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:

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

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.










“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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Lesson 5: Aromatics



Something like 90 percent of all experiences that you have with food are actually nasal related. This is super important to know, because embracing the role that your nose plays in the eating experience will enable you to create richer, fuller eating experiences. As I have previously pointed out, it is the smell of a pot roast that causes you to salivate. So, we will continue with this idea and venture further in-depth into the world of how to use aromatics and your sense of smell to your advantage.

Aromatics include, but are not limited to, herbs and spices. Each individual food item has a smell all to its own as well. Think of the smell of a grilled steak, oranges, or fresh fish. Each food item has a scent all to its own. We must take this smell into account whenever we are preparing a dish. Remember, our objective in preparing this food is not to change the natural flavors of the food. It is to bring out more natural flavor and emphasize the qualities of our foods.

There is an old saying that goes a bit like this: “When a guest compliments a French chef, he will reply, ‘Thank you very much,’ as if it was him and his skill that was being complimented. But an Italian chef will reply, ‘Do not thank me. Thank the ingredients.’”

The lesson in this is a truly great chef knows that any dish is made or broken on the constitution of the ingredients that he or she uses. So we must always endeavor to choose quality ingredients and let them tell us how best to serve them. With this in mind, we want to always smell our ingredients every time. An example of this would be if we have a piece of fish. We want to smell it every single time. Fish should never smell fishy, ever. The smell of fishiness is actually a byproduct of decay of the fish proteins. Fish should always smell like the ocean. If it does not smell fresh and clean like the ocean, you should never ever eat it.

This same thought process should be applied to all foods. When you have produce, smell it. What does it smell like? Does your broccoli smell like broccoli? Does your cauliflower smell like cauliflower? Your nose is the fastest indicator that something is amiss. If you open a loaf of bread and
it magically smells like cheese, maybe, just maybe you shouldn’t be eating that bread. Have you ever smelled sour milk? The first way to tell that milk is bad is simply by giving it a big sniff. Your sense of smell is actually your strongest sense. You are able to identify a trillion of independent odors. Whereas your eyes can only perceive about 10 million colors. When most people think of smell, they think of dogs. Dogs are always sniffing everything. This is for a very good reason. Through smell, they are able to detect a great many things: food, water, mates, danger, bombs, and even some forms of cancer.


While dogs embrace smell, humans tend to actively shun their sense of smell. People go so far as to look at other people suspiciously when someone smells something. Yes, I know this from personal experience. Don’t judge me. Th ere is actually some strong evidence that suggests humans actually
put off various odors based on their emotional states. Have you ever heard of someone “stinking of desperation?” As a chef, my sense of smell is my greatest strength. Being able to identify different scents and match them to other complimentary scents is one of the aspects that allows you to
become a great chef.

So, why do dogs have it all figured out and humans stick their nose up at the idea of smell? Well, that probably has a bit to do with the desire to feel “civilized” and detached from our primal nature. But that is neither here nor there. What I am going to do is teach you how to regain control of that ever so powerful sense.

The power of your nose can never be understated. It helps you find food. It tells you when to be hungry. It’s a defense mechanism. And it protects you from potential harm.

The very first thing I want you to do is start smelling EVERYTHING!

I want you to smell everything. I want you to smell herbs, spices, vinegar, meat, shoes, newspapers, books, computers, vegetables, clean laundry, dirty laundry, and anything else you can get your hands on. I assure you that people will eyeball you very suspiciously. I have a habit of smelling everything. I smell my flatware when I’m out to eat. I smell my food when other people have cooked it for me. I smell newspapers. I smell my pants and even my shoes before I put them on.

The reason I do this is to find out more information about the item I am smelling. Smelling flatware at a restaurant tells me a few things. If it smells like chlorine, I know that they use bleach as their sanitizer and that the flatware has recently been washed. If it smells like food, I know that it hasn’t been washed and that I should get a different fork.

Smelling food tells me many things about it as well. I can tell the doneness of food by scent. If it is a steak, I can tell if the fat has been cooked long enough to become liquid and move through the meat. I can tell if raw food is past its prime thanks to a signature bacterial odor. I can also tell the pungency and strength of spices so I know how much to use when I am cooking. If I smell my pants, I can tell if they are dirty and if I need to wash them. As you can see, there are a great many uses for smell, both offensive and defensive.

Let me ask a simple question.

What is the purpose of aromatics in food?

The simple answer is: The aroma or aromatic quality of food in each dish is the defining quality and character that separates it from the other dishes.

Let’s use the following foods as an example.
moo shu chicken (Chinese)
shredded chicken tacos (Tex-Mex)
chicken shawarma sandwich (Mediterranean-American)

These 3 meals are all fundamentally very similar. Ultimately, there is a starchy bread-like substance that acts like a wrapper, a crunchy vegetable aspect, and a soft but flavorful protein aspect to each one of these dishes. On paper, these dishes look extremely similar. But as great cooks, we don’t care about paper; we care about plates! Plated and placed in front of you, it would be impossible to not tell these dishes apart. This is because each dish uses different herbs, spices, and seasonings.

The shawarma is full of warm cumin and curry flavors.
The shredded chicken tacos have hints of garlic and spiciness.
And the moo shu is both savory and sweet at the same time.

Effectively, three of the same dish done three different ways. This is why developing our aromatic quality to the dish is so important. We do this by employing herbs and spices into our dishes to give them their distinct flavors.

I have a certain method to my madness when it comes to seasoning. I always season my dishes in a particular order: salty, savory, spicy, sour, and last sweet. But when it comes to adding aromatics, I always add the stronger flavors that need to be extracted throughout the entire dish early in the cooking process. Stronger herbs and spices should always be added first.

A perfect example of this is rosemary. I love rosemary! Kept inside your house or outside, it will make your home smell amazing. Rosemary’s natural scent acts as a stress reliever. So when I use rosemary in cooking, I always incorporate it early. The reason is that the aromatic quality of the rosemary is actually found in the oil contained within its needles. It is this scented oil that we are trying to incorporate throughout our entire dish. The best way to extract this is to smash the needles with a flat side of a knife and then incorporate it with hot oil. This will allow the oils to migrate out and co-mingle with the rest of the fats in the dish. This allows it to thoroughly coat every surface. We want to do this early when cooking a dish in order to give the rosemary time to not only be extracted but to mellow within the dish during the cooking process.

On the opposite end, there are herbs like basil. Basil has such a delicate flavor. Basil is such a tricky plant to use because if it is not quite right, you will completely loose the flavor from the basil leaves. In juxtaposition from the rosemary, if you add basil at any time but during the last few moments of cooking, the basil with become ethereal and disappear. Basil is a plant that should never be used as a dried herb. The essence of its flavor is best captured by using thinly sliced fresh leaves. It would preferably be added raw and not cooked. Think of a caprese salad. The raw basil leaves give such a pop of flavor. This becomes the quintessential highlight of the dish. It pulls all the flavors together as if by magic.

Whenever we season with our aromatics, we want to first think:
1 When should I add this?
2 And how am I going to get the best flavor out of this ingredient?

Add Early: rosemary, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, peppers, and oregano.

Add in the Middle: thyme, ginger, marjoram, cumin, and turmeric. These flavors don’t really take
time to develop and can therefore be added at anytime.

Add Last: basil, cilantro, parsley, orange blossoms, rose hips, and other lightly flavored seasonings.

For your convenience, I have made a chart of commonly used herbs and spices, their flavors,
functions, when they should be added to a dish, and what they are most commonly used with. This
chart is found on our printable resources page HERE.

Learn HOW to cook in a new, fun, and exciting way! Click here for Chef Ryan's How to Cook Cookbook