Herbs consist of fresh leaves and stems or crumbled or
powdered dried leaves. Spices consist of many other parts of the
plants—seeds, stems, roots, and berries, which have been dried—and can
be whole, ground or powdered.
Dried herbs should be purchased only in the amount that can be used
within two or three months, and should be stored away from heat. Herbs
that have a musty or “flat” aroma should be discarded. For best results
in your cooking, always try to find fresh leaves.
Whole spices retain their flavor longer than ground, although both
will retain their potency for about six months if they are properly
stored. They should be kept in sealed containers in a cool, dry spot,
away from extreme heat and direct light. For optimum flavor, purchase
whole spices and grind them as close as possible to the time you will be
using them. Dry-cooking for 2-3 minutes will heighten their flavor. Put
seeds in a wok or sauté pan and toss vigorously over high heat. You do
not need to add any oil.
Allspice– comes from the ground berries of a tree which grows
in Jamaica and belongs to the Myrtaceae family. It has the aroma of a
blend of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. It is sold both whole and ground.
Whole is mainly used in pickling, meats, fish and gravies. Ground is
used in baked goods, relishes, puddings, and fruit preserves.
Anise – originated in the Middle East, where it is grown today
as a commercial crop. Small white flowers bloom in mid-summer, followed
by tiny licorice-flavored fruits called aniseed. Aniseed adds rich
flavor to cookies, cakes, candies, bread, and applesauce. It is widely
used in Indian curries and stews. Use fresh leaves in salad.
Basil – Sweet basil, to Italians, is a symbol of love. What
most of us love is basil’s pungent, spicy-clove flavor and aroma. No
other herb stands out quite like basil for its aroma. Shred its leaves
and the pungent smell fills the air, and it has a flavor to match.
Bay – These are the leaves of the laurel tree of ancient
Greece, not the native American mountain laurel whose leaves are toxic.
It is a powerful seasoning, with the deeply savory essence of nutmeg and
warm spices. It is possible to grow quite a large plant in a small pot,
and it will thrive for years without repotting.
Capers – The flower buds of a small bush found in
Mediterranean countries. To make capers, the buds are dried and then
pickled in vinegar with some salt. To reduce saltiness, rinse before
using. The piquant taste of capers permeates any sauce quickly, and just
a few supply a big flavor boost.
Caraway – Finely cut leaves and flat, greenish-white flower
heads resemble those of carrots. Seeds have been reputed to aid
digestion, strengthen vision, improve memory, cure baldness, stop a
lover’s fickleness, and prevent theft of any objects
Cardamom – is a member of the ginger or Zingiberaceae family,
and is one of the most expensive of spices. It comes from southeast
India and is used not only in Thai cuisine, but also many Scandinavian
Chervil– Also known as French parsley, is one of the
components of the four fines herbes. It has a delicate licorice flavor
with the mild pepperiness of parsley. It is a fleeting flavor. Cooking
and drying destroys the subtle flavor, so use large quantities of fresh
leaves, toward the end of cooking.
Chives – One of the most popular of culinary herbs, the leaves
of this plant can be used in a variety of ways. The flowers are also
edible, and can be used to garnish salads and other cold dishes. Chives
are readily grown indoors or outside. They have thin, tubular, grass
like foliage and clover like lavender flower heads that bloom in mid to
late summer. Leaves have a mild onion flavor. Chives will turn drab
green when heated.
Cilantro – Thin, rounded, toothed bright green leaves
resembling flat-leaf parsley. Also called fresh coriander or Chinese
parsley. It is tangy with citrus notes.
Cinnamon – is available powdered or in sticks. It is a member
of the laurel or Lauraceae family and grows on the island of Sri Lanka
and along the southwestern coast of India. The inner bark or the tree
yields the “bark cinnamon” sold in scroll-like sticks. Break these
scrolls inn as small pieces as possible and then grind them in a spice
mill or cleaned coffee mill.
Cloves– are the unopened flower bud of a tree that grows in
many of the warmer regions of the world such as Madagascar, India,
Malaysia, the Philippines, Sumatra, and Brazil. Cloves can be purchased
both whole and ground. Cloves have a most pleasant aroma, but they are
so strong that a tiny bit will be sufficient to flavor a great deal of
prepared food. Be careful!
Coriande – An ancient spice whose seeds have been found in
Egyptian tombs and were used in Rome to preserve meat. Grind dry seeds
to powder, and dust over veal, pork, or ham before cooking. Sprinkle on
cakes, pastries, cookies, or sweet dishes. Use in ground meat, sausage,
Young leaves taste like dried orange peel and are rich in vitamins A
and B1, calcium, riboflavin, and niacin. Use in salads and soups and
serve chopped with avocado pears.
