HERBS AND SPICES - HOW TO USE THEM
ARROWROOT STARCH: Use this in place of flour to make clear glazes for fruit pies or Chinese clear gravies. Only use half as much as flour. It is also excellent for thickening the sauce for stir-fried seafood and poultry.
ALLSPICE: It is the main flavor in jerky and barbecue seasoning. It can be used whole in soups and pickling. Ground allspice is used for many baked goods.
ANISE: This herb has a mild sweet licorice flavor. The fresh leaves are used in salads, steamed vegetables and shellfish. Aniseed can be used in cookies and pies, especially apple pie. It comes fresh or in seeds.
BASIL: Sweet basil has a delicious flavor and scent and is a versatile herb. It is especially renowned for its affinity with tomatoes. It is also used with eggs, mushrooms, green salads, soups, pasta and many of the more bland squashes and root vegetables. It enhances salad dressings and makes a wonderful pesto to use with Mediterranean dishes. Can be used fresh or dried.
BAY LEAF: Bay leaves are famous as the essential ingredient in the traditional bouquet garni, a small sack made of cheesecloth that includes other herbs and spices such as parsley, marjoram, thyme and a few peppercorns and is used in soups, stews and casseroles. Alone they enhance soups, casseroles, fish, meat and poultry. They are wonderful in marinades and terrines. Can be used fresh or dried.
CARDAMOM: An extremely flavorful spice native to India, cardamom has been used there for centuries in meat and vegetable dishes. In the Middle East the seeds are mixed with green coffee beans before brewing. Northern Europe uses the white Scandinavian beans for baking in stollen, cookies, cakes, muffins and buns. In the United States it is used in powder form primarily for baking, but many recipes now are using it in meat and vegetable dishes and soups.
CARAWAY SEED: These seeds flavor breads, cakes, pasta, biscuits, cabbage, sauerkraut, cole slaw, parsnips, turnips, peas and baked apple. It is said to calm an upset stomach.
CAYENNE POWDER: This powder can make any dish fiery hot, but it also has a subtle flavor-enhancing quality. A pinch or two can vastly improve a bland, low-salt or low-fat dish and can be used in place of whole chili peppers in barbecue sauce, chili and other hot dishes. For a change use it to replace paprika on deviled eggs or potato salad. It is said that eating hot pepper increases metabolism, reducing the calories retained from a meal by about 10%. Be cautious in using it because it can burn your mouth seriously.
CELERY SEED: Good cooks use a touch of celery seed in addition to black pepper on beef or pork roast. It is also good in meatloaf, beef stew, soups stews, sauces and casseroles as well as a good Bloody Mary. It really perks up low-fat and reduced sodium diets.
CHERVIL: A fine herb traditionally used with eggs, chicken, fish, salads, soups and sauces.
CHILI POWDER: This is different from chili peppers in that it is a mix of spices. However, it has an 80% (approximately) base of chili pepper with the addition of other spices such as cumin, garlic and Mexican oregano. You can find hot chili powder and mild chili powder but the powder in the supermarket is usually mild and you have very little heat. For more heat, add chili peppers or Cayenne pepper.
CHILI PEPPERS: Chili peppers are in the same family as bell peppers and paprika pods. They range in flavor from rich and sweet to fiery hot. They can be used in whole pods or crushed - with or without seeds. See my article on the range of chili peppers and their uses.
CHIVES: Fresh chives should be grown in your vegetable or flower garden. As a garnish they are excellent, but as a subtle flavoring, chopped, in omelets, salads, soups, cream cheese, mayonnaise and fish they are outstanding. They can be used fresh or in cooked dishes dried chives are also good.
CILANTRO: Sometimes called Chinese parsley, it is best used fresh for the sharp flavor required in many Mexican dishes such as tacos, curries, guacamole, soups, stews and salads. It is also essential in salsa. It can be found in the dehydrated form but isn't nearly as nice. However, you might wish to keep some on hand for emergencies.
