Spices & Herbs

I cannot stress how utterly important it is to have a good selection of spices and herbs in your pantry.  Spices make the difference between bland and grand cuisine. They provide aroma, flavor, and color to any dish.

Spices contain volatile oils responsible for their aromas.  As spices come in contact with heat they suffuse the room with intoxicating aromas. This stimulating scent can conjure up distant memories of celebrations pasts.

The olfactory sense is emotionally charged; so whether you are trying to recreate an old memory or create lasting new ones, I suggest you start using some of the following in your food!

NB. You probably already use most of the spices/herbs mentioned below, I just included the ones I normally used in my kitchen.

Spices & their Properties

Pepper

Most common spice. Native to India
Dried fruit is known as peppercorn
White- seed of pepper fruit, dark skin removed; less pungent
Green- dried unripe peppercorns; bright and fresh
Red- Ripe, dried red pepper.
Spiciness due to piperine
Storage: whole peppercorns stored in airtight containers can retain their taste and aroma for years.1


Paprika

Mild, sweet, red powder made from any type of capsicum annum.
Mostly used for its vibrant red color
Hungarian varieties may be more pungent than international ones.
Produced mainly in Spain, Turkey, and Hungary


Cumin  

Distinctive pungent, earthy, and warm notes
Seeds may be used whole or ground
Native to the region extending from eastern Mediterranean to India
Member of the parsley family
Popular in Middle Eastern, North African, Mexican, south Asian, Indian, and western cuisines.
Possesses antimicrobial and antioxidant properties along with other favorable medicinal properties.1
Good source of iron and manganese.


Coriander

Bright citrus, and nutty flavor with warm notes
Term coriander refers to the dried fruit (i.e. seeds) and cilantro refers to the herb.
Common in North African, Middle Eastern, Indian, and southeast Asians cuisines.
Also used to flavor spirits and liquors (such as Gin).
Characteristic scent and flavor mainly imparted by linalool and pinene.
Shows antioxidant activity1, as well as carminative and diuretic properties3.


Nutmeg & Mace

NutmegIntense nutty aroma with slightly clove-like and piney overtones.
Nutmeg is the seed, while mace is the dried, red covering of the seed. Native to Spice Islands of Indonesia.
Nutmeg tends to be slightly sweeter than mace, which tends to be somewhat bitter.
Used to flavor pastries, desserts, breads; vegetables (mainly potatoes in European cuisine); enhances savory products (cheese fondues, stews, garam masala, middle eastern rice)
Storage: looses its flavor easily when ground; suggested to store whole and grate just before cooking or baking.



Cloves

Warm, strong, and rich flavor
Clove is an aromatic dried flower bud, used whole or ground.
Common in Indian, Middle Eastern, and Mexican spice mixes.
Has analgesic and antiseptic properties.
Used in both medical (i.e. dentistry) and religious practices (i.e. incense).
Eugenol is responsible for the aroma of cloves; cinnamon and nutmeg also contain this compound.


Cinnamon

Delicate and spicy aroma
Inner bark of a tree native to southeast Asia.
Cassia, a close relative, is often sold under the name ‘cinnamon,’ it has a harsher taste and hard woody texture.
Real cinnamon (Ceylon cinnamon) is composed of many thin layers that yield a crumbly texture, making it easy to grind.
Popular in Mexican, Middle Eastern, Persian, Indian, Asian, and American cuisine.


Cardamom

Bright, intense aromatic with camphor and mint undertones
Green: Intense herbaceous fragrance
Black: strong camphor flavor with distinctive smoky notes
Part of the ginger family
Used alike in sweet and savory recipes in India, Pakistan, Middle East, South Asian, and Nordic countries.
Think Turkish or Arabic coffee; Indian & Pakistani rice dishes
Storage: retains is aroma and flavor better when stored whole.
Third most expensive spice in the world.


Ginger

gingerHot, fragrant, and strong spice
Is the rhizome (rootstock) of a plant
The flavor of fresh ginger is more potent and slightly different than the powdered kind.
Popular in Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Southeast Asian cuisine
It has been show to have carminative, stimulant, antibacterial, and antipyretic properties.Also used for stomach and throat ailments. Storage: fresh ginger can be stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator or frozen.

Turmeric (curcuma)

Earthy, mild, slightly bitter, and deep orange-yellow color
It is a rootstock of a plant that is a member of the ginger family.
The powder form is largely used for its intense color, but it can also be used fresh.
Used in Indian, Southeast Asian, Persian, and Middle Eastern cuisines.
There is extensive ongoing medical research on the positive biological effects of turmeric and its components; possible anticarcinogenic properties.1
Storage: see Ginger


Fennel seed

Aromatic, anise-flavored dried fruit (seed) of the fennel plant.
All parts of the fennel plant (bulb, leaves, pollen and fruit) can be used for cooking; however, only the dried fruit and the pollen are considered spices.
Anethole is responsible for the anise taste in fennel; star anise and aniseed contain it in higher percentage.
Popular in Italian and European sausages and bread, it is also used in Asian and some Middle Eastern countries.
Has carminative and digestive properties.
One of the three main herbal ingredients in absinthe.


Saffron

Crimson colored stigma of a flower with sweet, metallic, hay-like, and slightly bitter notes.
Imparts a beautiful golden-yellow hue to food
Employed in European, Asian, Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Asian cuisines.
In research studies saffron has shown certain antioxidant, antimicrobial, and anticarcinogenic activity.5
Most expensive spice due to its labor-intensive production.


Vanilla

vanillaIntense, fragrant & floral
Dried fruit of vanilla orchid
Found as pod, extract, essence or powder.
Native to Mexico and Central America
Most of the vanilla consumed is produced in Madagascar (Bourbon vanilla) and neighboring islands.
Vanillin is the compound responsible for the characteristic vanilla flavor and smell. Synthetic vanillin is used as a flavoring agent; this agent normally lacks the complexity and richness of pure vanilla extract.
Second most expensive spice in the world.

