Spices and herbs have been used in foods for centuries. Spices were once so costly only the wealthy could afford them. In 11th-century Europe, many towns paid their taxes and rents with pepper. The reason for Columbus’ voyage in 1492 was to seek a more direct passage to the rich spices of the Orient.
What’s the difference between a spice and an herb?
Herbs are leaves of low-growing shrubs. Examples are parsley, chives, marjoram, thyme, basil, caraway, dill, oregano, rosemary, savory, sage and celery leaves. These can be used fresh or dried. Dried forms may be whole, crushed or ground.
Spices come from the bark (cinnamon), root (ginger, onion, garlic), buds (cloves, saffron), seeds (yellow mustard, poppy, sesame), berry (black pepper) or the fruit (allspice, paprika) of tropical plants and trees.
Many dehydrated vegetable seasonings are available. These include onion, garlic … and shallots.
Seasoning blends are mixtures of spices and herbs.
Reducing Fat, Sugar and Salt Tips
Spices and herbs can help retain flavor in your foods while cutting back on dietary fat, sugar and sodium/salt.
Reducing Fat – Removing a tablespoon of fat removes about 10 grams of fat and 100 calories – an amount that could represent a 10-pound weight loss in a year. The calories in herbs and spices are far less than in breading, batters, gravies, sauces and fried foods.
Reducing Sugar – Reduce or eliminate sugar by using these sweet-tasting spices:
Reducing Salt – Here are some tips when using spices and herbs to help you reduce the salt in foods:
Savory flavors and flavors with a bite such as black pepper, garlic powder, curry powder, cumin, dill seeds, basil, ginger, coriander and onion are the most effective in replacing the taste of salt, according to ASTA.
Omit the salt when cooking pasta and flavor with basil, oregano, parsley and pepper or use an Italian seasoning blend.
Use powdered garlic and onion rather than their salt form. Use half as much of the powdered form.
Check labels to see if salt or sodium is listed among the ingredients.
Flavor and Food Combinations
These flavor and food combinations, adapted from information provided by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (www.nhlbi.nih.gov), have the added benefit of making meat, poultry, fish and vegetables tasty without adding salt.
For meat, poultry and fish, try one or more of these combinations:
Beef: Bay leaf, marjoram, nutmeg, onion, pepper, sage, thyme
Lamb: Curry powder, garlic, rosemary, mint
Pork: Garlic, onion, sage, pepper, oregano
Veal: Bay leaf, curry powder, ginger, marjoram, oregano
Chicken: Ginger, marjoram, oregano, paprika, poultry seasoning, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme
Fish: Curry powder, dill, dry mustard, marjoram, paprika, pepper
For vegetables, experiment with one or more of these combinations:
Carrots: Cinnamon, cloves, dill, ginger, marjoram, nutmeg, rosemary, sage
Corn: Cumin, curry powder, onion, paprika, parsley
Green Beans: Dill, curry powder, marjoram, oregano, tarragon, thyme
Greens: Onion, pepper
Potatoes: Dill, garlic, onion, paprika, parsley, sage
Summer Squash: Cloves, curry powder, marjoram, nutmeg, rosemary, sage
Winter Squash: Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, onion
Tomatoes: Basil, bay leaf, dill, marjoram, onion, oregano, parsley, pepper
General Rules for Amounts
If possible, start with a tested recipe from a reliable source. If you’re creating your own recipe, begin with trying one or two spices or herbs. The amount to add varies with the type of spice or herb, type of recipe and personal preference.
Substitute Equivalent Amounts of Different Forms
What if your recipe calls for fresh herbs and all you have are dried? Here are some approximate amounts of different forms of herbs equivalent to one another:
1 tablespoon finely cut fresh herbs
1 teaspoon crumbled dried herbs
¼-½ teaspoon ground dried herbs
General Rules for Amounts
If you don’t know how much of a spice or herb to use these recommendations as a good rule of thumb, remember to use more herbs if using a fresh or crumbled dried form.
Begin with ¼ teaspoon of most ground spices or ground dried herbs for these amounts and adjust as needed:
Start with 1/8 teaspoon for cayenne pepper and garlic powder.
Red pepper intensifies in flavor during cooking; add in small increments.
Doubling a Recipe
DO NOT double spices and herbs.
Increase amounts by 1½ times.
Taste, add more if needed.
When to Add Spices and Herbs
The type of herb and the type of food for which it is used influence the time to add it during food preparation:
Adding FRESH herbs during cooking. As a general rule, add fresh herbs near the end of the cooking time or just before serving as prolonged heating can cause flavor and aroma losses.
Add the more delicate fresh herbs (basil, chives, cilantro, dill leaves, parsley, marjoram and mint) a minute or two before the end of cooking or sprinkle them on the food before it’s served.
The less delicate fresh herbs (dill seeds, oregano, rosemary, tarragon and thyme) can be added about the last 20 minutes of cooking.
For some foods such as breads, batters, etc., you’ll need to add fresh herbs at the beginning of the cooking process.
Adding DRIED herbs and spices during cooking. Follow these tips and techniques for best taste:
Whole dried spices and herbs (whole allspice and bay leaves):
Release their flavors slower than crumbled or ground ones.
Are ideal for dishes cooking an hour or more such as soups and stews.
Ground dried spices and herbs:
Release their flavor quickly.
May taste best in shorter-cooking recipes or added nearer the end of longer-cooking ones.
Crumbled dried herbs may differ:
Milder herbs such as basil may flavor best added toward the end of cooking.
More robust herbs such as thyme can stand longer cooking periods.
Freshly grinding spices such as black pepper and nutmeg provide more flavor than buying them already ground. This also applies to using them in uncooked foods.
Secure whole spices such as cloves in a tea ball for easy removal at the end of cooking.
Warning: Remove bay leaves at the end of cooking. They can be a choking hazard if left in foods and can cause harmful cuts and scratches in your throat and esophagus.
For uncooked foods, add both fresh and dried spices and herbs several hours before serving to allow flavors to blend. For example, think potato salad with fresh versus dried parsley!
For more information on using spices:
Check these websites for more information and recipes using spices and herbs:
American Spice Trade Association, www.astaspice.org
Penzeys Spices, www.penzeys.com
** Note: No endorsement of products is intended nor is criticism implied of products not mentioned.
Angela Treadaway is a Regional Extension Agent in Food Safety. For any questions on food safety or preparation of vegetables, contact her at 205-410-3696 or your local county Extension office.