CINNAMON: Cinnamon is one of the oldest and most aromatic and flavorful spices known to man. It comes from the fine inner skin of the fragrant tree bark of the cassia trees which grow in Southeast Asia, especially Northern China and Northern Vietnam. This is where most cinnamon familiar to the United States is grown. Ceylon cinnamon is known as old-fashioned cinnamon and is prized in many other parts of the world. It is known to be used in Mexican and English sweets. Cassia cinnamon comes in sticks, chunks and powder, the latter being the strongest flavor. Sticks are mild and used in beverages. Chunks are used in mulled wine or spiced cider or in brewing coffee. Powder is used mostly for baking and cooking.
CLOVES: Cloves are native to Southeast Asia and thrive in tropical climates. The pink flower buds are picked before opening and dried in the sun where they turn a reddish brown. It is commonly known as a sweet baking spice, although it is also used for pickling and barbecuing. Whole cloves are used for studding ham for the holidays. Cloves also bring out the flavors of beef and pork. A pinch in beef stew or gravy enhances the flavor greatly.
COCOA: There are two types of cocoa; natural cocoa which is strong, dark and bittersweet; Dutch cocoa is processed to soften the natural acidity of the cocoa bean, giving you a smooth, rich and less strong cocoa that is better for hot chocolate and flavored coffee. Both are richer than the common grocery store variety. Cocoa can easily replace unsweetened baking chocolate and will lower the fat content. Use 3 tablespoons cocoa + 1 tablespoon vegetable oil to equal one square of baking chocolate.
CORIANDER: This seed is of the same plant that gives us cilantro and has a light lemony flavor that combines well with ginger. The seeds are indispensable to curries, pickled fruit and vegetables and some baked goods. The whole fresh or dried leaves are used with fish, cauliflower, celery and beets. It is best used to season foods that cook for longer than an hour such as roasts or foods that cook at a higher temperature such as broiled meats or foods cooked on the grill or baked foods.
CREAM OF TARTAR: Cream of tartar is used to stabilize delicate foods like meringue toppings and other baked egg white products. It is also used to reduce discoloration in boiled vegetables such as artichokes, asparagus and broccoli by adding half a teaspoon to the water. It can also be made into a paste and used as a gentle cleaner for copper cookware.
CUMIN: This spice is second throughout the world only to black pepper. It is a must in chili, but is also used in Indian, Mexican, Asian, Northern African, Middle Eastern and Latin American cooking. It is one of the ingredients in curry. A must in tacos.
CURRY POWDER: Not all curry is hot. See our site on spices to browse through the various kinds of curry seasoning. Curry is a combination of several spices such as coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, ginger, nutmeg, fennel, cinnamon, white pepper, cardamom, cloves, black pepper, cayenne red pepper and sometimes paprika, garlic, saffron, star anise, cilantro, bay leaf. It depends on what your tastes are so look for some packages where you get several kinds or check the ingredients so you know what is hot. Start with a little and gradually increase it as you get used to the taste.
DILL: Dill weed is lighter in flavor than dill seed and it has a green feathery appearance. It is great in omelets, cheese sauces, salad dressing, deviled eggs, tuna for sandwiches, potato salad and dips. It is nice as a garnish or sprinkled on anything with a white sauce. Dill seed is used for pickling, for poached salmon, or any seafood boil such as shrimp, crab or fish. Fresh dill chopped finely is wonderful when used like dill weed in dips, salads and sauces.
FENNEL: It comes in seeds or ground and has been known to man since the time of the Romans who introduced it to England. It is used in Italy whole to spice sausages, ground for tomato sauces such as pizza sauce and pork roast. It is used by the English in almost all fish dishes and especially in court bouillon for poaching fish and shellfish. It is also known to be medicinal and toasted seeds are often chewed as a digestive aid.
