Spices are arguably (or not arguably) one of the most important elements of cooking. Evidence of the hold spice has on the elevation of cooking is evident in the fact that it’s become the subject of a cliché phrase we’ve known since childhood: spice it up. Furthermore, pop culture embraced this reference in the 90’s with the rise and hold of the Spice Girls, who even went as far as releasing a hit song, “Spice Up Your Life,” in 1997, which leads us to the conclusion that the importance of spice is undeniable…it makes everything better. This truth also applies to herbs, which are similar to spices, but not quite…so what exactly is the difference? (Besides the fact that “herb it up” and “the Herb Girls” simply doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as nicely.)
Herbs are the leaves of a plant, whereas spices are the root, bark or seed (basically, anything except the leaves), either cut or ground and dried, that is used to add flavor to foods. Both herbs and spices can be used to take your meals to the next level, and they pack a punch of health benefits as well—but the wrong food-to-spice pairings, or spice-to-spice pairings for that matter, can ruin the outcome of a meal. So whether you’re a cooking novice or a true home chef, brushing up on your knowledge of spices and finding new tools to help you cultivate that knowledge will help elevate the meals you make at home.
If You’re Only Using Salt & Pepper
Unless you’ve never boiled water before, you’re probably not a stranger to adding salt and pepper to your food. This classic combination makes an appearance in almost every dish you’d whip up for dinner—and if you’re curious about the history of your favorite little duo, you can read up on it here. But even classic salt and pepper can be taken to the next level.
We encourage you to invest in a salt and pepper grinder if you haven’t already. This allows for grind size control (generally coarse grinds for meats and vegetables and finer grinds for sauces and stews), the ability to buy in bulk and refill the grinders (which saves money and the Earth), and ensures that your S&P are fresh and fragrant, because the pre-ground options lose their aroma and taste much more quickly.
If this already seems overwhelming, take a quick breath and read this last tip before you call it quits: If there is one other spice you can add to your meals to take it to the next level without sending you running in the other direction, let it be garlic powder. This aromatic beige powder is a true hero, the third branch of the spice holy trinity and the front wheel of the spice-tricycle, the defining wheel that gives the bike a whole new name (the back wheels being S&P, of course). Garlic powder goes with almost anything you’d add S&P to, including eggs at breakfast, any meat or fish, sautéed vegetables…the list goes on. And if you need further persuasion, just read up on the health benefits of garlic.
Herbs—Fresh vs. Dried
Fresh herbs are expensive, but in some cases they are absolutely worth the investment. We love this article from The Spruce Eats which suggests that while some herbs are best fresh—like basil, chives, tarragon, cilantro and parsley—there are others that retain their flavor and potency very well when dried. The general rule for replacing dried herbs with fresh in a recipe is to use ⅓ of the amount—so if a recipe calls for 1 cup of fresh parsley, you can replace it with ⅓ of a cup of dried parsley.
How long do herbs and spices last? Fresh herbs that have been cut from their stems can typically last 1–2 weeks—just check the leaves to see if any have changed color, become soggy or smell rancid, which is when they should be discarded. Dried herbs can typically be kept for about one year, after which they should be replaced as they degrade over time and lose their flavor.
For Italian-Style Sautéed or Roasted Vegetables:
Simple Chicken or Fish Seasoning
Resources We Love:
This is an excellent (and printable!) resource which outlines the taste of each herb/spice, what to cook it with and which other herbs/spices can be paired together.
The cooking gods have spoken and selected the 25 most important spices to stock in your kitchen. After reviewing, we have to say we would agree! Use this list as a guide as you start to build up your spice collection.
Looking to shop local? Here are some of our favorites:
Foraged and Sown
North Market Spices Ltd.