Herbs and Spices

What to Know About Herbs and Spices

When we’re talking about food ingredients, there’s probably nothing more transformative than herbs and spices. Whether used singly, in carefully orchestrated combinations or in blends mixed at home or store-bought, they’ll take you far. They’ll even take you to far-flung lands, or at the very least, take your tastebuds there.

Herbs & Spices: What’s the Difference

First of all, both herbs and spices share similar functions. Herbs & spices are prized for their aromatic properties. They’re used for culinary purposes for seasoning and flavoring (although some herbs may be used as a “salad”) and/or for medicinal purposes and in some cases used as teas, whether medicinal or not. Some are used in fragrances and many in essential oils.

  • Generally, herbs are plants that are harvested for their leaves, stems and in rare cases roots.
  • Spices, on the other hand, are usually harvested from other parts of a plant. They’re the flowers, berries, seeds, bark, and roots of a plant.

While herbs can be used fresh or dried, typically most spices (although not all) are used in their dried form! Confused? Maybe it doesn’t really matter so much how herbs and spices are classified if you just want to make a recipe and add a teaspoon of this or that.

But if you cook more often, it will come up. You may see recipes that call for herbs of choice or herbs or spices you don’t have so you’ll want to learn enough about them to make informed choices. And it’s kind of nice to break them down into groups to understand how to buy, use and store them.

Let’s Talk About Herbs & Spices

First of all there are several myths you are going to see passed around continuously online, on tv, in magazines and by Chefs who should know better.

  • One is that using fresh herbs is better than using dried. That’s really dependent upon the recipe and how those herbs are going to be used.
  • The other is that any dried herbs should be discarded after six months. Most herbs are harvested once a year; some do lose flavor faster than others, but for others, much is dependent upon how those herbs are stored.

Here’s some rules of thumb for we lesser mortals that don’t feel compelled to do what they tell ya on tv, and some basic information on buying and storing.

My Herb Pot – Looking a little rough after a long winter.

Fresh Herbs

Using Fresh Herbs:

  • Fresh herbs are used to garnish, to enhance or as a primary ingredient in a recipe or to add flavor to non cooked or quick-cooking recipes that take full advantage of the frshness of the herb. For instance, parsley or cilantro are common garnishes. Basil in a Pesto recipe is an example of an herb used as a primary ingredient. Parsley is a primary ingredient in Tabbouleh. Basil or Oregano might be dropped into a quick-cooking Marinara. Many fresh herbs are dropped in towards the end of the cooking process in other recipes.
  • This little “rule” does not always hold true. though; sometimes sprigs of herbs are tossed in longer cooking recipes and fished out later. A sprig of thyme in soup, epazote in frijoles (beans) would be an example.

Converting Dry to Fresh: Generally if substituting fresh herbs for dried, use three times the amount. Precision is nearly impossible so go by taste if necessary.

Buying vs Growing Fresh Herbs: Fresh herbs from the store can be pricey and sometimes of iffy quality. If you have space in the yard, a garden or even a pot, it’s often worthwhile to grow your own. In my area at least, a plant can be purchased for less than a bunch of cut herbs at the store and for far less than any fresh herbs in little plastic packages. Worst case scenario? If you buy a plant and kill it, it can usually be dried.

Growing Fresh Herbs: Many fresh herbs grow well in the growing season of almost any climate and some overwinter depending on the zone. You’ll find herbs that are annuals, biennials or perennials although even in climates with cold winters, most herbs grow quickly to huge plants over the summer. In cold climates, many can be brought in over the winter & replanted or set out in the spring.

Storing Fresh Herbs:

  • Fresh Herbs: For immediate use: carefully wash and dry and to keep longer, trim end of stems, place stems in a jar of water and cover with a plastic bag or wrap in a paper towel and store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Thre area gadgets that can be bought that help prevent spillage. Basil may blacken in the refrigerator so place in a jar on the counter.
  • For long term use: Dry appropriately for the herb by hanging in bunches, laying out on newspapers or paper towels, in a dehydrator or in some cases, the microwave or oven.
  • Freeze: In water, oil or butter, in water or oil, in cubes or in the case of butter, roll into a log (use plastic wrap to aid you) and cut into coins to use in cooking. Freeze stems of soft herbs like basil, parsley or cilantro in small bags to drop into soups or other dishes for a zero waste save.