FIVE-SPICE POWDER: Used in Chinese cooking in stir-fry cooking and combines well with meats and vegetables. It is a combination of cinnamon, star anise, anise seeds, ginger and cloves.
GARLIC: Wonderful garlic. Fresh and minced it blends with almost any meat or vegetable, Italian dishes, omelets, salad dressings or marinade. It is great roasted and spread on fresh bread. Garlic powder is used in place of fresh, but the fresh is so much better. In powder form, use 1/4 teaspoon for each clove of garlic. Dishes with a high acidity content have a tendency to stop the garlic flavor from developing to its full strength. It is suggested that you rehydrate for a few minutes by mixing 1/2 teaspoon powder with 1 teaspoon water to equal 2 cloves.
GINGER: This is one of the most commonly used spices in the world and is used extensively in Asian and Indian dishes where it is used to season meat, seafood, vegetables, curries, marinades and baking. It boosts the flavor of salt-free dishes. It is available fresh to use in stir-fry dishes. It is available in powdered form, cracked form, whole root and crystallized. The latter is used in sweets for baking and candy making.
ITALIAN SEASONING: A wonderful versatile mix of oregano, basil, marjoram, thyme and rosemary, this seasoning is a must in any kitchen. It is perfect for homemade tomato sauce for spaghetti, buttered pasta, Italian dressing or mix with tomato sauce to make a great pizza sauce.
LEMONGRASS: You can use fresh or dry, but fresh is far superior and is now available in most supermarkets. Add zip to marinades, curries, salads and in Thai cooking. It is also good in soups, stews and sauces (strained in the latter).
LEMON PEPPER: This is a mix of black pepper, salt (optional), citric acid, dextrose, lemon peel, garlic and onion. It is good for fish, chicken, turkey or duck breast, pork roast, chops or cutlets and all cuts of veal. It is wonderful for scrambled eggs and omelets and a must for catfish.
MACE: Mace and nutmeg grow from the same tree. See nutmeg. Mace is the lace-like covering over the nutmeg's outer shell. Mace is mellower and more expensive to harvest. It can be used in place of nutmeg in any recipe. Blade mace can be added to clear soups and sauces where nutmeg might spoil the appearance. Ground mace is used for flavoring doughnuts, hot dogs, fruit cakes, pumpkin pie, muffins and barbecue sauce.
MARJORAM: This spice is closely related to oregano. Like basil, it should be added toward the end of the cooking cycle. It is used to flavor tomato sauce, bean soup, marinated vegetables, salad dressing, kielbasa, chicken, Italian dishes, tomatoes and potatoes. Whole Marjoram.
MINT: It can be grown easily in the garden, but start it in a clay pot with no hole in the bottom because it spreads like wildfire. It also is available in dried whole leaf form. There are 2 flavors - spearmint and peppermint. Spearmint is the type used for making mint sauce for lamb or for making jellies. Peppermint has a rather warm and spicy flavor and is used mostly for making candy and chocolate sauces where it is infused into alcohol, oil or water before using. Both flavors can be steeped alone for green tea or mixed with other tea flavors.
MUSTARD: Mustard has been used in recipes and for medicinal purposes since the 1st century AD. Mustard powder lends bite to many recipes and is used as a dipping sauce when mixed water for Oriental food. To make mustard, stainless steel, glass or ceramic utensils as aluminum gives mustard a strange flavor. Mustard is very hot when first mixed, but will mellow with age when refrigerated. Mustard seed we find at the supermarket is the yellow variety which is used for pickling, canning, sausage making, barbecue sauce and rubs and marinades for grilling. The brown variety is smaller and hotter and used in Asian and African cooking
NUTMEG: This is another of the very old spices. Nutmeg is grown in Indonesia and the West Indies, notably Granada. The trees grown up to 50 feet tall and produce two spices: nutmeg and mace. Nutmeg comes from the inner seed kernel of the pale yellow, peach-like fruit. Freshly ground nutmeg is used in to top baked goods, cheese dishes, stews and used in barbecue dishes. It is also good in cream sauces. The more popular ground type is used in baking, sausage making, syrups in on fresh fruit.