Dill – One of the oldest herbs; is a native of southern Europe
and western Asia. It has tender, feathery, blue-green fronds branching
off a central stem. Both seeds and leaves have a sharp, slightly bitter
Fennel – Leaves, stems, roots, seeds, and oil are all parts of
the fennel plant used in various ways. Leaves have a sweetish flavor,
particularly good in sauces for fish; also useful with pork or veal, in
soups and in salads. Seeds have a sharper taste. Use fennel sparingly in
sauerkraut, spaghetti sauce, chili, hearty soups, and as condiment on
Garlic – This member of the onion family has a long history
and was regarded as a sacred herb by the Ancient Egyptians. Garlic is
one of about 700 species of Allium, or onion, grown all over the world
for their culinary and medicinal value. Garlic’s distinctive, pungent
aroma and flavor have made it one of the most popular herbs.
Ginger – is a warming herb with a pungent aroma and flavor. It
enhances all kinds of foods—from confectionery and cakes to savory
dishes. It is widely used in the cuisines of the Far East, especially in
curries and stir-fries. The roots can be purchased fresh and kept frozen
for an extended period of time.
Lavender– is used most often in desserts and teas, but also
lends its smoky, floral flavor to meats, fish, seafood, and roasted
vegetables. Lavender honey is a gourmet treat, and vinegar infused with
lavender will add mystery to salad greens.
Lemon Balm – A fragrant garden plant that releases its scent
when brushed against. It should be a first choice for the herb garden as
it is both decorative and useful.
Lemongrass – This fragrant herb is a versatile one. It is
widely used as a flavoring ingredient is Southeast Asian dishes. There
are more than 50 species in this genus of scented grasses. Plants can be
grown outdoors in warmer areas and will happily survive the warmer
months outside in cool areas, as long as they are brought indoors when
the temperature falls below 45 degrees. The leaves, stem, and oil are
the valuable parts of the plant. Only the lower 4” of the leaves are
suitable for use—fresh or dried in teas and Oriental or Asian dishes.
Lemon Verbena – The leaves are picked in summer and used fresh
in herbal teas and in syrups, salads, or stuffing for meat and poultry.
They can also be chopped and sprinkled over drinks and fruit puddings.
Mace and Nutmeg– Nutmeg is the fruit of Myristica fragrans, a
tree sixty feet high that is native to the Moluccas. The fruit is a
false fruit, or drupe—like cherries or apricots—the flesh of which is
used as food. Below the flesh is a seed which consists of two parts, the
crimson-colored aril, or outer membrane, which is flattened, dried, and
slowly roasted to become mace.
Marjoram(Sweet)– Soft, small, oval dusty green leaves arrayed
along a tender stem. It has a bold, floral perfume with mint and pepper.
The flavor can be potent so use carefully. Pick whole leaves, chop
roughly or finely to add toward end of cooking. Marjoram is not often
used raw in cold dishes. Sprinkle chopped leaves fresh or dried over
lamb, pork, and veal before roasting.
Mint– It is said that mint is the most popular flavoring in
the world, appearing in so many foodstuffs and medicines that it is
often barely given a second thought.
Oregano – Also called wild marjoram. The plant is similar to
sweet marjoram but shrubbier and more spreading. Oregano is very
assertive and peppery with hints of pine. Chop the leaves roughly or
finely and add early in cooking. Oregano is best known as the “pizza
herb”. Pair it with lemon and garlic to create Greek flavors.
Parsley– Vivid green-toothed leaf clusters branching off a
fibrous stem. Most common varieties: the curly leaves of curly parsley,
and the broad flat leaves of Italian parsley. The flavor is
subtle, fresh celery and mild pepper and can be used generously.
Pepper – Pepper is the most popular spice in the world. It is
sold in both black and white varieties and for the most part is imported
from India, Indonesia, and Borneo. It is sold in whole or ground
varieties, and is used in almost every dish imaginable.
Black peppercorns – Available as whole berries, cracked, or
ground. The Telicherry peppercorn is one of the most prized. Mignonette
or shot pepper is a combination of coarsely ground or crushed black and
White peppercorns – Black peppercorns are allowed to ripen and
then husks are removed. May be preferred for pale or lightly colored
sauces. Available as whole berries, cracked, or ground.
Green peppercorns – Unripe peppercorns that are packed in
vinegar or brine. They are also available freeze-dried.
Cayenne – A special type of chili, originally grown in Cayenne
in French Guiana. The chili is dried and ground into a fine powder. The
same chili is used to make hot pepper sauces.
Chili flakes – Dried, whole red chili peppers that are crushed
or coarsely ground.
Paprika – A powder made from dried sweet peppers (pimentos).
Available as mild, sweet, or hot. Hungarian paprikas are considered
superior in flavor.
