Over the years of teaching herb and spice cooking classes I've been
asked these questions numerous times. I hope my answers help
eliminate the confusion surrounding herbs and spices.
What is the difference between herbs and spices?
Generally we refer to the leaf of a plant used in cooking as a culinary herb and a spice any other part of the plant, often dried. Spices can be the buds (cloves), bark (cinnamon), berries (peppercorns), aromatic seed (cumin) or even the stigma of a flower in the case of saffron. Many of the aromatic seeds we call spices are gathered from herb plants when they have finished flowering.
Is salt a spice?
Often mistakenly considered a spice, salt is in fact a mineral product.
Is cilantro an herb or spice?
Both! The leaves are used as an herb and the dried seeds called coriander, are spices. The stem & roots, which are also used from this plant for cooking, are classified as an herb since they are used fresh. The picture on the left is not cilantro, it is used to show you that both the leaves and seeds are used.
Are all spices hot?
No, just a few of the many spices are considered spicy: black pepper, chilies, horseradish, mustard and to a lesser degree some gingers and galangal.
Were spices used in the old days to mask the taste of rotten food?
No, this is a myth. Spices were expensive and were reserved for the elite, who could well afford fresh meat. Also, spices are not preservatives and therefore proper hygiene practices of careful storage and refrigeration are required.
Do I have to be a gourmand to use herbs and spices for cooking?
If you can boil water you can use herbs and spices with great success! No additional cooking skills are required to benefit from their inclusion in foods you already know how to prepare. Spice blends make cooking fun and easy.
Some of my spices are five years old can I still use them?
All herbs and spices will deteriorate over time; as the oils gradually evaporate, the flavor and aroma will dissipate. Therefore, try not to buy in large quantities (i.e. Big Box Store size because it’s so inexpensive). Use by the “best before” date. A general rule is 6 to 9 months for ground and 1 year for seeds. Don’t be tempted to use more of an old spice, as it will introduce a sharp, bitter flavor.
How do I know whether they are old if I can’t remember when I purchased them?
Simply smell them and if you can detect some aroma resembling their original scent they should be fine. With whole spices, break the piece or scrape it with a knife and then take a sniff. Test fresh spices the first time you open the jar, familiarize yourself with the aroma, it will help you gain understanding of good versus poor quality. Writing the date of purchase on the jar/tin also helps a lot.
I’ve heard you shouldn’t have the spice rack near the stove, is this true?
Yes, that’s correct. Heat, light and humidity affect their freshness. Place rack out of direct sunlight, preferably in the pantry or cupboard. Use spices often to capture exotic flavors of faraway places!
Some recipes call for dried basil or parsley, should I have these in my rack?
If you like the taste of old, dusty hay then go ahead, most people don’t! Soft-leaf or watery herbs such as these as well as chives, coriander, and chervil don’t dry well or resemble their fresh state. I do not include them in my spice blends because of this.
How should I purchase spices, in cellophane plastic packs, bulk, jars or cans?
Although the plastic packs and bulk bin spices are less expensive, it’s not advisable unless the store has a high turn over. If you do purchase them in plastic packs, transfer contents into jars or tins when you get home. It’s best to purchase small amounts either in jar or can form. You're guaranteed a fresh product from Heart Rock Herb & Spice Co.!
Sometimes I need to substitute dried herbs for fresh, is it a one to one ratio?
No, herbs dry differently; some get stronger while others weaken. Dried thyme is about four times as strong as the volume of fresh, while oregano is ten! In general, use 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs to one teaspoon crushed dried herbs. Another way to look at it is,1 part dried to 3 parts fresh.
I saw a recipe I liked, but it called for herbs & spices I didn’t have, and when I went to the store I found them very expensive. Can I substitute ones I have?
Not if you want the recipe to taste the way it was intended by the author, although experimenting with herbs and spices is always encouraged. If it calls for basil and all you have is thyme go ahead and substitute it.
I like the food of Mexico, what spices should I have on hand?
This is the best-known ethnic cuisine and you probably have many of the spices on hand already and the herbs are in our local grocery stores. Their main spices and herbs are: paprika, cumin, coriander leaf, oregano, cinnamon, chili, epazote and annatto in order of importance and use. Purchase my Mexican or Tahoe Taco blend, it's much easier and fresher than what you'll get in the grocery store.
Is Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine all the same?
No. Chinese cuisine doesn’t employ a wide range of spices, as they rely on stocks, as do the French. Because it is native to China, their dominant spice is star anise. While North Vietnamese cuisine bears the strongest relationship to Chinese, South Vietnamese food was influenced by Indian and French spices and cooking. Vietnamese food uses more fresh herbs and spices, Chinese cooking uses a lot of fresh green leaf vegetables. The main spices in both these cuisines are: Star anise, fennel seed, coriander leaf, dill leaf, cassia, ginger, Sichuan pepper, chili, cloves and licorice. Thai food in the Western word is mostly influenced by our exposure to area restaurants. It’s aromatic, fresh, yet hot and sour, with tastes of coconut. Their main spice and herb mixture includes: coriander leaf, kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, green and red chili, turmeric, garlic, ginger, galangal, cloves, and cardamom. I have several different blends that represent these cuisines nicely.
What are the herbs and spices of Indian cuisine?
Indian cuisine uses more spices than any other. Because of their history of growing and trading spices, their cuisine tends to be categorized as either North or South. North, being represented by curry spice mixtures (masalas), which include seed spices such as coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, chili, mustard, ajowan, and nigella. South Indian cuisine is strongly influenced by the coconut palm, which is grown along side, peppercorn, ginger, turmeric, curry leaves, tamarind and kokam. It is highly aromatic, heated more by pepper than by chilies, it’s fragrant, fresh and a cuisine worth exploring. Familiarize yourself with these spices to spice up your food as well as your life.
Is Moroccan the same as North African?
North African cuisine, which includes those of Ethiopia, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, is consolidated into what is referred to as Moroccan. It is often referred to as the “user-friendly Indian” because it uses a high proportion of mild spices, leaving the diner to add the spices of choice. One-pot preparations, called stews, casseroles or in their case tagines (which is also the earthenware used) are quite popular. Their main spices are: coriander seed, turmeric, paprika, cumin, ginger cinnamon, cloves, and chili. I have three Moroccan blends to choose from and love them all especially the Ras el Hanout with its rose petals and lavender flowers!
What is bouquet garni?
It’s simply a bundle of fresh herbs or a packet of dried, used to flavor broths, sauces and soups. Traditionally composed of thyme, parsley, marjoram and bay leaf, although other combination can be formed. It is tied with string, wrapped in a leaf or put in cheesecloth if using dried herbs, to be retrieved at the end of cooking.
What is Herbes de Provence?
Found in French and European recipes, it’s a traditional blend of dried herbs. It has some of the pungenency of the bouquet garni, but is fined tuned with the addition of lavender flowers. The Provence region in France came up with this blend in the 1970's to promote and sell their famous lavender, and it worked!
Is Garam Masala the same as curry powder?
Garam Masala is a traditional Indian spice meaning “blend” or “ mixture”, the word garam means “spices”. It’s a distinctive blend although there are many variations. Indian cooks recent the catchall term, curry powder. The classic Garam Masala consists of: cardamom pods, cumin, cinnamon, caraway seeds, black peppercorns, and cloves, roasted first and then ground into a powder. That's how I do mine, it's great.
What is Chinese Five-Spice?
It’s a combination of ground spices; star anise, fennel seed, cinnamon bark, whole cloves and anise pepper. It’s a sweetly aromatic blend that can be used in both sweet and savory dishes.
Does chili powder only contain ground peppers?
No, it’s a blend consisting of ground spices; hot chili peppers, cumin seed, oregano and garlic. Use in Mexican dishes, B-B-Q rubs and much more.
Whole spices last longer but most recipes call for ground spices. What do I do?
Invest in a good pepper mill, coffee grinder and nutmeg grater. Grinding small amounts for a recipe gives you the most flavor. It breaks down the cell walls and releases the oil volatiles. Many of my blends start with whole seeds for freshness.
The recipe called for bay leaves early on, but I forgot to add them, can I put them in at the end?
Stronger herbs such as bay leaf, sage, lavender, oregano, rosemary and thyme need long simmering times to bring out their aroma and flavor. More watery herbs, basil, chives, cilantro, parsley & tarragon should be added at the end of cooking to preserve their bright flavor and color. So the answer is no!
Peppercorns come in different colors, can I use them interchangeably?
Each has its own flavor although they all come from the same plant. Black peppercorns come from berries that are green and then dried in the sun, while white peppercorns come from berries that have been allowed to ripen red. The white are milder in flavor while black the strongest.
My paprika doesn’t smell or taste like anything.
If you just celebrated your 10th wedding anniversary and were given a spice rack for your wedding shower I’m not surprised! Paprika is ground from sweet chile peppers, it’s only slightly piquant. Use Hungarian form for the fullest flavor, American for brightest color, Spanish for its spiciness, which can also come "smoked", B-B-Q rubs contain lots of paprika, it browns the meat nicely.
Is galangal the same as ginger root?
They are related members of the ginger root family. The “greater” galangal has large spicy roots, with a similar peppery ginger like flavor. It’s used a lot in Thai cuisine. The “lesser” galangal is used more like a vegetable. Substitute fresh grated ginger root, halving the amount, for galangal.
Can I use cinnamon when the recipe calls for cassia?
Yes, they are closely related and often confused. It is less expensive and slightly stronger so use less of it. Ground cassia turns stale quickly, store properly, purchase in stick form.
What is mace? Is it related to nutmeg?
They couldn’t be more related. Nutmeg is the hard kernel of the fruit of an evergreen tree native to the Spice Islands. The fruit is split open to revel the seed-nutmeg, which is wrapped in a bright red lacy covering-mace. Add freshly grated nutmeg at the end of cooking, heat diminishes the flavor. The flavor of mace is a combination of cinnamon and pepper, it's more subtle then nutmeg.
Why is Saffron so darn expensive?
Over a quarter of a million crocus flowers must be harvested to obtain one pound of saffron, and the three stigmas from each crocus must be collected by hand. Can you see why now? Fortunately, only a pinch is usually needed. For best flavor, crush threads between your thumb and forefinger and soak them in a tablespoon of water for 30 minutes. Saffron ground this way equals twice as much saffron threads, so adjust your recipe accordingly. Turmeric, although less aromatic in flavor, can be used as a substitute when you need the yellow coloring indicative of saffron.
Are oregano and marjoram the same?
Yes and no. They are similar in appearance but marjoram has a more delicate flavor and is a gentler herb than oregano, which can be a wild variety of marjoram. Greek oregano is strong tasting, highly fragrant and aggressively spicy. It will leave a burning heat in your mouth. Italian Oregano is a cross between Greek & sweet marjoram. Cook with sweet marjoram.