Why use herbs
For some people, herbs and spices aren’t something they think about often. They don’t know exactly what to do with them and haven’t used them a lot, so they don’t. They stick with salt and pepper and bottles of Mrs. Dash which just combine many herbs and spices together for use with anything.
Herbs and spices, however, are wonderful to use in cooking, because they can bring nuanced flavors to your food and allow you to cut back on your sodium use. Today, the variety you can find at the grocery store is remarkable. You can buy it dried, freeze-dried, frozen, packaged in refrigerator tubes, ground, pureed, as leaves, and of course, fresh.
Fortunately for me, my husband has a green thumb, and he grows wonderful herbs for me in small planters we keep on the back porch which I can just snip as I want. When I don’t have fresh herbs available, though, I freely use the dried, freeze-dried, and refrigerator tube versions as well. And I always have a variety of ground spices in my pantry for my use.
Tips for using herbs and spices
There are a few things to always keep in mind when using herbs and spices.
1. Fresh herbs are usually added near the end of your cooking time, because they lose their flavor if cooked for too long, while dried herbs and spices are added at the beginning because they need the heat to bring out their flavor.
2. Dried herbs have a more concentrated flavor so you use less than you would of fresh herbs. 1/2 to 1 tsp of a dried herb is usually equal to a tablespoon or two of a fresh herb.
3. Since the oils in a dried herbs are essentially “trapped” inside, before you add dried herbs to your dish, you should “crush” them a bit between your fingers to release their flavor.
4. Spices such as cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger are usually associated with baking and fruit dishes, but they add wonderful flavor to meat and seafood dishes and even to soups, beans, and macaroni and cheese.
5. Most herbs go well with just about anything from meat to vegetables to even fruit. Experiment to see what flavors you like with what.
6. When you really want to bring out the flavors in a recipe, creating a base aromatic is the best way to go. Simply put a little bit of oil in your pot and add dried herbs or spices, along with chopped onions or peppers or garlic, and slowly cook them over low heat for a little while before adding your meat or vegetables or fish or soup or whatever.
7. If you’re making something like a soup or stew or roast which needs a long time to cook, dried herbs are really better to use than fresh. If you want to use fresh herbs, you can add those at the end as a garnish.
8. If you buy fresh herbs in a package from the store and don’t use it all up immediately, wrap the leftover herbs in a slightly damp towel and put it in sandwich baggie to keep it fresh a little longer in the fridge.
9. If you buy dried herbs and spices, they will lose their potency after a while, but the length of time varies. Essentially, the rule of thumb is that if you can’t smell anything when you gently rub the spice or herb and/or they’ve completely lost all their color, most likely they should be tossed.
10. When using dried herbs, you should shake the herbs into your hands and then add them carefully to your dish. If you shake the container over the dish itself, the steam from the cooking gets into your container and can spoil your dried herbs more quickly.
11. Dried herbs should be kept in a dark, dry, cool place. Those little spice racks we buy are actually not very good for storing the herbs and spices, because usually those are put on the wall, near the stove where the light, heat and moisture all work together to spoil the herbs and spices.
12. If you want to buy dried spices or herbs but get that “fresh” flavor, buy whole dried spices which you can grind in a spice grinder just before using.