Spice It Up to Cut Salt, Calories and Fat

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on March 9, 2011 · 0 comments

You’re often told to cook with more herbs and spices when you need to reduce your intake of sugar, salt, or fat. That’s good advice, but how to use it? Let’s get practical about selecting, storing, and using herbs and spices.

First, what’s a spice and what’s an herb?  No one can quite agree. Herbs (in the US the “h” is silent, in Great Britain it’s pronounced) are usually the leaves or flowers of plants that die away in winter. Spices, more pungent because they contain more essential oils and flavoring compounds, are usually from the seeds, bark, and roots of plants. The problem with this categorization is there are more exceptions than examples. The easiest, practical definition is that herbs and spices are from edible plants used to enhance other foods. They can be fresh or dried and when dried they come whole, crushed, or ground.

Herbs and spices can add aroma and flavor to breading, batters, gravies, sauces, and stir fried foods with few calories and little or no fat. Remove 1 tablespoon oil from a recipe and you remove 14 grams of fat and 120 calories. Try: bay leaf or nutmeg with beef; rosemary and mint with lamb; garlic and pepper with pork; curry powder or ginger with veal; tarragon or thyme with chicken; and dill and paprika with fish.

If you are trying to reduce sugar add sweeter tasting herbs and spices such as anise, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg.

To reduce salt, use savory flavors or those with a bite — pepper, garlic, curry, dill, basil, ginger and onion. Use garlic and onion powder, not garlic and onion salt. Buy lemon pepper or spice blends, but look for the salt free varieties. By cutting the salt in a recipe from 2 teaspoons to 1 teaspoon you reduce sodium by 2,400 milligrams.

Add fresh herbs at the end of cooking, the last 10 minutes, as prolonged heat makes them lose their flavor and aroma. Dried herbs and spices can stand the heat. Ground and crumbled release flavor more quickly. Whole spices release flavor and aroma slowly and are best for stews and slow cookers. If you want the essence of the herb but are not interested in biting into a whole clove or bay leaf, put the herb in a reusable metal teaball for easy retrieval at the end of cooking. Dried whole bay leaves must be removed because they never soften and can cause choking or harmful cuts in the throat and esophagus.

Go easy when you start experimenting with herbs and spices. You can always add more but you cannot subtract when you overdo. Start with ¼ teaspoon of ground spice for 4 servings or 1 pound of meat or 2 cups of soup or sauce. If you are using fresh herbs, ¼ teaspoon dried or 1 teaspoon crumbled equals 1 tablespoon fresh.  When you double a recipe, don’t automatically double the spices and herbs. Start with 1½ the amount and adjust if you need more.

To preserve the flavor and color of dried or crumbled herbs and spices avoid moisture, light and heat. Stored above the oven or microwave is not a good choice. Neither is the kitchen counter in a spice rack filled with clear containers. Store in a closed kitchen cupboard away from heat and moisture, in tightly covered containers. Date dried herbs and spices when you buy them and discard unused portions in a year, 2 years for whole spices. To check if older spices are still pungent, crush a little between your fingers and if the aroma is full and strong the spice will still be flavorful. Don’t smell pepper or chili powder as both can irritate your nose.

Think of fresh herbs like a bouquet. Snipe off the stems diagonally and place them in a container with an inch of water. Change the water daily and the herb will last about a week. Many people like to freeze fresh herbs. Though frozen herbs will never resemble fresh again, they are fresher than the dried varieties. Wash, drain and pat or spin dry the herb you want to freeze. Pick leaves off stems or cut up with kitchen shears and freeze in small zip lock freezer bags. You can also make herb cubes by pureeing fresh herbs in a blender with a small amount of water and freezing in ice cube trays. Once frozen the herb cubes should be stored in a zip lock freezer bag. Herb cubes are good additions to stews, sauces, gravies and soup but it is somewhat difficult to guesstimate amounts.

Besides adding flavor, herbs and spices are rich in antioxidants and other health-promoting substances. Though we eat them in small amounts, when used regularly they are a beneficial addition to your overall diet. Animal research is pointing toward many promising uses for these flavorful plants in the future.

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