Herbs and Spices: A Beginner’s Guide to Nature’s Flavor Enhancers

by Diane, M.P.H, M.S.

The words “herb” and “spice” are often used interchangeably. However, there are distinct differences between the two, depending on what part of the plant is used.


What is the difference between herbs and spices? 

  • Herbs: Culinary herbs are leafy portions of a plant, whether dried or fresh (Examples: basil, bay leaves, cilantro, parsley, rosemary, and thyme).
  • Spices: Spices are harvested from any other portion of the plant and typically dried. Popular spices come from berries (peppercorns), flower buds (cloves), roots (ginger), seeds (nutmeg), and the stamen of flowers (saffron).
  • Some plants yield both an herb and a spice: Cilantro is the leafy herb of the same plant that provides the popular spice coriander seed. Dill weed (an herb) and dill seed (a spice) also come from the same plant.

Add herbs and spices to enhance the natural flavor of food, not hide it. How much you add, and when, can influence the outcome of your meal:

  • Ground herbs and spices release their flavor and aroma more easily than whole. Add them near the end of cooking time, to minimize the risk of cooking away their flavor.
  • Whole spices like cloves and cumin and certain herbs, such as bay leaves, release their flavor more slowly, so add them at the start of cooking. Tie them in cheesecloth or place in a tea ball for easy removal.
  • Fresh leafy herbs, such as basil, dill, or parsley, should be added in the last five minutes of cooking.
  • More robust fresh herbs like rosemary can be added earlier in the cooking period.
  • Crumble dried herbs, like basil, oregano, or parsley, just before use to release their flavor.
  • To reduce the heat of hot peppers, remove the seeds.
  • For salad dressings, fruit dishes, or other no-cook foods, add herbs and spices several hours before serving, so flavors can develop and blend. Add seasonings to vinegar first and let stand before adding the oil.
  • Fresh herbs can be added to salads, soups, stews, and sauces to enrich the meal’s color, fragrance, nutrition, and flavor.

A quick reference chart to help you choose herbs and spices for specific dishes 

Beans (dried) cumin, cayenne, chili, parsley, pepper, sage, savory, thyme
Beef basil, bay, chili, cilantro, curry, cumin, garlic, marjoram, mustard, oregano, parsley, pepper, rosemary, sage, savory, tarragon, thyme
Breads anise, basil, caraway, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, dill, garlic, lemon peel, orange peel, oregano, poppy seeds, rosemary, saffron, sage, thyme
Cheese basil, caraway, celery seed, chervil, chili, chives, coriander, cumin, dill, garlic, horseradish, lemon peel, marjoram, mint, mustard, nutmeg, paprika, parsley, pepper, sage, tarragon, thyme
Chicken allspice, basil, bay, cinnamon, curry, dill, fennel, garlic, ginger lemongrass, mustard, paprika, rosemary, saffron, sage, savory, tarragon, thyme
Corn chili, curry, dill, marjoram, parsley, savory, thyme
Eggs basil, chervil, chili, chives, curry, dill, fennel, ginger, lemon peel, marjoram, oregano, paprika, parsley, pepper, sage, tarragon, thyme
Fish anise, basil, bay, cayenne, celery seed, chives, curry, dill fennel, garlic, ginger, lemon peel, mustard, oregano, parsley, rosemary, thyme, saffron, sage, savory, tarragon, marjoram
Fruits allspice, anise, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, ginger, mint
Lamb basil, bay, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, curry, dill, garlic, marjoram, mint, mustard, oregano, parsley, rosemary, savory, tarragon, thyme
Potatoes basil, caraway, celery seed, chervil, chives, coriander, dill, marjoram, oregano, paprika, parsley, poppy seed, rosemary, tarragon, thyme
Salad Dressings basil, celery seed, chives, dill, fennel, garlic, horseradish, marjoram, mustard, oregano, paprika, parsley, pepper, rosemary, saffron, tarragon, thyme
Salads basil, caraway, chives, dill, garlic, lemon peel, lovage, marjoram, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, tarragon, thyme
Soups basil, bay, chervil, chili, chives, cumin, dill, fennel, garlic, marjoram, parsley, pepper, rosemary, sage, savory, thyme
Sweets allspice, angelica, anise, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, fennel, ginger, lemon peel, mace, nutmeg, mint, orange peel, rosemary
Tomatoes basil, bay , celery seed, cinnamon, chili, curry, dill, fennel, garlic, ginger, gumbo file, lemongrass,


Amount to add when no recipe is available:

  • Begin with 1/4 teaspoon per pound of meat, for each pint (2 cups) of sauce or soup, or for a serving for four. Adjust as necessary. For cayenne and garlic powder, start with 1/8 teaspoon.
  • Since the fiery flavor of chili peppers can intensify during cooking, add them in very small increments and taste test frequently. 

To substitute dried herbs for fresh: Use 1/3 teaspoon powdered or 1 teaspoon crushed for every tablespoon chopped fresh herbs.

To reconstitute dried herbs and develop their flavors: Soak them in some liquid to be used in your recipe (water, broth, lemon juice, milk, olive oil, vinegar, or wine) for 10 minutes to 1 hour before using.

Before using herbs and spices, note the expiration date on the jar, if available, and use your senses to determine freshness:

  • Color: Green, leafy herbs will often fade as they age. Red spices such as paprika, red pepper and chili powder will turn brown in color.
  • Aroma: Place a small amount in your palm and gently rub with your thumb. The aroma should be rich, full, and immediate. If not, it’s probably lost potency. For whole spices, break or crush to release their full fragrance. Then scrape with a knife or grater. 
  • If in doubt, throw it out: Herbs and spices are some of the least expensive ingredients in any entree. If their their freshness is questionable, it may be best to replace them.

To prolong the freshness of herbs and spices:

  • Buy quality products with a long shelf life: They will provide the highest concentration of volatile-oils and retain their flavor longer.
  • Protect green herbs from direct sunlight exposure.
  • Fresh-cut herbs: Wrap in a paper towel, place in a resealable plastic bag, and store in the refrigerator until they are to be used.
  • Store in a cool, dry place, away from direct light, heat, or humidity: Airtight glass jars closed tightly after each use are best for dried herbs and spices.
  • Don’t shake dried herbs or spices from their respective jars over a boiling pot: Moisture from steam may diminish the potency of spices or herbs remaining in the jar. Pour a small amount into your hand or a ramekin, then add to pot.

Guideline for how long to keep dried herbs and spices:

  • Ground spices: 2-3 years
  • Whole spices: 3-4 years
  • Herbs: 1-3 years
  • Seasoning blends: 1-2 years
  • Extracts: 4 years

Whole foods versus supplements:

  • Whole foods are the best sources of vitamins, minerals, and other plant compounds that help you stay healthy and fight disease.
  • Use herbs and spices in their natural form. Taking them as a supplement may reduce their effectiveness and increase the risk of side effects.
  • If you plan to take any herbs as supplements, consult your health care provider first. 


  1. “A quick reference chart to help you choose for herbs and spices for specific dishes.” Herb and Spice Chart-Recipes for Home Cooking. (Source: www.homecooking.about.com/library/archive/blmisc2.htmC).
  2. Source: http://www.spiceislands.com/spices_and_herbs_education/adding_herbs_and_spices#sthash.ptHAuQvm.dpuf


Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: