Spices and herbs are seasonings used to flavor foods. Specifically, spices are derived from the bark, roots, leaves, stems, buds, and seeds of certain plants, and generally dried. “Herbs,” on the other hand, are small, tender plants that are fragrant and flavorful, and can be used fresh or dried. Both are a great way to add flavor without adding salt, sugar, or saturated fat.
History: Seasonings of all sorts were valued greatly in ancient times because they were so rare. In fact, we get the modern word “salary” from the Latin word “sal,” or salt—seasonings were so expensive in ancient Rome that they were used as currency! Some of the most highly prized spices throughout the ages have been black peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg.
Buying: Dried spices, herbs, and chiles should be colorful and fragrant. Buy spices and chiles whole, not ground, for better flavor and longer shelf life.
Fresh herbs are best in dishes where the dried herbs wouldn’t have the time or liquid to reconstitute and infuse flavor, as in a tomato, basil, and mozzarella salad, or in a cilantro-garnished guacamole. Look for vibrant herbs without wilting leaves or bruised stems.
Storage: Store dry spices and herbs in a cool place away from direct sunlight, not in a spice rack directly above the stove. Oil-rich seeds, such as sesame and poppy seeds, should be stored in the freezer so they don’t go bad. Store spices and herbs in sturdy glass jars with tight-fitting lids—the less they’re exposed to air, light, and moisture, the longer they’ll keep. Dried herbs should be used within six months; ground spices within six months to a year; and whole spices within one to three years. When in doubt, smell for freshness.
Wash fresh herbs before storing, by rinsing under cool water and then drying completely with a clean dishtowel or a salad spinner. Treat soft-stemmed herbs, like parsley or cilantro, like flowers: remove wilted leaves, trim the stems with fresh cuts, and place them in a small vase or jar with an inch or so of water. Slip the vase into the fridge, covering loosely with a plastic bag or cling wrap if desired. Change the water daily, and they’ll keep for a little over a week. Follow the same method with basil, but leave it out of the fridge, uncovered and in full sunlight. It’ll keep for two to three weeks, as will woody-stemmed herbs like rosemary or thyme—just bundle them in a slightly damp paper towel and place them inside a resealable bag.
Preparation: You can crush or powder whole spices with a mortar and pestle, but it’s easier (and faster) to use a spice grinder. Be sure to clean the grinder between spices by pulsing raw rice and wiping the bowl thoroughly. Peppercorns are best cracked or crushed under a heavy skillet or a sturdy rolling pin.
Toast spices to bring out their flavor and fragrance. Dry-roast whole spices in a skillet on medium heat, shaking frequently to prevent burning. Toast gently for 2-3 minutes, or until the spices are aromatic. Transfer them out immediately to prevent burning, and if necessary, grind once they’re cool. You can do the same with dried chiles. Once toasted, the chiles should be soaked in hot water for half an hour before use.
As a general rule, when substituting fresh herbs for dried, use three times as much. And remember to do the reverse if you’re subbing in dried herbs for fresh (one-third as much).
Get inspired with these unusual pairings!
Fruits and veggies: Try rosemary with nectarines, lavender with apples, chili powder with mango, basil with strawberries, black pepper with watermelon, or anise with rhubarb.
Savories: Pair cinnamon and thyme, basil and cloves, or cumin and peanut butter.
Sweets: Sprinkle vanilla ice cream with chili powder. With milk or dark chocolate, try crystallized ginger, toasted sage, or sesame seeds.