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Herbs and Spices Dictionary

Herbs consist of fresh leaves and stems or crumbled or powdered dried leaves. Spices consist of many other parts of the plants—seeds, stems, roots, and berries, which have been dried—and can be whole, ground or powdered.

Dried herbs should be purchased only in the amount that can be used within two or three months, and should be stored away from heat. Herbs that have a musty or “flat” aroma should be discarded. For best results in your cooking, always try to find fresh leaves.

Whole spices retain their flavor longer than ground, although both will retain their potency for about six months if they are properly stored. They should be kept in sealed containers in a cool, dry spot, away from extreme heat and direct light. For optimum flavor, purchase whole spices and grind them as close as possible to the time you will be using them. Dry-cooking for 2-3 minutes will heighten their flavor. Put seeds in a wok or sauté pan and toss vigorously over high heat. You do not need to add any oil.

Allspice– comes from the ground berries of a tree which grows in Jamaica and belongs to the Myrtaceae family. It has the aroma of a blend of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. It is sold both whole and ground. Whole is mainly used in pickling, meats, fish and gravies. Ground is used in baked goods, relishes, puddings, and fruit preserves.

Anise – originated in the Middle East, where it is grown today as a commercial crop. Small white flowers bloom in mid-summer, followed by tiny licorice-flavored fruits called aniseed. Aniseed adds rich flavor to cookies, cakes, candies, bread, and applesauce. It is widely used in Indian curries and stews. Use fresh leaves in salad.

Basil – Sweet basil, to Italians, is a symbol of love. What most of us love is basil’s pungent, spicy-clove flavor and aroma. No other herb stands out quite like basil for its aroma. Shred its leaves and the pungent smell fills the air, and it has a flavor to match.

Bay – These are the leaves of the laurel tree of ancient Greece, not the native American mountain laurel whose leaves are toxic. It is a powerful seasoning, with the deeply savory essence of nutmeg and warm spices. It is possible to grow quite a large plant in a small pot, and it will thrive for years without repotting.

Capers – The flower buds of a small bush found in Mediterranean countries. To make capers, the buds are dried and then pickled in vinegar with some salt. To reduce saltiness, rinse before using. The piquant taste of capers permeates any sauce quickly, and just a few supply a big flavor boost.

Caraway – Finely cut leaves and flat, greenish-white flower heads resemble those of carrots. Seeds have been reputed to aid digestion, strengthen vision, improve memory, cure baldness, stop a lover’s fickleness, and prevent theft of any objects

Cardamom – is a member of the ginger or Zingiberaceae family, and is one of the most expensive of spices. It comes from southeast India and is used not only in Thai cuisine, but also many Scandinavian dishes.

Chervil– Also known as French parsley, is one of the components of the four fines herbes. It has a delicate licorice flavor with the mild pepperiness of parsley. It is a fleeting flavor. Cooking and drying destroys the subtle flavor, so use large quantities of fresh leaves, toward the end of cooking.

Chives – One of the most popular of culinary herbs, the leaves of this plant can be used in a variety of ways. The flowers are also edible, and can be used to garnish salads and other cold dishes. Chives are readily grown indoors or outside. They have thin, tubular, grass like foliage and clover like lavender flower heads that bloom in mid to late summer. Leaves have a mild onion flavor. Chives will turn drab green when heated.

Cilantro – Thin, rounded, toothed bright green leaves resembling flat-leaf parsley. Also called fresh coriander or Chinese parsley. It is tangy with citrus notes.

Cinnamon – is available powdered or in sticks. It is a member of the laurel or Lauraceae family and grows on the island of Sri Lanka and along the southwestern coast of India. The inner bark or the tree yields the “bark cinnamon” sold in scroll-like sticks. Break these scrolls inn as small pieces as possible and then grind them in a spice mill or cleaned coffee mill.

Cloves– are the unopened flower bud of a tree that grows in many of the warmer regions of the world such as Madagascar, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Sumatra, and Brazil. Cloves can be purchased both whole and ground. Cloves have a most pleasant aroma, but they are so strong that a tiny bit will be sufficient to flavor a great deal of prepared food. Be careful!

Coriande – An ancient spice whose seeds have been found in Egyptian tombs and were used in Rome to preserve meat. Grind dry seeds to powder, and dust over veal, pork, or ham before cooking. Sprinkle on cakes, pastries, cookies, or sweet dishes. Use in ground meat, sausage, and stews.

Young leaves taste like dried orange peel and are rich in vitamins A and B1, calcium, riboflavin, and niacin. Use in salads and soups and serve chopped with avocado pears.

Dill – One of the oldest herbs; is a native of southern Europe and western Asia. It has tender, feathery, blue-green fronds branching off a central stem. Both seeds and leaves have a sharp, slightly bitter taste.

Fennel – Leaves, stems, roots, seeds, and oil are all parts of the fennel plant used in various ways. Leaves have a sweetish flavor, particularly good in sauces for fish; also useful with pork or veal, in soups and in salads. Seeds have a sharper taste. Use fennel sparingly in sauerkraut, spaghetti sauce, chili, hearty soups, and as condiment on baked goods.

Garlic – This member of the onion family has a long history and was regarded as a sacred herb by the Ancient Egyptians. Garlic is one of about 700 species of Allium, or onion, grown all over the world for their culinary and medicinal value. Garlic’s distinctive, pungent aroma and flavor have made it one of the most popular herbs.

Ginger – is a warming herb with a pungent aroma and flavor. It enhances all kinds of foods—from confectionery and cakes to savory dishes. It is widely used in the cuisines of the Far East, especially in curries and stir-fries. The roots can be purchased fresh and kept frozen for an extended period of time.

Lavender– is used most often in desserts and teas, but also lends its smoky, floral flavor to meats, fish, seafood, and roasted vegetables. Lavender honey is a gourmet treat, and vinegar infused with lavender will add mystery to salad greens.

Lemon Balm – A fragrant garden plant that releases its scent when brushed against. It should be a first choice for the herb garden as it is both decorative and useful.

Lemongrass – This fragrant herb is a versatile one. It is widely used as a flavoring ingredient is Southeast Asian dishes. There are more than 50 species in this genus of scented grasses. Plants can be grown outdoors in warmer areas and will happily survive the warmer months outside in cool areas, as long as they are brought indoors when the temperature falls below 45 degrees. The leaves, stem, and oil are the valuable parts of the plant. Only the lower 4” of the leaves are suitable for use—fresh or dried in teas and Oriental or Asian dishes.

Lemon Verbena – The leaves are picked in summer and used fresh in herbal teas and in syrups, salads, or stuffing for meat and poultry. They can also be chopped and sprinkled over drinks and fruit puddings.

Mace and Nutmeg– Nutmeg is the fruit of Myristica fragrans, a tree sixty feet high that is native to the Moluccas. The fruit is a false fruit, or drupe—like cherries or apricots—the flesh of which is used as food. Below the flesh is a seed which consists of two parts, the crimson-colored aril, or outer membrane, which is flattened, dried, and slowly roasted to become mace.

Marjoram(Sweet)– Soft, small, oval dusty green leaves arrayed along a tender stem. It has a bold, floral perfume with mint and pepper. The flavor can be potent so use carefully. Pick whole leaves, chop roughly or finely to add toward end of cooking. Marjoram is not often used raw in cold dishes. Sprinkle chopped leaves fresh or dried over lamb, pork, and veal before roasting.

Mint– It is said that mint is the most popular flavoring in the world, appearing in so many foodstuffs and medicines that it is often barely given a second thought.

Oregano – Also called wild marjoram. The plant is similar to sweet marjoram but shrubbier and more spreading. Oregano is very assertive and peppery with hints of pine. Chop the leaves roughly or finely and add early in cooking. Oregano is best known as the “pizza herb”. Pair it with lemon and garlic to create Greek flavors.

Parsley– Vivid green-toothed leaf clusters branching off a fibrous stem. Most common varieties: the curly leaves of curly parsley, and the broad flat leaves of Italian parsley. The flavor is subtle, fresh celery and mild pepper and can be used generously.

Pepper – Pepper is the most popular spice in the world. It is sold in both black and white varieties and for the most part is imported from India, Indonesia, and Borneo. It is sold in whole or ground varieties, and is used in almost every dish imaginable.

Black peppercorns – Available as whole berries, cracked, or ground. The Telicherry peppercorn is one of the most prized. Mignonette or shot pepper is a combination of coarsely ground or crushed black and white peppercorns.

White peppercorns – Black peppercorns are allowed to ripen and then husks are removed. May be preferred for pale or lightly colored sauces. Available as whole berries, cracked, or ground.

Green peppercorns – Unripe peppercorns that are packed in vinegar or brine. They are also available freeze-dried.

Cayenne – A special type of chili, originally grown in Cayenne in French Guiana. The chili is dried and ground into a fine powder. The same chili is used to make hot pepper sauces.

Chili flakes – Dried, whole red chili peppers that are crushed or coarsely ground.

Paprika – A powder made from dried sweet peppers (pimentos). Available as mild, sweet, or hot. Hungarian paprikas are considered superior in flavor.

