herbs and spices

Guide to Herbs and Spices

Herbs refer to a large group of aromatic plants whose leaves, stems or flowers are used to add flavour to other foods. Most herbs are available dried or fresh.

Spices are strongly flavoured or aromatic portions of plants used as flavourings, condiment or aromatics. Spices are the bark, roots, seeds, buds or cherries of plants, most of which grow naturally only in tropical climates. Spices are almost always used in their dry form, rarely fresh, and can usually be purchased whole or ground.

Of the thirty well-known types of herbs, approximately twelve are generally used in cookery.
Herbs may be used fresh, but the majority are dried, so as to ensure a continuous supply throughout the year. The leaves of herbs contain oil which gives the characteristic smell and flavour.


Herbs are non-woody plants, usually annual and mostly grown from seed, of which the
flowers, leaves, seeds, stems and roots are used as flavouring in cooking.
The name herb comes from the Latin word herba, meaning grass or herbage. They are plants of great antiquity going back to the earliest civilisations, with records from ancient Persia, Egypt, Arabia, Greece, India and China giving details of their cultivation and use. The names of many are a reminder of the medieval period after the fall of Rome, when the monasteries of Europe were centres of agriculture, each having its own herb or ‘physic’ garden.

All herbs do in fact have medicinal qualities. Many have a dual purpose as they are used in cooking and in medicine and although the original purpose is unknown, the general consensus is that their primary use was culinary. Centuries before the birth of Christ it was suggested that medicine was a by-product of cooking.
Herbs are also credited with magical and religious significance. The Romans for example believed that a wreath of bay leaves would protect the wearer from lightning during a storm.


Basil: Is a small leaf with a pungent flavour and sweet aroma. Used in raw and cooked tomato dishes or sauces and salads.

Bay leaves: Are the leaves of the bay laurel or sweet bay trees or shrubs. They may be fresh or dried and are used for flavouring many soups, sauces, stews, fish and vegetable dishes, in which case they are usually included in a faggot of herbs (bouquet garni).

Borage: This is a plant with furry leaves and blue flowers which produces a flavour similar to cucumber when added to vegetables and salads.

Celery seed: Is dried and used for flavouring soups, sauces, stews, egg, fish and cheese dishes when fresh celery is out of season or unattainable. When celery seeds and salt are ground together it is known as celery salt.

Chervil: Have small, neatly shaped leaves with a delicate aromatic flavour. It is best used fresh, but may also be obtained in dried form. It is also one of the fines herbs, the mixture of herbs used in many culinary preparations.

Chives: Is a bright green member of the onion family resembling a coarse grass. It has a delicate onion flavour. It is invaluable for flavouring salads, hors d’oeuvres, fish, poultry and meat dishes and chopped as a garnish for soups and cooked vegetables. It should be used fresh.

Coriander: A member of the parsley family, coriander is one of the oldest flavourings used by man. It is both an herb and a spice. The leaves have a distinctive pungent flavour.

Dill: A member of the parsley family, the leaves taste like parsley. Dill has feathery green-grey leaves and is used in fish recipes and pickles.

Fennel: Have feathery bright green leaves and a slight aniseed flavour and is used for fish sauces, meat dishes and salads.

Lemon grass: Also known as citronella grass is a tropical grass with the strong aroma andtaste of lemon. It is similar to thyme but is sweeter. It is a tall plant with long spear-shaped, grass – like leaves with a strong lemon flavour.

Marjoram: Is a sweet herb which may be used fresh in salads and pork, fish, poultry, cheese egg and vegetable dishes, and when dried can be used for flavouring soups, stews and stuffing.

Mint: A large family of herbs, includes many species and flavours (even chocolate).Spearmint is the most common and commercial variety. Fresh sprigs of mint are used to flavour peas and new potatoes, fresh or dried mint sauce or mint jelly for serving with roast lamb.


Oregano: Also known as wild marjoram, is a pungent, peppery herb used in Mediterranean cuisine, particularly Greek and Italian, as well as in Mexican cuisine. It is a classic complement to tomatoes. It is used in salads, soups, stuffings, pasta, sauces, vegetables and egg dishes.

