Home / Blog / How to Use Herbs and Spices When Cooking

How to Use Herbs and Spices When Cooking

Spices for Butter Chicken / Murgh Makhani
Image by Zak Greant
An outlay of most of the spices and seasonings used to make Butter Chicken / Murgh Makhani

The key difference between spices and herbs is that herbs are green leaves and spices are in all others forms, including seeds (sesame), bark (cinnamon), roots (ginger) and berries (juniper). Some people prefer fresh herbs or leaves that they get at the grocery store, while others like the dried herbs. Obviously fresh spices and herbs are the best as far as flavor is concerned. The flavor in fresh herbs is less concentrated than dried, and you should use 4 parts fresh to 1 part dried. You will want to cut up your fresh herbs and spices to release more of their flavor.

Although fresh is best, it is not always the most practical. Dried flavorings are easier to store, more readily available when cooking and more concentrated than fresh, so you don’t need to use as much. The exceptions are dried parsley, which is tasteless and dried cilantro, which is almost tasteless. Luckily most recipes calling for cilantro or parsley insist on fresh leaves, and they are found in most large grocery stores.

To know how much of a spice or herb to use there is a formula that is easy to remember. Just use a quarter teaspoon of dried or ground flavoring for every two servings until you become familiar with its taste. Two servings is equivalent to about one pound of food. Of course, the potency of one quarter teaspoon of cayenne has a much greater impact on the outcome of your meal than a quarter teaspoon of cinnamon. That is why you need to start small until you become familiar with how you and the people for whom you are cooking respond to each particular flavor.

When cooking, add your dried flavorings sooner than if you are using fresh herbs. Save those cut up fresh herbs until the very end of cooking, or you will cook out much of their delicate flavor. Herbs are not a good idea for the crockpot. Even rosemary with its strong flavor tends to fade when cooking for a long time. If you are unsure of whether or not you like the spice called for in your recipe, just grind a little of it with the back of a spoon and take a whiff. If you like the smell, you will like the flavor.

Extracts are the most concentrated form of a seasoning and as such are often kept for baking. In baking, where chemistry is much more important, you want to maximize your flavor, but minimize the effect that addition will have on the dry and wet balance of your recipe. Your largest ingredient, flour, has little flavor, and so the need for a highly concentrated extract. Some extracts like vanilla, almond, anise or rum are used by the teaspoonful. Others, like peppermint or spearmint, are even more concentrated and are used for making candy. Use these latter extracts by the drop, usually three to six drops for every two servings.

Meat is the perfect food on which to experiment. It is difficult to mess up its flavor unless you use too much of a single spice or too many spices in combination. Just remember to start with a small amount of one or two spices or herbs and work your way up until you get those oohs and aahs from your friends and family. Then you’ll know you’ve spiced it just right.

Share Button
Scroll To Top