Herbs and spices have been used for hundreds of years in cooking and medicine (Stephens 2010). They add a wide range of flavors to food and may also provide health benefits. For some people, using herbs and spices in cooking may be a challenge, but it doesn’t have to be that way! The information below will get you on track to enjoying zesty, flavorful, healthy cooking.
People often wonder what the difference is between an herb and a spice. It simply depends on the part of the plant that is used. Herbs come from the leaves of plants that do not have woody stems and grow close to the ground in mild climates. Spices are native to warm, tropical climates and are obtained from roots, flowers, fruits, seeds, or bark. Spices tend to have a stronger and more potent flavor than herbs, so they are used in smaller amounts (Spicer 2003). Herbs and spices are commonly referred to as “seasonings” when they are used together.
Perhaps the greatest health benefit of using herbs and spices is that they serve as flavorful alternatives to salt, fat, and sugar without adding any extra calories to meals. Instead of adding sugar to oatmeal, sweet potatoes, and desserts, try adding spices like cinnamon and allspice. For savory meals, replace salt with spices like black pepper, cumin, and dill seed. Try flavoring foods with herbs and spices instead of using breading, gravies, and sauces. Seasoning meats with herbs and spices and cooking them is a healthy alternative to breading and frying, an easy, flavorful way to reduce fat intake. Adopting changes like these can help reduce sodium, fat, and sugar in your diet.
Delicate herbs, such as basil or chives, should be added just before serving because their flavor can be lost during the cooking process. Herbs that are less delicate, such as oregano and thyme, can be added early in the process. Because the flavor of red pepper gets stronger as it is cooked, cayenne pepper should be added in small amounts (about ⅛ teaspoon) to begin with, then increased as needed. Always use small amounts to start with when adding herbs and spices. For 1 pound of meat or 2 cups of a soup or sauce, use ¼ teaspoon of dried ground herbs and add more if desired (Stephens 2010). When adding herbs and spices to foods that are served cold, it is important to refrigerate the food for a few hours to ensure that the flavors of the seasoning are well absorbed (Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center 2001).