ONION: Fresh onion is wonderful in almost any non-dessert dish. It is good raw and cooked. However, it is also good to keep dehydrated onions for emergencies or when you want to have a milder flavor. Most recipes have enough liquid to rehydrate onion flakes, but you can soften them for using in omelets or as a topping for vegetables. Simply pour 1/3 cup of water over 2 tablespoons onion flakes. Stir and set stand for 15 or 20 minutes. Drain any excess water and use as fresh onions. Onion powder is also an acceptable way to flavor dishes where flakes would not be appropriate. It can be used to shake over roasts, baked fish, chicken or pork chops, used in salad dressings or added to tuna salad.
OREGANO: This spice is closely related to marjoram and can be used interchangeably. Like basil, it should be added toward the end of the cooking cycle as it becomes stronger in the cooking time. It is used to flavor tomato sauce, bean soup, marinated vegetables, salad dressing, kielbasa, chicken, Italian dishes, tomatoes, rice and potatoes. Oregano Ground.
PAPRIKA: Hungarian paprika is considered the best you can buy, but most of the grocery stores only stock California paprika which is deep red, mild and sweet but will turn brown when cooked for long periods. It is fine for garnish though. For making Hungarian goulash the rich Hungarian is preferred. It can be purchased in sweet form or sharp form.
PARSLEY: Parsley is one of the most popular herbs in the United States. It can be grown in a pot on a window ledge or in your vegetable or flower garden; however, it does not weather well in cold climates outside. Fresh it is used as garnish, but is also good in soups, stews, stocks and sauces. It is popular in salsa and in bouquet garni. In dried form it is used as in many of the above dishes and also crushed to mix with other herbs for breading. At the grocery store you might find flat-leaf parsley or Italian parsley which has a little stronger flavor, but is still good. The Italian parsley is great in Italian cooking sauces, on rice, spaghetti and noodles.
PEPPER: Pepper grows in warm, sunny climates, usually within about 15 degrees of the equator. What is considered the best pepper comes from the Malabar Coast of India and where the larger Tellicherry peppercorns are harvested. However, Borneo is also a major producer of peppercorns and in both areas, it is viewed more of a cultural heritage of the people and they consider it a craft rather than a factory production. I had the opportunity to visit the island of Borneo, and went to the Malaysian state of Sarawak where I purchased some of their pepper. Believe me it was wonderful. The larger Tellicherry peppercorns are considered better because they have been allowed to mature longer, just as fruits and vegetables are better purchased at the farmer's stand in August is better than at the supermarket in January. Like coffee beans, peppercorns, freshly ground, are far superior than purchased ground peppers. Along with the Tellicherry and regular black, peppercorns, you have white peppercorns. These are black peppercorns that have been allowed to ripen longer on the vine, then soaked in water until the black shell comes loose and is removed. This gives the pepper a rich, winey and somewhat hotter flavor with the lovely white color to be used alone or in soups, but especially in white soups and sauces to protect the creamy color. In addition there are green, less mature peppercorns lending flavor to poultry, seafood and vegetables. There are the pink peppercorns the French island of Reunion. They are not really a peppercorn, but instead a rich sweet flavored berry that gives a peppery flavor. Last of all there are the Sichuan peppercorns that are important in many Asian and Russian recipes. These too are not real peppercorns, but are an aromatic reddish berry with a black inner seed. In China these are commonly toasted with salt and are used whole in soups or crushed and rubbed onto poultry or pork. You can find a combination of these "peppercorns" in a mix at local supermarkets or in specialty markets. You can also purchase fine ground pepper, coarse grind or cracked pepper. Additionally, there are specialty mixes such as lemon-pepper or shallot-pepper or combinations of peppercorn blends.
