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Herbs & Spices: Uh, What's The Difference?


Though used interchangeably, herbs and spices are two very different things—and they should be used in different ways in the kitchen. Do you know the difference? Buff up on your foodie know-how so you can better utilize that parsley and sage you’ve been growing on your apartment windowsill all season.

Herbs are aromatic, green plants that usually grow in temperate zones (like, probably where you currently live), and the leaves are often the parts used—think parsley, cilantro or basil. Spices, on the other hand, are hardier, woodier plants that grow in tropical areas (aloha!), and they are usually taken from the bark, berries, roots, buds and seeds from trees, brushes and other woody plants.

To get familiar with the flavor and aroma of an herb or spice, mix it with butter, yogurt or cream cheese, let it stand for at least an hour, then taste this mixture on a cracker or finger (vegans use tofutti!). Make an afternoon tasting party out of it and invite a few friends over—you can all smear flavored butters onto tea sandwiches while sipping warm tea and buffing up on your culinary knowledge. Martha would approve.

There are a plethora of herbs and spices to choose from, whether you are growing your own or buying them from the market. Each has a very distinct level of potency and pungency.

Stronger, bolder flavors: bay leaf, cardamom, curry (leaves or spice mixture), ginger, pepper, mustard, rosemary, sage

Medium flavors: basil, celery, cumin, dill, fennel, garlic, marjoram, mint, oregano, tarragon, thyme, turmeric

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From the Organic Authority Files

Delicate flavors: chervil, chives, parsley

Sweet flavors: allspice, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, cardamom, fennel, mint

Savory flavors: chives, dill, oregano, tarragon

Add dried herbs and spices at the beginning of cooking, such as when sautéing, braising or stewing, as this brings out their flavor slowly as the dish cooks. Never garnish with dried herbs or spices, and always try to give them at least a bit of oil or butter in a dish to bring out their aromatics and deeper flavors. Add fresh herbs at the end of cooking so their delicate flavors aren't destroyed by excess heat and pressure.

To convert dried herbs to fresh herbs in recipes, you’ll need to make a measurement adjustment, as dried herbs are generally more potent than their fresh counterparts:

¼ teaspoon powdered herb = 1 teaspoon dried crumbled herb = 3 teaspoons fresh herb

To care for your spices and herbs, keep them sealed and kept away from heat and light—and don’t store them above your oven range. A dark cupboard will suffice just fine, and for ultimate freshness, keep them in the freezer. Replace your entire spice/herb stash every 4 months for optimum flavor and aroma. Some home cooks keep their spice blends for years, since they just don’t go through their supply frequently enough to require another stash. If this is the case, buy your spices and herbs in bulk in whatever quantity you feel you’ll need for a month or two at a time. It will ensure maximum freshness of your supply and, guess what; it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than those pre-packaged bottles in the baking aisle.

Image: sudhamshu

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