Look through anyone’s spice rack, and you’ll find about 18 different jars of common spices and herbs – and probably notice that only four of them are actually opened.
Home cooks tend to use the same spices for each and every dish they make because they’re afraid of the rest of them. It’s actually understandable, as some herbs or spices can render a dish completely inedible because they don’t belong in it. Use too much, and all you taste is the spice. If a particular herb is intended more for sweet dishes, using it in a savory recipe will spoil the dish, as will using a hearty spice in a dessert.
The pros can mix it up and come up with something sensational, but if you’re new to cooking, you’re better off sticking with simple techniques for now.
We won’t get into things like salt, pepper, garlic, and onion, as we’re sure you’re more than familiar with them. One tip when it comes to garlic and onion though: Opt for fresh whenever possible and avoid the powdered form if you can. It’s just so much better and more natural.
Otherwise, here are some basics about the most common spices and herbs.
Parsley: Parsley is a plant that is most often used in salads. Flat leaf parsley and curly parsley basically have the same flavor, so choosing between the two is more about appearance and texture. Because of its refreshing, milder flavor as compared with some other herbs, it’s often used as a garnish and to freshen breath after a strong meal.
→ Sample Recipe: Tabbouleh
Cardamom: Cardamom are seeds made from plants in the ginger family. The spice has a strong scent and is often used in Indian dishes and warm drinks. When used properly, it can also enhance some baked goods.
→ Sample Recipe: Ginger Cardamom Tea
Basil: The beautiful, vivid green leaves of this plant are most often used in pasta sauces. A single basil leaf can also enhance the flavor of drinks like strawberry lemonade, and basil is usually the main ingredient in pesto. Providing a refreshing scent, the basil plant is even known as an insect repellent, so it’s the perfect plant to grow in your yard.
→ Sample Recipe: Tomato and Basil Pasta Sauce
Thyme: A relative of the mint family but with more of a woodsy flavor, thyme is most often used for breads and vegetables and to enhance the flavor of meats.
→ Sample Recipe: Orange-Glazed Pork Loin
Bay Leaf: It’s literally a leaf that you drop into a pot of soup for a woodsy flavor. The flavor is very strong, so don’t use more than one or two. After you’re done cooking, remove the leaves from the pot to ensure that no one accidentally eats them, as they are very stiff and can pose a choking hazard.
→ Sample Recipe: Bay Leaf Beet Soup
Cinnamon: Perhaps one of the most versatile spices, cinnamon can be used in both savory and sweet dishes. In the powdered form, a little goes a long way. It’s sweet and spicy at the same time and has a scent that freshens up an entire room. It’s also available in a stick, and when you boil the sticks in a pot of water, you get a savory and sweet cup of tea. Best of all, cinnamon is well known as one of the healthiest spices on Earth.
→ Sample Recipe: Cinnamon Rolls
Nutmeg: Nutmeg is a seed that grows inside the fruit of a tree cultivated in the West Indies. In its powdered form, it can take on a sweet, almost cinnamon-like flavor. When grated from the nut, the taste is just a bit stronger, so you shouldn’t use as much of the fresh nutmeg. It’s commonly used to spice rice dishes, for tea, and in desserts. Like cinnamon, it’s also known for its antioxidant properties.
→ Sample Recipe: Nutty Brown Rice
Oregano: A plant in the mint family, oregano is most commonly used in its dried form but also can be used fresh. It’s often used for Italian-inspired cooking, in breads, and to add flavor to oil-based dips and salad dressings.
→ Sample Recipe: Grilled Shrimp with Oregano and Lemon
Sage: Perhaps one of the most fascinating herbs, sage is a plant with slightly fuzzy leaves that are usually brownish-yellow. Its scent and flavor are very strong – so strong, in fact, that folklore says it can ward off evil, cure illnesses, and soothe a sore throat. For that reason, it makes sense that it would make one mean cup of tea. You might also find it roasting inside of a turkey on Thanksgiving as a method of flavoring the inside of the bird.
→ Sample Recipe: Sage Sausage
Mint: When some people think of mint, everything comes to mind except food: tea, toothpaste, gum, mouthwash, you name it. It’s even been used to prevent and soothe bug bites. You might not know it, but many common salads wouldn’t be the same without it, and it can balance the gamey flavor of lamb.
→ Sample Recipe: Open-Face Lamb Burgers with Mint Yogurt Sauce
Ginger: The stem of a plant, ginger root in its fresh form is very spicy, almost to the point of being bitter. It can be ground or finely chopped for salads and salad dressings. In its powdered form, it’s sweeter and can often be found in baked goods. It’s known for its medicinal properties, hence the idea that ginger ale can relieve an upset stomach.
→ Sample Recipe: Honey-Ginger Glazed Salmon
Rosemary: Also in the mint family, rosemary has needle-like leaves that are used to balance or enhance the flavor of meats. Because they are sharp, you should grind them or at least be careful when using them whole to prevent choking or poking your gums. Rosemary does add a tasty but subtle flavor to meats, so it’s commonly used to enhance the mild flavor of chicken. It’s also a perfect match with vegetables like roasted potatoes.
→ Sample Recipe: Roasted Lemon Chicken with Rosemary and Potatoes
Cumin: Cumin comes from the seeds of a plant in the parsley family and is most often used in its powdered form. You can find it in a variety of soups, stews, and dips. It has a very recognizable scent.
→ Sample Recipe: Chicken Tortilla Soup
Chili Powder: It’s clear what this one is used for, but the possibilities are endless when it comes to using chili powder to make chili and other hearty stews. It’s also a must for a variety of Mexican-inspired dishes, like tacos and taco salad.
→ Sample Recipe: Traditional Chili
Turmeric: Another super food known for its health benefits, turmeric is a yellow powder often used in India-inspired dishes. It’s what gives many foods its yellow color.
→ Sample Recipe: Sweet Potato Turmeric Miso Soup
Curry Powder: This one isn’t one spice. It’s actually a combination of several spices, including ginger, coriander, and turmeric. However, curry powder itself is a common ingredient in many dishes.
→ Sample Recipe: Coconut Chicken Curry
Chives: They’re similar to green onions but more tender and sweeter. You’ll often find them with potato-based dishes.
→ Sample Recipe: Tomato and Herb Salad with Fresh Chive Cheese
Cloves: They’re basically dried flower buds. Cloves have an extremely strong flavor, so the taste isn’t for everyone. It’s most often found in baked goods like pumpkin pie and gingerbread, but it’s also often part of the rub for meats.
→ Sample Recipe: Slow Cooked Ham
(See our blog page for additional cooking tips and tricks!)