Parsley: Is probably the best known and most widely used herb in the world.
It grows in almost any climate and is available in many varieties, all of which are rich in vitamins and minerals. The most common type has small curly leaves and is bright green in colour.

Rosemary: Is an evergreen bush that grows wild in warm, dry climates worldwide. It is a strong fragrant herb that should be used fresh or dried for flavourings, sauces, stews, salads and for stuffing. Rosemary can be sprinkled over grills of meat, poultry and fish during cooking and on roast potatoes.

Sage: Was used as a medicine for centuries before it entered the kitchen as a culinary herb. It is a strong, bitter, pungent herb which helps the stomach to digest rich fatty meat and is therefore used in stuffing for duck, goose and pork.

Tarragon: Is native to Siberia. This plant has a bright green attractive leaf.
It is best used fresh, particularly when decorating chaud froid dishes. Tarragon has a pleasant flavour and is used in sauces, one well known being a béarnaise. It is one of the Fine herbs and as such is used for omelettes, salads, fish and meat dishes.

Thyme: has been popular since 3500 BC, when Egyptians used it as a medicine and for embalming. Its flavour is strong but refined, with notes of sage. Thyme dries well and complements virtually all types of meat, poultry, fish, shellfish and vegetables. It is often included in a bouquet garni or added to stocks.


Brief History
Spices have been used for many purposes for thousands of years. Egyptian papyri dating back to 200BC identify several types native to the Middle and Far East that were used by the ruling and priestly classes for cosmetic, medicinal, ritualistic and culinary purposes.

Spices were amongst the many foods brought back to Europe from the East by Marco Polo. The search for spices was one of the main reasons for the great early sea voyages including those of Columbus and Vasco da Gama.

Allspice – also known as Jamaican pepper, is the dried berry of a tree thatflourishes in Jamaica. Allspice is available whole, in berries that look like large brown peppercorns, or ground. It is not a mixture of spices, though it tends to taste like a blend of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. It is used in everything from cakes to curries and is often included in peppercorn blends.

Anise – is native to the eastern Mediterranean, where it was widely used by ancient civilisations. The tiny, grey-green egg-shaped seeds have a distinctive strong, sweet flavour similar to fennel and liquorice. Anise is used in pastries as well as fish, shellfish and vegetables dishes, and is commonly used in alcoholic beverages (e.g. ouzo).


Caraway is perhaps the world’s oldest spice. It has been traced to theG Stone Age, and
seeds have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. It produces a small, crescent-shaped brown seed with the peppery flavour of rye. It is used extensively in German and Austrian dishes, particularly breads, meats and cabbage. It is also used in alcoholic beverages and cheeses.

Chillies – including paprika, chilli peppers, bell peppers and cayenne are all members of the capsicum plant family. Capsicum peppers come in all shapes and sizes, with a wide range of flavours, from sweet to extremely hot. Some are used as a vegetable, while others are used dried and ground as a spice.

Cayenne – sometimes simply labelled ‘red pepper,‘ is ground from a blend of several particularly hot types or dried red chilli peppers. Its flavour is extremely hot and pungent and it has a bright orange-red colour and fine texture.

Paprika – also known as Hungarian pepper, is a bright red powder ground from particular varieties of red ripened and dried chilli. The flavour ranges from sweet to hot and the aroma is distinctive and strong. Mild paprika is meant to be used in generous quantities and may be sprinkled over food as a garnish.

Chilli powders are made from a wide variety of dried chilli peppers ranging from sweet and mild to extremely hot. The finest chilli powders are made from dried chilli that is simply roasted, ground and sieved.

Cinnamon – and its cousin Cassia are among the oldest known spices.
Cinnamon’s use is recorded in China as early as 2500 BC and the Far East still produces most of these products, it comes from the bark of of a small evergreen tree.

Cassia – come from the bark of a small evergreen tree which is peeled from the branches in thin layers and rolled up like paper into sticks known as quills. Cassia is coarser and has a stronger, less subtle flavour than cinnamon. Cinnamon sticks are used when long cooking times allow for sufficient flavour to be extracted (for example, in stews and soups). Cinnamon’s flavour is most often associated with pastries and sweets, lamb and spicy dishes.

Cloves are the unopened buds of evergreen trees that flourish in muggy tropical regions.
When dried, whole cloves have hard, strong prongs that can be used to push them into other foods, such as onions or fruit in order to provide flavour. Cloves are extremely hot, with a sweet, astringent aroma. Cloves are used in desserts and meat dishes, preserves and liquors.

Coriander seeds come from the Cilantro plant native to Morocco. They are round and beige, with a distinctive sweet, spicy flavour and strong aroma. They are a yellowish-brown colour and taste like a mixture of sage and lemon peel. They are used in sauces, curry powder and mixed spice.

Cumin – the seed of a small delicate plant of the parsley family that grows in North Africa and the Middle East. The small seeds are available whole or ground and look but do not taste like caraway seeds. Cumin has a strong earthy flavour and tends to dominate any dish in which it is included. It is used in Indian, Middle Eastern and Mexican cuisine in sausages and a few cheeses.

Fennel – is a perennial plant with feathery leaves and tiny flowers, long cultivated in India and China as a medicine and cure for witchcraft. Its seeds are greenish brown. Their taste and aroma are similar to anise, though not as sweet. Whole seeds are widely used in Italian stews and sausages. Fennel is also used in breads, cakes and cookies.

Ginger – a well-known spice obtained from the root of a tall, flowering tropical plant. Fresh ginger is known as a “hand” because it looks vaguely like a group of knobbly fingers. It has a greyish-tan skin and a pale yellow interior. Its flavour is fiery but sweet, with notes of lemon and rosemary. Fresh ginger is used to give an affinity to chicken, beef and curries.
Ginger is also available peeled and pickled in vinegar or candied in sugar. Dried ginger is a fine yellow powder and is used in pastries. Its flavour is spicier than and not as sweet as fresh ginger.

ginger plant

Mustard seeds – available in black, brown and yellow come from three different plants in the cabbage family. Mustard seeds are small and hard with a bitter flavour. The seeds have no aroma, but their flavour is sharp and very hot. Yellow seeds have the mildest and black the strongest flavour.

Nutmeg – and mace come from the yellow, plum-like fruit of a large, tropical evergreen tree. These fruits are dried and opened to reveal the
seed known as nutmeg. The flavour of nutmeg is strong and sweet.
Nutmeg should be grated directly onto the dish. Once grated, flavour
loss is rapid. Nutmeg is used in pastries, sweets, meat and savoury dishes.

Peppercorns – are the berries of a vine plant native to tropical Asia. Peppers vary in size and colour and are slightly hot in flavour.
Black & White Peppercorns: Both are produced from the same plant. For black peppercorns, the berries are picked when green and simply dried whole in the sun. Black pepper has a they turn red. The ripened berries are allowed to ferment, and then the outer layer of skin is washed off. White pepper has fewer aromas than black pepper.

Poppy seeds – are the ripened seeds of the opium poppy, which flourishes in the Middle East and India. The tiny blue-grey seeds are round and hard with a sweet, nutty flavour. Poppy seeds are used in pastries and breads.

Saffron – comes from the dried stigmas of the Saffron crocus. Each flower bears three threadlike stigmas, and each must be picked by hand. It takes about 250000 flowers to produce one pound of saffron, making it the most expensive spice in the world. Luckily, a tiny pinch is enough to colour and flavour large quantities of food. Good saffron should be a brilliant orange colour, not yellow, with a strong aroma and a bitter, honey-like taste. It is commonly used with fish and shellfish and rice dishes such as paella and risotto.


Turmeric – also known as Indian Saffron is produced from the roots of a flowering tropical plant related to ginger. Fresh turmeric is not suitable for cooking. It is only available dried and usually ground. Turmeric is renowned for its bright yellow colour and is used as a food colouring dye. Turmeric’s flavour is distinctive and should not be substituted with Saffron. Turmeric is traditionally used in Indian curries.

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