Tellicherry Peppercorns - Peppercorns come from the plant
Piper Nigrum. These particularly reverred members of the berry
family come from the Malabar Costal area of the South India Pennensula,
and are typically larger and more flavorful than those grown in
Indonesia and South America.
Rosemary – Glossy, needlelike leaves with a lemon and piney
scent. The flavor can dominate and taste bitter so use sparingly. Insert
a sprig or two into lamb, pork, veal, or poultry before roasting. Toss
some onto charcoal over which beef, chicken or ribs are cooking.
Sprinkle chopped leaves over beef or fish before broiling.
Saffron– Saffron belongs to the Iridaceae family, which
includes irises and crocuses. Saffron consists of the deep
orange-colored stamens of the crocus. It takes approximately 35,000
flowers to produce a pound of saffron.
Sage– An intensely fragrant herb with soft, oblong, silvery
green leaves. Most common cooking variety: garden sage. Other varieties
include purple sage and pineapple sage. Sage has a potent, savory and
earthy flavor. It can dominate and taste medicinal so use judiciously.
Poppy seeds – Poppy seeds have a nutty, slightly sweet flavor
and are used in baking and in Indian dishes; as a garnish for salads,
noodles, and vegetables.
Salt – Salt is essential to good cooking, for it brings out
the flavors of foods. Just a pinch boosts the flavor of almost
everything, from simple, sliced tomatoes to complex sauces, soups,
stews, and even sweets. Various salts have very different flavors:
Kosher salt – is a refined salt that is more coarsely ground
than table salt. Its texture is essential for certain cooking processes,
especially for curing and in dry rubs.
Table salt – is mined from rock salt deposits of ancient sea
beds and is highly processed with additives, such as anticaking agents,
whiteners, and iodine.
Because it is so finely ground, it is about one third saltier than
Sea salt – made from evaporating seawater in protected bays,
has the purest, freshest flavor and can be almost twice as intense as
Rock salt – is an unrefined, coarse salt not added directly to
foods but is used in some ice cream machines.
Curing Salt – A blend of 94 percent salt and 6 percent sodium
nitrite. Used in a variety of charcuterie items, especially those to be
cold-smoked. Usually dyed pink to differentiate it from other salts.
Sorrel– In the past, this plant was used medicinally, but
nowadays, it is mainly used for its tangy flavor in salads and soups or
cooked with other leafy vegetables.
Tarragon– Large, shiny, toothed dark green leaves resembling
its daisy relative. Most common variety is French Tarragon. Its flavor
is sweet and spicy licorice. The flavor can dominate so use with care.
Chop roughly or finely and add toward the end of cooking.
Thyme – Clusters of tiny green leaves on a thin, woody stem.
Most common variety for cooking is English thyme. Other varieties
include lemon thyme and caraway thyme. It has a subtle pine and lemon
and spice flavor. It is versatile and widely
Tumeric – Has a musky, peppery flavor. Used mainly in ground
form to color foods yellow, especially Indian curries and bean dishes.
Use sparingly as an alternative to saffron.
Fines Herbes – The four fines herbes are chives, tarragon,
chervil, and parsley. Equal parts are chopped together until the board
on which you are working starts to barely turn green.
Herbes de Provence– or Provencal herbs is a mixture of
rosemary, thyme, and savory, with the four fines herbes, plus mint and
whatever else catches the fancy of the cook.
Bouquet Garni – A bunch of herbs tied together, usually
including bay leaf, fresh or dried thyme, and fresh parsley stems. It
flavors all stock, and some sauces and gravies. All herbs are tied
together to allow easy removal from the pot at the end of cooking. Let
the bouquet garni float freely in the pot to allow the release of all
Chili Powder – is a combination of ground spices and dried
herbs. It can contain all or only some of the following and in varying
Allspice Black Pepper Cayenne Pepper Ground Coriander Ground Cloves
Dried Chilies Ground Cumin Dried Oregano Paprika Garlic Powder Ground
Mustard Seeds Tumeric
Chinese 5-Spice Powder –contains cinnamon, star anise, fennel
seeds, cloves, and Szechuan peppercorns. When purchasing, choose the
most finely ground and the one palest in color.
Curry Powder – usually cumin seeds, coriander seeds, mustard
seeds, dried red chilies, cinnamon, turmeric, and ground ginger. May
also have paprika, cloves, saffron, fenugreek, cardamom, or fresh curry
Garam Masala – comes from north India where it is home-ground
from three to eight of the spices known as “warm” spices in the Ayur
Veda book of medicine. These are dried chiles, black peppercorns,
cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, cloves, coriander seeds and cumin seeds.
Pie spice – A traditional mixture of ground sweet spices,
usually allspice, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, mace, and nutmeg.