Tellicherry Peppercorns - Peppercorns come from the plant Piper Nigrum. These particularly reverred members of the berry family come from the Malabar Costal area of the South India Pennensula, and are typically larger and more flavorful than those grown in Indonesia and South America.

Rosemary – Glossy, needlelike leaves with a lemon and piney scent. The flavor can dominate and taste bitter so use sparingly. Insert a sprig or two into lamb, pork, veal, or poultry before roasting. Toss some onto charcoal over which beef, chicken or ribs are cooking. Sprinkle chopped leaves over beef or fish before broiling.

Saffron– Saffron belongs to the Iridaceae family, which includes irises and crocuses. Saffron consists of the deep orange-colored stamens of the crocus. It takes approximately 35,000 flowers to produce a pound of saffron.

Sage– An intensely fragrant herb with soft, oblong, silvery green leaves. Most common cooking variety: garden sage. Other varieties include purple sage and pineapple sage. Sage has a potent, savory and earthy flavor. It can dominate and taste medicinal so use judiciously.

Poppy seeds – Poppy seeds have a nutty, slightly sweet flavor and are used in baking and in Indian dishes; as a garnish for salads, noodles, and vegetables.

Salt – Salt is essential to good cooking, for it brings out the flavors of foods. Just a pinch boosts the flavor of almost everything, from simple, sliced tomatoes to complex sauces, soups, stews, and even sweets. Various salts have very different flavors:

Kosher salt – is a refined salt that is more coarsely ground than table salt. Its texture is essential for certain cooking processes, especially for curing and in dry rubs.

Table salt – is mined from rock salt deposits of ancient sea beds and is highly processed with additives, such as anticaking agents, whiteners, and iodine.

Because it is so finely ground, it is about one third saltier than kosher salt.

Sea salt – made from evaporating seawater in protected bays, has the purest, freshest flavor and can be almost twice as intense as kosher salt.

Rock salt – is an unrefined, coarse salt not added directly to foods but is used in some ice cream machines.

Curing Salt – A blend of 94 percent salt and 6 percent sodium nitrite. Used in a variety of charcuterie items, especially those to be cold-smoked. Usually dyed pink to differentiate it from other salts.

Sorrel– In the past, this plant was used medicinally, but nowadays, it is mainly used for its tangy flavor in salads and soups or cooked with other leafy vegetables.

Tarragon– Large, shiny, toothed dark green leaves resembling its daisy relative. Most common variety is French Tarragon. Its flavor is sweet and spicy licorice. The flavor can dominate so use with care. Chop roughly or finely and add toward the end of cooking.

Thyme – Clusters of tiny green leaves on a thin, woody stem. Most common variety for cooking is English thyme. Other varieties include lemon thyme and caraway thyme. It has a subtle pine and lemon and spice flavor. It is versatile and widely

Tumeric – Has a musky, peppery flavor. Used mainly in ground form to color foods yellow, especially Indian curries and bean dishes. Use sparingly as an alternative to saffron.



Herb Combinations

Fines Herbes – The four fines herbes are chives, tarragon, chervil, and parsley. Equal parts are chopped together until the board on which you are working starts to barely turn green.

Herbes de Provence– or Provencal herbs is a mixture of rosemary, thyme, and savory, with the four fines herbes, plus mint and whatever else catches the fancy of the cook.

Bouquet Garni – A bunch of herbs tied together, usually including bay leaf, fresh or dried thyme, and fresh parsley stems. It flavors all stock, and some sauces and gravies. All herbs are tied together to allow easy removal from the pot at the end of cooking. Let the bouquet garni float freely in the pot to allow the release of all the flavors.

Spice Mixtures

Chili Powder – is a combination of ground spices and dried herbs. It can contain all or only some of the following and in varying ratios.

Allspice Black Pepper Cayenne Pepper Ground Coriander Ground Cloves Dried Chilies Ground Cumin Dried Oregano Paprika Garlic Powder Ground Mustard Seeds Tumeric

Chinese 5-Spice Powder –contains cinnamon, star anise, fennel seeds, cloves, and Szechuan peppercorns. When purchasing, choose the most finely ground and the one palest in color.

Curry Powder – usually cumin seeds, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, dried red chilies, cinnamon, turmeric, and ground ginger. May also have paprika, cloves, saffron, fenugreek, cardamom, or fresh curry leaves.

Garam Masala – comes from north India where it is home-ground from three to eight of the spices known as “warm” spices in the Ayur Veda book of medicine. These are dried chiles, black peppercorns, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, cloves, coriander seeds and cumin seeds.

Pie spice – A traditional mixture of ground sweet spices, usually allspice, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, mace, and nutmeg.