Shelf Life: Once cut, two to five days.

Reviving Fresh Herbs: If your herbs are wilted or starting to go, first remove any that are browned, damaged or showing any unwholesomeness. Trim the ends of the remaining herbs and soak in ice water. Dry thoroughly and store as above.

Essential Herbs & Spices

Essential Herbs & Spices

Dried Herbs

How long dried herbs stay viable depends on the herb and how it is stored.

Using Dried Herbs:

  • While there are times that only fresh herbs will do and times when either fresh or dried can be substituted for each other, there are times when dried herbs are essential. Dried herbs are generally more concentrated than fresh and do add a deeper, earthy flavor in many recipes. Usually, dried herbs are added towards the beginning of a recipe, either added to the oil or fat and allowed to “bloom” or added to ingredients that are going to cook and simmer for longer periods of time. Try fortifying a recipe by adding a little of any dried herb both at the beginning and end of a recipe.
  • Dried herbs are often used sprinkled over baked items like the Oregano that tops Greek Chicken. They’re used in rubs, marinades, and dressings. And they’re used in place of fresh in many recipes, especially during the winter months.

Substitute Dried Herbs for Fresh: As much as you’d use three times the amount of fresh for dried when substituting dried, you’ll want to shoot for about a third of the called for amount of fresh.

Storing Dried Herbs:

  • All dried herbs should be stored in sealed jars in a cool, dark, and dry cupboard. That means not on the back of an oven, the wall near an oven, a drawer next to it or a cupboard over it. Forget over the fridge, too. And it’s a no go to hang on a wall in open shelves or leave on the counter if you want your herbs to last longer.
  • Have Working Jars: In many kitchens, properly storing herbs can put them in an inconvenient spot. If you have a large collection of herbs use smaller “working” jars of the herbs you often use. Keep the rest closed up tightly and seldom opened in an appropriate place where they’ll last longer. Storing in glass is best if possible, old jelly jars or saved spice jars washed and cleaned.

Shelf Life: One to three years.

Reviving Dried Herbs: Should your dried herbs not be at their peak, try using more, crushing in your hand before using and/or blooming them by toasting carefully in a dry pan or adding to the oil in a recipe, or adding earlier to a recipe so they have a chance to work longer.

Sweet Ancho Spice Rub

Sweet Ancho Spice Rub

Spice & Herb Blends

Using Spice Blends:

  • There are so many blends of herbs and spices out there! Some basics are found in the spice aisle among the regular spices and in most stores, it takes just a glance down to see jars of blends from smaller companies to the mega giants. Of course, all the spice houses have their own. And don’t forget all the packets you’ll find all over the store for making everything from tacos to Indian food. I’m a fan of making my own Spice Blend & Packet Substitutes to control quality, customize the flavors and to save money.
  • Many blends can be great shortcuts, whether commercial or homemade. Watch for additives, especially in the packets. One drawback can be a generic flavor but keep in mind you can always add an herb or spice to tweak whatever you’re making.

Substituting Blends for Spices & Herbs: In most cases, just add up the number of teaspoons of the herbs and spices in a recipe and add the same amount of your particular blend. Watch for salt and include in the numbers if it’s already in the blend.

Storing Spice & Herb Blends:

  • All the same rules apply as storing your regular spices and herbs. Keep stored in sealed jars in a cool, dark, and dry cupboard. That means not on the back of an oven, the wall near an oven, a drawer next to it or a cupboard over it. Forget over the fridge, too. And it’s a no go to hang on a wall in open shelves or leave on the counter if you want your blends to last longer.
  • Blends for some reason seem to fade in flavor faster than individual spices, although that’s my personal opinion and I don’t know if it’s backed up in science! But they can be prone to clumping and drying. There may be anti-clumping agents in some blends which can help. Sugar or salts can dry and/or draw out or add moisture. Don’t let them languish.

Shelf Life: One to three years.

Reviving Spice & Herb Blends: If the blend has hardened, in a pinch, some can be crushed (add to a Ziploc first) or blended if using in a dry application (to sprinkle or use as a rub) or if using in wet application, they might be able to be dissolved.

Spices, Whole & Ground

Using Spices:

It used to be that in the States we’d think of spices as being ether spices used for baking and/or desserts or those used in savory dishes but as the world of cooking (and eating) has opened up, so has the way we use spices. And we use them these days not only in traditional dishes but in various fusion recipes. These days spices are in almost everything!

Be open to “new to us” spices & flavor combinations but if in doubt, try a little and increase next time. And if in doubt as to whether you want to buy a spice or not, consider purchasing a smaller amount if your store has that set up and giving it a try.

Whole vs Crushed or Ground Spices:

There are many spices that can be purchased in a whole form, whether seeds, berries, roots or other parts of the plant or already ground. Both have their advantages and disadvantages and some you’ll want in both forms.

  • Ground spices will have a shorter shelf life than most spices purchased in a whole form. They are also usually consistently ground which is nice for baking, especially and easy to use.
  • Whole spices will often keep for a much longer period of time, sometimes years without losing their intense flavor. Most can be crushed or ground as needed usually using a spice or coffee grinder, a blender, two pans or a mortar and pestle. If a spice will be only used every now and then it may be wise to purchase in a whole form and process as needed.
  • The exception to the above is roots like turmeric or ginger, which are normally grated, sliced or minced and keep best in the freezer.

Substituting Whole for Crushed or Ground: In most cases, a 1 to 1 ratio of a crushed or whole spice pretty well with one caveat! Crushed or ground spices in some cases will add more flavor than you may be used to. Be very careful, especially when baking and especially using nutmeg.

Storing Spices:

  • Again, the same rules apply for spices as for dried herbs & blends. Whether ground or whole, they should be stored in sealed jars in a cool, dark, and dry cupboard. That means not on the back of an oven, the wall near an oven, a drawer next to it or a cupboard over it. Forget over the fridge, too. And it’s a no go to hang on a wall in open shelves or leave on the counter if you want your spices to last longer.
  • Have Working Jars: In many kitchens, properly storing herbs can put them in an inconvenient spot. If you have a large collection of herbs use smaller “working” jars of the herbs you often use. Keep the rest closed up tightly and seldom opened in an appropriate place where they’ll last longer. Storing in glass is best if possible, old jelly jars or saved spice jars washed and cleaned.
  • Red herbs like paprika and cayenne can be stored in the refrigerator to preserve the flavors.
  • One exception is non-dried roots, like ginger or turmeric. They’ll wilt or rot at room temperature and grow in the refrigerator. The best bet is the freezer. Keep in a heavy ziploc. They may get frosty but that won’t affect the flavor. When ready to use they can be usually grated from frozen. If just too hard, leave on the counter for a minute to grate or slice. When finished replace and toss back in the freezer.
  • Another exception is spices that are seeds, which may fade and may turn rancid. Keep in a heavy Ziploc in the freezer.

Shelf Life: Ground, one to three years, seeds up to two years, whole spices up to 4 years. Roots are a variable.

Reviving Spices: There’s very little to be done to revive ground spices other than to just use more. Dried spices that are in a whole form may seem spent but once grated or crushed may come back to life. It’s just a judgment call. Try using in applications where heat is involved, like teas or mulled ciders or wines.

 

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What to Know About Herbs and Spices, the basics for real life! Common sense guidelines for using & storing herbs, spices & spice blends. #Herbs&Spices #StoringHerbs&Spices #AllAboutHerbs&Spices

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