Cooking Questions: Spices And Herbs

Browse our collection of frequently asked cooking questions for advice on cooking with spices and herbs.

Herbs de Provence

Photo by Baking Nana

How do I substitute fresh herbs for dried?
The general rule of thumb is to convert teaspoons of dried herbs into tablespoons of fresh ones: for example, use two tablespoons of fresh basil instead of two teaspoons of dried basil. Note that fresh herbs should be added at the end of the cooking process to preserve their flavors.

What is the difference between a spice and an herb?
Spices are pungent or aromatic seasonings obtained from the bark, buds, fruit, roots, seeds, or stems of plants and trees, whereas herbs are the fragrant leaves of various annual or perennial plants that grow in temperate zones and do not have woody stems.

*Spices were prized long before recorded history. Though they’ve always been essential for flavoring food and drink, throughout the ages spices have been used in crowning emperors, making medicines and perfumes, in religious ceremonies and as burial accoutrements for the wealthy. More than 3,000 years ago the Arabs dominated the spice trade, bringing their rare cargo back from India and the Orient by arduous camel caravans. During the Middle Ages the demand for spices was so high that they became rich commodities–a pound of mace could buy three sheep and the same amount of peppercorns could buy freedom for a serf. By that time Venice had a tight hold on Western commerce and controlled the incredibly lucrative European spice trade. That Venetian monopoly was an important catalyst for the expeditions that resulted in the discovery of the New World. Today, the United States is the world’s major spice buyer.

*Information about herbs and spices is based on The Food Lover’s Companion, 2nd Edition, by Sharon Tyler Herbst, published by Barrons Educational Series Inc, August 1995.

What is the best way to prepare fresh herbs?
First, submerge the fresh herbs in water, then rinse well. Blot dry with a kitchen towel, and spread out to dry. The herbs need not be completely dry to use. Once the herbs have been cleaned and dried, pick the leaves off of the stems. The leaves are now ready to be torn, chopped or used whole, tossed into a salad or pasta, or used to garnish a soup or sauce. Discard the stems or save them for flavoring soup stocks.

Are my spices and herbs still good?
Smell is a good indicator. Rub a small amount between your fingers. If the spice or dried herb is not fragrant, or has only a faint smell, then it is probably time to replace it. Taste is another good test. If you find you are using a larger amount of a spice or herb than usual in your favorite recipes to get any flavor, replace it.

What is the best way to store my spices and herbs?
Store dried herbs in a cool, dark place. Dried leaves and ground spices can be stored for up to six months. Whole spices can last longer. Fresh herbs can be stored in the refrigerator for up to five days. For storage up to 10 days (depending on the type and freshness), place the bouquet of herbs, stem end down, in a tall glass and fill with cold water. Change the water every two days to maintain freshness.

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