PICKLING SPICE: This blend of herbs and spices is essential for making bread and butter pickles, dill pickles, pickled eggs, beets or onions, and for adding to canned tomatoes and peppers. It is also used in sauerbraten and in New England boiled dinner for boiling corned beef. Some of the spices used are mustard seeds, allspice, bay leaves, dill seeds, cloves, cracked ginger, peppercorns, star anise, coriander, juniper berries, mace, cardamom and crushed red pepper.
POPPY SEED: These seeds in sweet blue or white form are used in baking, on rolls, bread, stollen, muffins and poppy seed cake. The are also good for salad dressings, but do get stronger in leftovers due to the oil content and tend to overpower the recipe it was used in.
POULTRY SEASONING: This blend of seasonings is often preferable to straight sage for use in roasted turkey and chicken, in stuffings, on pork roast or in salad dressings. Some of the ingredients that are used are sage, pepper, red and green bell peppers, lemon peel, savory, rosemary, dill, allspice, thyme, marjoram and ginger.
ROSEMARY: This herb has a sweetness with minty over-tones which makes it perfect for lamb or pork in any form. It also can be used on chicken and fish, combined with oregano and thyme in Italian dishes. Add it to the water when boiling seafood or into the dough for breadsticks or bread. Drop some over your coals (fresh) when grilling for a wonderful flavor. It comes in powdered form, whole leaves or crushed leaves. It is also available at supermarkets and can be grown in your garden fresh for salads or as a garnish.
SAFFRON: This is considered the most expensive spice in the world, but it is fairly inexpensive to use because you only need a few strands or threads to season and color your recipe. It is grown in two primary regions - the Spanish Mancha growing region and the Kashmir area of India, the latter growing the premier saffron product. It is derived from the flavorful red stigma of the flowering crocus of these regions. It is very labor intensive since only 3 threads or strands are available in each flower and they must be removed by hand. It takes 70,000 flowers to produce one pound of saffron. It only takes a pinch of saffron, however, to achieve the wonderful saffron flavor and the rich golden color to saffron rice or chicken stock/soup. It is also used in many Indian dishes such as curry, paella or breads and rolls.
SAGE: This herb is very rich with a very distinctive flavor. A little bit goes a long way. It is very good for baked chicken, turkey or pork. It is traditionally used in making sausage and poultry or pork chop stuffing. Try it on wild game such as venison, duck or goose. Use it in soups and sauces. It comes in whole leaf form, crushed flakes or powdered form. The latter is the strongest and should be used carefully.
SALT: Everyone is familiar with salt, but there are many kinds of salt. Consider iodized salt, light salt, table salt, canning salt, sea salt, kosher salt. The last two come in crystal form and can be used in a salt grinder as you would for fresh ground pepper or in the crystal form as you cook. Iodized salt adds iodine to your diet for health purposes and has literally eliminated IDD (Iodine Deficiency Disorder) in this country. Light salt is lighter and better to use if you should cut back on your salt. There is even "No Salt" which tastes like salt, but has no salt for those with high blood pressure or pregnant women that need to reduce their salt intake. There is a slight after taste that takes some getting used to, but after while you don't even notice it. Canning salt is used to flavor pickles and tomatoes along with relishes, etc., when canning these foods. Try the healthy sea salt or kosher salt when cooking and notice the grand flavor. Buy a salt mill and use either of the two on the table. Keep in mind that many foods have natural salt like celery. Processed foods contain a great deal of salt and can give you more than your suggested daily intake. Drink lots of water if you use these products or eat fast foods and Oriental foods. The sodium chloride in salt performs many healthful functions which include the preservation of food, as a texture aid as in strengthening the gluten in bread dough, as a binder in the processing of meats, as fermentation in baked products, as a color developer in ham, bacon, hotdogs and sauerkraut. For more information on salt, see out link to Salt for Human Nutrition from the Salt Institute.
SAVORY: These leaves are a popular German herb, but are gaining popularity in this country with the surge of cooking on TV. It is a bit between thyme and mint with some pepper overtones. It is traditionally known for flavoring bean soups, but can also be used with chicken or beef soup or stew, baked chicken, pork, stuffing and vegetables.
SESAME SEEDS: Sesame seeds add texture and flavor to baked chicken, fish and salads. They are also used in Asian and Indian dishes. To toast sesame seeds place on a sheet pan and place in a 350-degree preheated oven for 8 - 10 minutes or carefully toast in a skillet over medium, stirring frequently.
SHALLOTS: A cross between onions and garlic, these small bulbs add a delicate, sweet onion flavor to poultry, veal, salads, eggs and soups. It is used widely in French cooking. It comes fresh from the supermarket packaged in small mesh bags of 3 or 4 to a bag or in dried form from specialty spice outlets. If using dried, use half as much as you would if using fresh as most recipes call for.
SUMAC: This spice is used mostly in the Middle East. It is used as a condiment at the table or added during cooking to add a fruity sourness and soft cherry color to sauces, poultry, fish and salads. It is also used in some drinks. The flavor is similar to lemon juice or vinegar but milder and less acidic. Some salt is usually added during the processing.
TARRAGON: This is used extensively in French cooking which marries well with the wine and shallot ingredients used so frequently in many dishes. Again, this is a very strong herb and a little bit goes a long way. It is popular as a vinegar flavoring, but also used on baked chicken or fish or in tuna or chicken/turkey salads. It also is popular in marinades. It comes in crushed leaf form.
THYME: This herb is one of the most popular and best cooking herbs in the world. It is good in salad dressings and in Italian recipes, great on poultry and pork, essential to fried chicken and as a mix in breading for pork or chicken. Try it on many dishes, soups or stews for a mild great flavor. It comes in ground or whole leaf form.
TURMERIC: This spice powder is what makes mustard yellow. It is used in making pickles, mustard or in Indian cooking. It is also the main ingredient in many curry powders.
VANILLA: The whole bean or in extract form, vanilla adds richness, aroma and flavor to any dessert. It is a comfort taste and aroma. It is used in candles for the heavenly scent. How-ever, in cooking it is an absolute necessity. The beans are grown in Madagascar, Indonesia and Mexico and are long, tubular shaped seed-pods of the fragrant climbing orchids native to that country. They are cut green and cured by sweating them under blankets which give them their black color and fragrant flavor. The best beans are 7 to 8 inches long and demand a higher price. The extract is made using the seeds of the bean along with approximate 1/3% alcohol in the "perking" process. This is the most common way to use vanilla in baked goods, French toast and beverages. The whole dried beans are more expensive, but heavenly to use. Most dishes require only half a bean. Cut the bean in half, then split it vertically and scrape the seeds into the liquid you are preparing and let the flavors steep a while before cooking. You may toss in the pod too, as there is some flavor in it. Remove the pod after cooking, rinse it off and use it in the coffee basket when you next brew a pot. Bury it in some sugar for a wonderful flavor. You can also purchase vanilla sugar and it is wonderful when making cinnamon toast. Make toast, butter it, sprinkle with vanilla sugar and cinnamon. Place briefly under broiler and you have a wonderful enhancement to breakfast. Sprinkle it on French toast and add fresh fruit.
There are many specialty items I have not mentioned here that are available on our link or from specialty spice and herb stores. A few worth mentioning are Cajun seasoning, cake spice, corned beef spices (better than using pickling spices), seafood rubs, seafood boils, fajita seasoning, jerk seasoning, soup bases, pizza seasoning, sausage seasoning, taco seasoning, salad dressing seasoning, many ethnic seasonings that will boggle your mind, orange peel, lemon peel, dried celery and red and green peppers, plus some specialty items such as fenugreek, juniper berries, gumbo file, charnushka seeds. There are also gift packages, specialty packages, spice racks with seasonings and more items.
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