All About the Herbs & Spices
In the culinary arts, the word "herb" refers to any green or leafy part of a plant used for seasoning and flavoring a recipe, but not used as the main ingredient. What exactly does this mean?
Here's an example: Spinach is the green part of a plant, but spinach is a vegetable, not an herb because spinach is prepared as a food itself, not merely to add flavoring to another food. Similarly, a leaf of lettuce is the green part of a plant, but when you make a salad, the lettuce is the main ingredient, so lettuce isn't an herb either.
So What Exactly Is an Herb?
Herbs are plants with fragrant or aromatic properties. Herbs can be used to flavor food, included in fragrances, and even a part of natural medicines. Basil, parsley, rosemary, thyme, and dill are all herbs. Note that for each of these, the herb is the green or leafy part of some kind of plant. In the case of basil, the leaves can be quite large, whereas rosemary leaves are more like spines of an evergreen plant.
The Difference Between Herbs and Spices
The essential difference between herbs and spices lies with what part of the plant they originate from. An herb is a leaf or other green plant of the plant. Any other element of the plant would be considered a spice—including dried bark, the roots, a berry, seeds, twigs, or other plant matter that is used to season or flavor a dish.
For instance, cinnamon is the bark of a tree. Cardamom is a seed pod. Allspice is a dried berry. Cloves are dried flower buds. These are all examples of spices. Note too that spices are used in dried form while herbs can be used either fresh or dried.
6.04: How to Cook with Herbs
Many recipes will call for herbs as an ingredient. Be sure to take note if the herbs are dried or fresh. Dried herbs are often added during the cooking process and may be included to impart flavor while cooking. Common dried herbs include oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme. On the other hand, fresh herbs are often added as the last step once cooking has been completed. Fresh herbs bring brightness and fresh flavor to many recipes. Common fresh herbs are mint, cilantro, and parsley.
Some fresh herbs will be one of only a few ingredients in a recipe. For example, a classic pesto recipe relies on fresh basil as the key ingredient. On the other hand, other recipes may call for a simple sprinkling of chopped parsley or cilantro at the end of cooking to bring some bright flavor to the dish.
6.05: Storing Herbs
Dried herbs should be stored in their sealed jars in a cool, dark, and dry spice cabinet. Fresh herbs will last the longest if they are washed, carefully dried, gently wrapped in a paper towel, sealed into a zip top bag, and stored in the refrigerator.
In the culinary arts, the word spice refers to any dried part of a plant, other than the leaves, used for seasoning and flavoring a recipe, but not used as the main ingredient. Why not the leaves? Because the green leafy parts of plants used in this way are considered herbs.
Every other part of the plant, including dried bark, roots, berries, seeds, twigs, or anything else that isn't the green leafy part, is considered a spice. Today, India is the world's largest consumer, producer, and exporter of spices. They even created the Indian Institute of Spices Research devoted to the study of spices.
Examples of Spices
Cinnamon is the bark of a tree.
Cardamom is a seed pod.
Allspice is a dried berry.
Cloves are dried flower buds.
These are all examples of spices. Note too that spices are used in dried form while herbs can be used either fresh or dried.
Do Spices Expire?
While spices don't actually spoil or rot, they will lose their flavor over time. As spices are generally added precisely to add flavor, it is best to use them in a certain amount of time. If grinding your own spices isn't possible, try to use the freshest spices you possibly can. As a general rule, ground spices can last for up to three years if stored properly and whole dry spices for four years.
Spices are used in small quantities to flavor dishes which means they add few calories to meals. This doesn't mean spices don't cause a large impact on your diet; they can be a great way to add necessary vitamins and minerals.
Spices in History
As the majority of the world's spices come from South East Asia, the spice trade helped drive the global economy starting in the Middle Ages. The Silk Road was a dangerous and long trade route that went from China to Europe. Sailing helped to speed up the shipment of spices. In search of a faster route to India, Christopher Columbus chose to sail east, landing in North America instead. It is believed that this mistake in continents is why Native American's were wrongly named "Indians."
6.07: Tips for Cooking with Spices
One thing to keep in mind when cooking with spices is that spices start to lose their flavor when they are ground. So whenever possible, it's best to grind your own spices immediately before using them, rather than using spices that are already ground. You can use a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle for this purpose. If you do decide to use a coffee grinder you might want to use one only for spices and one for coffee beans so as not to accidentally flavor your morning brew!
6.08: Storing Spices
Spices last longer when stored in a cool, dry location. So keeping jars of spices right next to your stove will significantly reduce their useful life. An enclosed spice rack or storing them in an opaque container will help your spices keep their flavor longer.
6.09: Flavor Development
Understanding how to combine and balance flavors is an incredibly important cooking concept, and the good thing is, you don’t need to go to culinary school to learn how to do this.
Because so many of us learn graphically, we created a Flavor Star to show you how these 5 flavors work to balance or enhance each other. If a flavor balances another flavor, it means it counteracts or offsets that flavor to achieve an even more harmonious taste.
For example, spice balances sweet and sweet balances spice. That’s why Mexican hot chocolate is finished with a pinch of cayenne pepper – the spice works with the sweet to produce a more dynamic flavor.
Or if you have a dish that’s too spicy, you can also balance the heat with something sweet. So if you ever over-spice a curry or sauce, just add a bit of your preferred sweetener to neutralize the heat.
If you look at the Flavor Star, you see that salty enhances sweet and vice versa. This is why there are sea salt caramels or sea salt chocolate chip cookies. That light addition of saltiness actually amplifies the sweetness of those caramels and cookies.
If you keep this Flavor Star handy, you can learn how to create more dynamic flavors, rescue dishes that have been overly flavored, and also how to amplify certain flavors.
6.10: Review/Critical Thinking
Please complete the following questions. It is important that you use full sentences and present the questions and answers when you submit your work.
Go to the Assessment area in the course to complete the assignment Review and Critical Thinking and submit the work as a file attachment.
The answers to the Review and Critical Thinking Questions are worth 10 points.
6.11: Cooking Assignment #6
For this last cooking assignment, you will choose 1 of the 40 food recipes listed on the following website:
This assignment will NOT be graded on presentation so please do not worry if your final product does not turn out perfectly. The goal for you on this assignment is to TRY YOUR BEST! At a minimum, you should take pictures of: (1) the ingredients prior to cooking, (2) a picture demonstrating a preparation or cooking technique, and (3) the completed product/dish. When you're finished, write a brief description of the techniques you used to prepare the dish. Write a separate paragraph evaluating the results. Include any problems you encountered and how you overcame them. It is ideal to put everything into ONE document/presentation. Submit in the Assessments area.
Cooking Herbs & Spices
6.12: Module 6 Quiz
Before you take the quiz for this unit take a moment to review what you have learned.
When you feel that you are ready to complete the Module 6 Quiz, All About the Herbs & Spices, click HERE.