Spices and herbs are used for many things like medicinal purposes, healing purposes, and cooking. Since of course, this website is about home and cooking we will focus on cooking. So what is the difference between spices and herbs and what kinds are used in cooking? We will explore the difference between the two, the most popular, and which ones to use in what dish and why. Food tastes so much better when it has been flavored right and spices and herbs do the job quite nicely when used properly.
Spices are from the seed, fruit, root, and bark of a plant and are used primarily for flavoring, coloring, or preserving food. Some spices have antimicrobial properties and might explain why it is used in meat which is susceptible to spoiling. The most common spices used in cooking are black pepper, ground ginger, cumin, nutmeg, cloves either ground or whole, chili powder, curry powder, garlic powder, and paprika. These are just a few and there are many others. Now let’s talk about each one of the above and their uses in cooking.
- Black pepper is usually used ground. Before it is ground it is known as black peppercorns. Using black pepper in cooking adds both heat and depth of flavor.
- Ground Ginger is the main spice used in gingerbread or ginger snap cookies. It is very aromatic and is also used in sweet spice mixes like pumpkin pie spice. It also is used in savory applications like spice rubs, and marinades.
- Cumin can be used either whole or ground, has a nutty flavor when toasted whole, and is used primarily in savory dishes such as chili, stews. Can also be used with meats, fish, and vegetables.
- Nutmeg has a warm, spicy aroma and flavor and can be used in sweet and savory cooking. It is used in the classic béchamel sauce and is used to flavor many cakes, puddings, and custards.
- Cloves have the most powerful flavors of all the world’s spices. It can be used whole or ground. It has a strong and sweet with a bitter sharp flavor. There is also a warmth and to some, the taste is even hot. It is used in drinks as well as sweet and savory dishes. My grandma used it in her sweet potatoes. And I have used whole cloves on top of a baking ham.
- Chili powder is actually a blend of several spices such as paprika, cayenne pepper, cumin, garlic powder, and onion powder. It has a distinct hot flavor and is used in of course chili. You also add it to stews and soup for added heat to the taste. There are many taste profiles from mild to hot depending on the pepper used in the chili powder. Of course, it is the main spice used in Chili.
- Curry Powder is also a blend of several spices such as turmeric, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, ground coriander, black peppercorn, cardamom, and crushed red pepper flakes. It has a unique flavor due to the mix of savory and sweet spices. The savory spices add deep earthy flavor and the sweet spices add brightness and pep. You can use it in soups, stews, marinades, and sauces. This spice is used in many Indian dishes.
- Garlic powder is dehydrated garlic and ground into fine particles. It still has a garlic taste but sweeter and not as strong as fresh garlic. It blends better than fresh garlic which can gum up the mixture. Add it early to your recipe as it needs to absorb moisture. This is used in many Italian dishes.
- Paprika has the full flavor of the peppers it was ground from. When heated paprika has a bitter peppery taste that arouses its peppery origins. Many use it sprinkled on potato salad or deviled eggs mainly I think for color or “prettiness” as there is really no flavor. It is mainly used in Hungarian dishes
Herbs are the leafy green or flowering parts of a plant and are used either fresh or dried. The most common herbs used in cooking are Basil, chives, cilantro, dill, rosemary, thyme, sage, marjoram, and parsley.
- Basil an herb of the mint family. It is best when fresh when it gives off a sweet earthy aroma. It tastes somewhat like anise with a pleasantly strong often sweet taste. It is the main ingredient in Pesto. Add it to your dishes at the end of cooking as prolonged heat cause the oil in the basil to disappear. It is frequently used in Italian dishes.
- Chives an herb of the onion family with a much milder taste. Snip with scissors instead of chopping. Do not cook them for very long as they are very delicate. They are mainly used for garnishes, salads, omelets, potato dishes, and creamy sauces. Add them right before serving.
- Cilantro an herb of the parsley family. Many have different views on the taste of cilantro. To some, it tastes fresh and citrusy but some refer to it tasting like soap or like metal shavings. The seeds of cilantro are coriander which is a spice. It is also referred to as Chinese parsley. It is used mainly in Mexican and Chinese cuisine.
- Dill an herb of the celery family and is also called dill weed. It has a strong distinctive flavor of fennel, anise, and celery and a warm slightly muted bitter taste. Used primarily to flavor soups, stews, potatoes, and of course pickles.
- Rosemary is the most fragrant of all herbs. It has a lemon-pine taste. Use it when roasting lamb or beef. Use a light hand when using this herb due to it’s strong flavor.
- Thyme a milder herb that pairs well with other flavors. Has a slight dry aroma and a slight minty taste. It goes well with lamb and veal as well as in eggs and custards.
- Sage is sweet and somewhat bitter with a pine-like flavor and aroma. The strong flavor of sage goes a long way so less is better. Use in pork, beef, duck, and chicken recipes and of course bread stuffing/dressing.
- Marjoram is also an herb from the mint family and is interchangeable with oregano although the taste is sweeter and milder than oregano and oregano is “spicier”. Use the leaves and not the stems. It is used in vegetables, tomato-based dishes, stuffing sausages, and preserved meat.
- Parsley there are two types of parsley: flat-leaf or Italian parsley and curly parsley. Generally, flat leave has a more robust flavor and the curly parsley identifies more with decoration. Parsley brightens flavors and adds balance to savory dishes. Much like adding lemon juice can make something taste better. Use it raw in salads, sauces, and marinades. And cook it in dishes like quiche and soup.
Fresh Herbs Vs Dried Herbs
Dried herbs are usually more concentrated and potent. So use less dried spices and herbs vs fresh. The general thought is to use 1/3 less dried herbs than fresh. For example, if the recipe calls for 1 tablespoon fresh use only 1 teaspoon of the dried herb. To store fresh herbs it is best to get a paper towel and wrap it around the fresh herbs. Place in a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator They will last 2 to 3 weeks. Store dried herbs as well as your spices in plastic or glass-lidded jars. Do not store them near your stove, dishwasher, or any heat source such as vents. Also, note that dried herbs and spices do not spoil but will lose their flavor over time. Keep your spices no longer than 4 years and your dried herbs no longer than 3 years.
Food tastes so much better when they are flavored with herbs and spices. And using the correct spice and/or herb is like using the correct purse to compliment your outfit. I have only covered a few herbs and spices. There are so many more that if I even tried to cover them all I would be in front of the computer typing away for days and have pages and pages. I tried to cover the most popular used herbs and spices. I hope that you found this helpful in your cooking. Go ahead and spice up your food. It will taste so much better. You can find great deals on spices and dried herbs here.
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Feel free to leave a comment below and tell me your favorite herbs and spices that you use or let me know of your experiences with using spices and herbs.
Have A Wonderful Day!