Quatre Epices – Peppercorns, ground nutmeg, ground cinnamon,
whole cloves, and ginger.
Curry Powders or Pastes – The English word curry comes from
the Tamil work kari which means sauce, because curry powers flavor
mostly sauces. In India the curries, once powdered, belong to the
general category of “masalas” or spice blends, which are prepared from
ground ingredients indigenous to the diverse regions of the country.
Ras el hanout – is used primarily in Morocco and all over the
Maghreb (the north coast of Africa). It is a wonderfully fragrant powder
with out which the traditional couscous has no soul. Depending on which
country (morocco, Algeria, or Tunisia), the ras el hanout will vary in
composition, from twelve spices in Algeria to twenty to twenty-four
spices in Morocco. In Tunisia the spices are fewer but one adds dried
Drying – Bay, marjoram, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, and
thyme retain much of their aromatic quality when dried. Chives will not
retain their flavor particularly well. Chervil may be dried but is much
better used fresh. You can dry your own store-bought or garden-grown
herbs in a dry, well-ventilated space away from direct sunlight or a
The best method is to dry the leaves on a screen, but herb bundles
can also be wrapped in a paper bag and hung until brittle. This will
take about three to five days (or longer), depending upon the weather
and humidity. Stem the dried leaves and store them in covered glass jars
for up to a year.
Freezing – More tender herbs, including basil, chives,
cilantro, dill, parsley, and tarragon are best preserved by freezing.
Some, like basil, will turn black, and all will lose their texture, but
frozen herbs keep their fresh flavor for using in cooked dishes. They
will last for up to six months using any of these three techniques:
Whole herbs: Pack sprigs of clean, dry herbs in airtight containers
or food storage bags and freeze. Run basil leaves with olive oil before
Chopped herbs: Roughly chop the herbs, pack them into ice cube trays,
fill the trays with water, and freeze. When frozen, put the cubes into
food storage bags and label with date and contents.
Herb puree: Puree herbs in a blender or food processor with just
enough vegetable or olive oil to make a thick paste. Freeze in ice-cube
trays or in small portions in food storage bags. When frozen, put the
cubes into food storage bags and label with date and contents.
Herb Butter – Frozen herb butters will keep for up to three
months so you can slice off a piece to top a pan-seared fish fillet or a
steak, finish a butter sauce, or bring it to room temperature to spread
Mix one stick softened unsalted butter with ¼ cup packed coarsely
chopped herbs or more to taste. Roll into a cylinder, wrap in plastic,
Herb Vinegar – Herb vinegars have a long shelf life. Tarragon
is the standard, but basil, chive, and chive blossoms, dill, or rosemary
infuse their flavors into milk white vinegar. Use herb vinegars in
vinaigrettes and marinades or to add zest to cooked vegetables.
Fill a glass jar with washed leaves or whole sprigs. Pour in
white-wine, rice-wine, or Champagne vinegar to cover. Set the jar in the
sun for a week or until fully flavored. Strain into a clean bottle and
seal. It will keep indefinitely.
Growing herbs is a practical pleasure – they are handsome and
fragrant in the garden, indispensable in the kitchen, easy to grow, and
fascinating to study. Most garden stores stock a wide range of plants,
and you can grow herbs from seed, seedlings, or cuttings.
The growing of herbs is as old as civilization. The earliest known
writings of nearly every culture include references to herbs used for
preparing and preserving food, scenting the air, or treating wounds and
The roots of modern medicine can be traced back to the herb gardens
of medicine men, witches, and sorcerers, and were nurtured through the
ages by the systematic studies of herbalists.
Most herbs are tough, wild plants that have changed little despite
centuries of cultivation. Almost all of them do best in sunny locations
and fertile, well-drained soil, but some will survive in partial shade
and poor soil. Herbs fall into one of four main plant categories that
may need slightly different treatments in their planting and
Woody Trees or Shrubs – Taller plants, such as bay and
rosemary, form the backbone of a bed or border. Since these are the most
permanent plants in the scheme, it is important that they are positioned
in the right place where they will look effective as they grow and not
crowd other plants.
Perennials – These die down in the fall or winter, but grow
again every year in the spring. They include chives, fennel, marjoram,
mint, and tarragon. They can be used to bulk out beds and borders, and
provide seasonal interest with flowers and foliage.
Annual and Biennials – These grow and die off within one or
two years, and should be dug up as they die off at the end of their
growing season. They include herbs such as basil and parsley.
Sub shrubs – These are low plants, shrubby in growth and
appearance, such as common thyme, lavender, and sage. They make
excellent edgings for borders, but they are not always long-lived and
are best renewed every few years by taking cuttings in summer, which can
be planted the following year when they have formed new rooted plants.