Let’s get practical about selecting, storing, and using herbs and spices. First, which is which? No one can quite agree. Herbs 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. An easier, more 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 both aroma and taste to breading, batters, gravies, sauces and stir fried foods with few calories and little or no fat. If you remove 1 tablespoon oil from a recipe, 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. Cutting salt in a recipe from 2 teaspoons to 1 teaspoon reduces 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.
Go easy. You can always add more but you cannot subtract when you overdo. Start with ¼ teaspoon of ground spice for 4 servings, 1 pound of meat or 2 cups of soup or sauce. One-quarter teaspoon dried or 1 teaspoon crumbled equals 1 tablespoon fresh herbs. When you double a recipe, don’t automatically double the spices and herbs. Start with 1½ the amount and adjust if you need more.
Store in a closed kitchen cupboard away from heat and moisture, in tightly covered containers preserves the flavor and color of dried herbs and spices. Stored above the oven or microwave is not a good choice. Neither is the kitchen counter in a spice rack filled with clear 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.
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.