Quatre Epices – Peppercorns, ground nutmeg, ground cinnamon, whole cloves, and ginger.

Curry Powders or Pastes – The English word curry comes from the Tamil work kari which means sauce, because curry powers flavor mostly sauces. In India the curries, once powdered, belong to the general category of “masalas” or spice blends, which are prepared from ground ingredients indigenous to the diverse regions of the country.

Ras el hanout – is used primarily in Morocco and all over the Maghreb (the north coast of Africa). It is a wonderfully fragrant powder with out which the traditional couscous has no soul. Depending on which country (morocco, Algeria, or Tunisia), the ras el hanout will vary in composition, from twelve spices in Algeria to twenty to twenty-four spices in Morocco. In Tunisia the spices are fewer but one adds dried pulverized rosebuds.

Preserving Herbs

Drying – Bay, marjoram, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme retain much of their aromatic quality when dried. Chives will not retain their flavor particularly well. Chervil may be dried but is much better used fresh. You can dry your own store-bought or garden-grown herbs in a dry, well-ventilated space away from direct sunlight or a heat source.

The best method is to dry the leaves on a screen, but herb bundles can also be wrapped in a paper bag and hung until brittle. This will take about three to five days (or longer), depending upon the weather and humidity. Stem the dried leaves and store them in covered glass jars for up to a year.

Freezing – More tender herbs, including basil, chives, cilantro, dill, parsley, and tarragon are best preserved by freezing. Some, like basil, will turn black, and all will lose their texture, but frozen herbs keep their fresh flavor for using in cooked dishes. They will last for up to six months using any of these three techniques:

Whole herbs: Pack sprigs of clean, dry herbs in airtight containers or food storage bags and freeze. Run basil leaves with olive oil before freezing.

Chopped herbs: Roughly chop the herbs, pack them into ice cube trays, fill the trays with water, and freeze. When frozen, put the cubes into food storage bags and label with date and contents.

Herb puree: Puree herbs in a blender or food processor with just enough vegetable or olive oil to make a thick paste. Freeze in ice-cube trays or in small portions in food storage bags. When frozen, put the cubes into food storage bags and label with date and contents.

Herb Butter – Frozen herb butters will keep for up to three months so you can slice off a piece to top a pan-seared fish fillet or a steak, finish a butter sauce, or bring it to room temperature to spread on bread.

Mix one stick softened unsalted butter with ¼ cup packed coarsely chopped herbs or more to taste. Roll into a cylinder, wrap in plastic, and freeze.

Herb Vinegar – Herb vinegars have a long shelf life. Tarragon is the standard, but basil, chive, and chive blossoms, dill, or rosemary infuse their flavors into milk white vinegar. Use herb vinegars in vinaigrettes and marinades or to add zest to cooked vegetables.

Fill a glass jar with washed leaves or whole sprigs. Pour in white-wine, rice-wine, or Champagne vinegar to cover. Set the jar in the sun for a week or until fully flavored. Strain into a clean bottle and seal. It will keep indefinitely.

Herb Gardens

Growing herbs is a practical pleasure – they are handsome and fragrant in the garden, indispensable in the kitchen, easy to grow, and fascinating to study. Most garden stores stock a wide range of plants, and you can grow herbs from seed, seedlings, or cuttings.

The growing of herbs is as old as civilization. The earliest known writings of nearly every culture include references to herbs used for preparing and preserving food, scenting the air, or treating wounds and illness.

The roots of modern medicine can be traced back to the herb gardens of medicine men, witches, and sorcerers, and were nurtured through the ages by the systematic studies of herbalists.

Most herbs are tough, wild plants that have changed little despite centuries of cultivation. Almost all of them do best in sunny locations and fertile, well-drained soil, but some will survive in partial shade and poor soil. Herbs fall into one of four main plant categories that may need slightly different treatments in their planting and positioning.



Plant Types

Woody Trees or Shrubs – Taller plants, such as bay and rosemary, form the backbone of a bed or border. Since these are the most permanent plants in the scheme, it is important that they are positioned in the right place where they will look effective as they grow and not crowd other plants.

Perennials – These die down in the fall or winter, but grow again every year in the spring. They include chives, fennel, marjoram, mint, and tarragon. They can be used to bulk out beds and borders, and provide seasonal interest with flowers and foliage.

Annual and Biennials – These grow and die off within one or two years, and should be dug up as they die off at the end of their growing season. They include herbs such as basil and parsley.

Sub shrubs – These are low plants, shrubby in growth and appearance, such as common thyme, lavender, and sage. They make excellent edgings for borders, but they are not always long-lived and are best renewed every few years by taking cuttings in summer, which can be planted the following year when they have formed new rooted plants.


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