain spices, but you don't have to go super expensive either.

Overall, I try to avoid paying more than $6 for a jar of any herb or spice, well... except saffron... because that's always at least $8 for a little tin. :P
Snotme1 year ago
One herb that I think is under appreciated is Water Cress! It grows wild anywhere in North America where there are running streams. I grow it in a garden pond, as it is usually not found in stores.
I use it in place of cilantro in my salsa. It is great in a salad, as it has a taste like a good radish, high in vitamins and minerals. It can also be used in soups and stews.
capngp2 years ago
Jessy,
I am a bit of a pepper nazi myself. It is amazing what a broad range of flavors there are. Tip: Penzy's spice house sells an extra bold peppercorn from India. It is strong, so a little goes a long way, but it is delicious. I am in no way affiliated with Penzy's myself.
GainEnergy2 years ago
LOVE Basil sooo very much! We do grow our own basil and I do put basil in almost everything! ha! Enjoyed your article very much!
dalecarlile3 years ago
Another use for fresh ginger is nausea. A small slice placed in the mouth will calm a queasy stomach. Used to use it when the kids started getting car sick. Sucking on a small slice did the trick in minutes.
cook maria3 years ago

Fresh herbs are great for garnishing and are perfectly healthy and all-natural food while dried herbs make your food perfect from the start it is added during cooking, plus, they give wonderful and zestful aroma to dishes. A great experience of mine. Things I learned from Your Smart Kitchen. Thanks. CookMaria
hey i am learning how to use my spices and pepper is one of the spices i need so i can study on spices and how to use them. cause i want to be a chef!
b1russell4 years ago
My goodness, what a thorough job you did on the herbs and spices you listed - and use!  I'll have to print this out for my mom, who thinks seasoning consists of salt and pepper - and pepper is optional!  (OK, she's 81 and has NEVER been the world's best cook!)  I'm now feeling an urge to do an 'ible of my own (I can be very competitive, I find!), too.  ; )
Any idea where to buy coriander seeds in the eastern US?

At Indian groceries, you can get bags of whole or coarsely ground coriander seeds.  I haven't found any pods, but I'm actually still working on using up the rather giant bag of seeds I got.  Most Indian restraunts have an associated grocery store, either attached to the restraunt or in the block -)

ok thx, I managed to find a small jar of whole seeds of the McCormick brand. I just kept going to different grocery stores until I found it.
Wolfbird4 years ago
My french cookbooks tells me to use twice as much fresh herb when converting from dried. I always found this funny, because it does not make much logical sense. I've only listened to them once when I was making soup, and it came out so horribly over-flavoured.

It's reassuring to know that I'm not the only one who questioned that logic.

imrobot4 years ago
I've always wondered, if you burn cinnamon does it release it's aroma? 
Goodhart4 years ago
I wanted to look something up on your ible here, and I found what I needed.....but while scanning down I noticed something missing (nothing IMPORTANT, just a bit of trivia really:  Paprika is hungarian and it means  PEPPER.    Whether sweet, hot, or whatever. 

In order to back this up, I looked up a reference:  Paprika

And a portion of a book: 

Paprika: a spicy memoir from Hungary

 
WILL624 years ago
It is really good in my chili, cummin makes the dish.
WILL624 years ago
My aunt Norma taught me when planting herb seeds (very tiny) not to bury the seed, but to place on top of the potting soil, in a 3/4 filled container of "GOOD" potting mix from a local nursery. water with a spray bottle keeping the soil moist, "covered", and dark till they sprout. then put them under a grow light (as close as you can get the plant to the light) they will still be a little leggy (spindly) thats why 3/4 full, when they get their 2nd leaves you can add more soil so the stems will be sopported. then put in a sunny window adding a little fertilizer to the watering can and they will...."take off", When you need some, snip off what you need and your herb guy will keep producing snipping is like pruning its good for them oh yeah! if its warm stick em in the ground if they are getting to big for their pots or get bigger pots.. hope this helped someone.
trailgrind4 years ago
Just in case you didn't know, there are actually different types of bay leaves. I learned that while living in the caribbean. The island that I lived on grew 3 different types, one being the more common flavor we generally find in grocery stores, then one with a slight citrus scent to it, and another variety which I never actually got to try. They also grew cinnamon there that was to die for, though they probably don't export any of it.
jessyratfink (author)  trailgrind4 years ago
I've heard tale of these but never seen anything other than the generic grocery store brands. :) Is there a huge flavor difference, or is it more like basil, where the basic flavor is the same with a hint of something else?
minerug4 years ago
If you want to really make something spicy, try fresh Indonesian bird's eye chillies
casino_dave4 years ago
Great tips. Although one thing I'm not sure most people know about Bay leaves is they are very sharp even when wet after boiling and you should never eat one or you'll risk puncturing your stomach lining or intestines. Removing them from the food you cook is definitely mandatory and not optional! Cardamom is great in coffee, an old Lebanese friend mixed it into coffee, in fact if you buy Lebanese coffee it's already mixed into the coffee in the bag. Rosemary is fantastic in gravy especially with turkey or chicken, it makes for a wonderfully savoury flavour and smell.
sharlston4 years ago
hi jess i always burn bay leaves then smell the scent mmm burnt bayleaves :D
merijnvw4 years ago
Thanks this is a useful overview of herbs, when it comes to cooking ingredients and recipies my mind is like a strainer... I forget it all.
jessyratfink (author)  merijnvw4 years ago
You're welcome sir! I used to be that way, put pushing myself to cook the same things over and over again and learn basic techniques really helped!
It seems like the only seasoning i use too much of is ground cumin.
jessyratfink (author)  Yerboogieman4 years ago
Too much?

Lies! Never too much!
sonipitts5 years ago
Tomato dishes can almost always benefit from a few grinds of nutmeg. It's amazing how much depth and complexity it gives to otherwise same-old-same-old Italian and Mexican dishes.
helpful advice JovialOne :0)
Cherubaby5 years ago
not to use in recipe..my tip..a coworker swears by this..if u have hemmeroid problems..just carry a whole nutmeg in your pocket..she says her husband has for yrs now and haven't had anymore swollen hemmerhoids..
What kind of Indian dishes do you make? Just curious because my parents are Indians.
one teaspoon of nutmeg can make you Hallucinate? (my spelling is crap)
actually you spelled everything right.
My second oldest brother got very sick and out of his mind after consuming a mixture of half and half nutmeg and milk. After surviving that, he wouldn't even take a sprinkling of a few specks on his eggnog.
thepelton5 years ago
Plants of the Mint family (Mint, Peppermint, Spearmint, Catnip) have square stems. This can help to identify them in the wild.
Wild Onions can be identified by their flower heads. The poisonous Camas has a spike of flowers, the onion and relatives (chives, leek, garlic) have a ball of flowers, and the ball shape of the flower bases remains after the flowers are gone.
Most wild onion bulbs are about pea size (1cm), but are far more intense in flavor than the domestic ones, and would spice up a dinner while out camping.
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