Lesson 4: Herbs and Spices

Herbs and Spices

Herbs and Spices

Now that we are familiar with taste, its complexities, and the basics of our other senses, we need to talk a little more in depth about smell. Or, what I call “the nose of your food.” You can make many fantastic dishes with very basic ingredients, like kosher salt, MSG, black pepper, red wine vinegar, and granulated sugar. But, what we want to do is give our food some character and maybe add a few aromatic qualities to give our food even more appeal. To do this, we are going to add spices and herbs. Many times people get confused as to what the differences are between the two. It’s very simple.

Spices tend to be derived from the roots, bark, flowers, or seeds of a flavorful plant.
Herbs are dried (or fresh) leaves of edible plants that impart an aromatic flavor.

To make it easier:

Spices:
cinnamon (bark)
nutmeg (seed)
cloves (flower)
coriander (seeds)
cumin (seed)
ginger (root)
black pepper (seed)

Herbs:
oregano (leaves)
basil (leaves)
thyme (leaves)
marjoram (leaves)
lavender (needles)
rosemary (needles)
cilantro (leafy vegetation of the coriander plant)

For your convenience, there is a Herbs and Spices Chart on our printable downloads page HERE.

As you’ll learn in your cooking journey, eastern cooking styles favor spices and western styles favor herbs. This simply has to do with the local availability of products as the different cultures and cooking techniques developed. The other difference is that spices tend to be used in conjunction with other spices, like in curry. Whereas herbs tend to be used by themselves, like a sprig of rosemary on lamb.

A fantastic way to remember the difference between herbs and spices is: “Roses are red. Violets are blue. Herbs are green and freshest too!”

I want to take some time to talk about the age of herbs and spices and how it effects the potency of its flavor. Time changes the flavor of everything regardless of whether it is fresh fruit, a fresh steak, or dried foods such as dried spices.

With dried herbs and spices, it is really important that:
1 They stay dry.
2 They are not too old because they will loose their potency.

Just because something is dried or preserved does not mean that it will keep its strength when it comes to flavor. Simply remember to keep in mind that time can not only diminish the flavor but also alter or change the flavor of your foods. Think about yogurt. Yogurt starts as milk. Then bacterial cultures are added. Time passes and changes the flavor, structure, and consistency of the product resulting in something completely different in the end.

Potency of spices is very important to take into consideration because measurements used will vary based on the strength of the spice. Oregano that is five years old is not going to be nearly as strong as oregano that was just recently dried. You will have to use a lot more of the five-year-old oregano to compensate for the loss of flavor. Also, certain spices and herbs will actually change flavor and smell over time. This is especially true for herbs like thyme and sage. They get musty and stinky. Cinnamon is an example of a spice that will lose its potency too. You need to know this because recipes will call for a certain amount of an ingredient. And if your seasonings are stale, the recipe will not turn out right. The flavor profile will end up being completely off.

Many times you will blend both herbs and spices to bring out the flavor of whatever food you are preparing. A great rule of thumb is to remember not to over-season but to start out by under-seasoning. We always want to under-season our food while cooking. We do this because you can always add more seasonings, but not necessarily take away. So when you are seasoning a dish, season with about half the amount of seasoning that the recipe calls for. As the dish gets closer to finishing, taste the dish. Then, using the Roundness of Flavor technique, slowly add the additional seasonings
that the recipe will require. Make certain that you are adding these ingredients in small increments. If you follow this method, you will never end up with a meal that is over-seasoned.

You should also keep in mind that you may become more or less sensitive to different seasonings in different recipes depending on the ingredients in the recipe. This is especially true with spicy. Because spicy flavors can vary in strength from brand to brand and even within the product itself, always add just a little bit of spicy at a time. A great example of this is a container of red pepper that I have. One dash of this red pepper is equivalent to 4 or 5 dashes from other bottles from the same manufacturer. This same fact is true for everything that we eat. This is because no two of the same item are identical. Two roma tomatoes, even from the same plant, will not be identical in every way. The same is true for humans, dogs, cats, eggplants, and everything else that is or was ever living. This is simply the nature of life in the universe. Because it was living and growing, it is therefore always unique.

chef-ryan-callahan-building-wall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Cooking is about building flavors like building a brick wall. We stack the flavors brick by brick until we have a wall. Throwing all the seasonings in at once seems like you would be building that wall faster. But in the end, all you are truly left with is a large heap of bricks.”

The other thing you need to remember when cooking is that you are not trying to change the flavor of the ingredients but compliment what you are already cooking. Th e goal is to bring out the naturally occurring flavors of the ingredients. Th is is one of the areas of cooking where Chinese and Italian cooking styles agree: always season to emphasize and celebrate how delicious your ingredients are! A good rule of thumb is if both the Chinese and the Italians are doing it, it must be good!

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About the Author:

Chef Ryan Callahan is an award winning author and chef. He is the author of Chef Ryan's How-to-Cook Cookbook, Cooking for Chemo ...and After!, Cooking for Kids with Cancer, and Chef Ryan Callahan’s Tasting Journal. Chef Ryan won a 2016 Gourmand World Cookbook Award (Best Health and Nutrition USA) for his ground-breaking book, Cooking for Chemo ...and After! Chef Ryan Callahan is a hospitality industry veteran with over 15 years of hands-on culinary experience in the kitchen and front of house. When he isn't cooking, eating, talking or thinking about food you can usually find him nestled up with some manga or playing video games on his computer.