The term spice generally refers to a dried seed, bark, root, or fruit used to flavor, color or preserve food.  It can be used to either highlight or mask/hide certain flavors and aromas in food. Herb refers to the leaves or flowers of aromatic plants used for cooking. Herbs and spices also contain nutrients, antioxidant, and have antimicrobial, preservative and medicinal properties.3

Due to their delicacy, most herbs impart more aroma and flavor when fresh. However, the flavors of some herbs intensify when dried (eg. Oregano).  Here is a list of some of the most recurring herbs in my recipes.

Herbs & their Properties


Parsley

Fresh, fragrant, crisp and green.
Use fresh
Native to the Mediterranean central region.
Flat: more pungent; withstands cooking process
Curly: mostly used for garnish; more subtle flavor
Popular in European, Middle Eastern, and American cuisines.
Typical component of bouquet garni.
Contains high quantities of vitamin C, A, E; shown anticancer, diuretic, antioxidant and laxative properties.1


Cilantro (Chinese parsley)

CilantroFresh, bright citrus and fragrant
Use fresh
Native to southern Europe, North Africa and Southeast Asia.
Typically used raw, and added to food before serving to retain most of the flavor.
Widely used in Latin American, Middle Eastern, Asian, Mediterranean, Portuguese, American, African and Scandinavian cuisines.
Stronger antioxidant activity than coriander seeds.


Bay leaves (bay laurel)

Herbal with strong earthy notes; slightly bitter taste and resinous quality
Can be used fresh or dried; Full flavor when dried
Commonly used in European, Mediterranean, and North American cuisines.
Is also a component of bouquet garni.
It is recommended to remove the leaves after the cooking process is done since the whole leaves are hard to digest.
Eucalyptol is mainly responsible for its fragrance.
Possess a wide range of medicinal properties.1
Storage life: about 1 year.


Thyme

ThymeStrong earthy aroma, resinous; some varieties have citrus notes
Can be used fresh or dried; fresh tends to be more flavorful, but well retained when dried
Popular in Arabic, Persian, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, Greek, North African, and Mexican cuisines.
Typical ingredient in Za’atar, bouquet garni, and herbes de Provence.
Strong flavor, aroma, and antiseptic properties are imparted by thymol.
Shows high antimicrobial activity along with oregano.3


Basil

BasilFragrant, bright, sweet aromatic, mildly minty
Use fresh, and add near the end of the cooking process to retain flavor and aroma.
Part of the mint family. Over 40 culinary basil varieties, the most common are: Genoese basil, lemon basil, Thai basil.6
Widely used in Italian, Southern French, North and Southeast Asian food.
Basil contains a number of aromatic components that are found in different degrees according to the variety.
Ex. Opal basil, which tends to have clove like flavor, has higher quantities of eugenol (compound also found in cloves and nutmeg); Thai Basil has anethol, which imparts an anise flavor (also found in fennel, anise, and tarragon).


Dill

Fragrant aromatic, anise notes, and celery-like undertones
Use fresh preferably; its seed is used as a spice
Native to South-eastern Europe.3
Popular in Nordic, Balkan, Russian, and southeast Asian cuisines. Typical condiment for pickles, fish (gravlax), borscht, Balkan yogurt/cream.
Carvone is mainly responsible for its fragrance; this compound is also found in caraway seeds. Also contains apiol, which is found in both parsley and celery.
Exhibits carminative properties.3


Rosemary

Powerful aroma, woody notes, resinous; slightly bitter taste
Like thyme it can withstand heat and long cooking processes.
Native to the Mediterranean.3
Commonly used in Mediterranean and European cuisines.
Due to its astringency and pungency it pairs well with red meats, specially lamb.
Has shown antimicrobial and antioxidant activity; also, has high iron and calcium content.1 Some medical research suggests rosemary has positive effects on memory.7


Tarragon

TarragonElegant, fragrant anise aroma with licorice tones.
Use fresh; it is normally finely chopped and added at the end of the cooking process.
One of the fines herbes, along with chives, parsley, and chervil.
Popular in French cuisine. Commonly used in sauces and dressings with fish, shellfish, salads, stuffings and eggs.
Contains estragole; which is also found in anise, basil and fennel.


Sage

Earthy, delicate peppery notes; slightly resinous
Native to northern Mediterranean.
Common in Balkan, Middle Eastern, Italian, British, and American cuisines.
Used for stuffings, meats, and tisanes.
Contains eucalyptol, an effective compound in the treatment of respiratory ailments; also found in rosemary, bay leaves, and basil.
Has shown antioxidant activity along with rosemary.1,3
Ongoing research for its memory enhancing properties.8


Oregano

Warm and earthy aromatic; minty or licorice notes depending on the variety.
Use dried; unlike most herbs, it becomes more flavorful when dry.
Part of the mint family.
Popular in Greek, Turkish, Syrian, Portuguese, Spanish, Mexican, Italian-American, and southern-Italian cuisines.
Has shown antimicrobial, antiseptic, antispasmoic, and carminative properties.3
Contains both carvacrol and thymol, which are also present in thyme. These are mainly responsible for its antimicrobial and antiseptic activity, respectively.
NB. Marjoram is an extremely close relative of oregano, sometimes referred to as Mexican or wild oregano. It tends to have more licorice-y notes.


Mint

Fresh, sweet aromatic; cool aftertaste
Use fresh
Common in Middle eastern, North African, Latin American, British, Indian, and Pakistani cuisines.
Used for both sweet and savory dishes; due to its cooling effect it is commonly consumed with spicy food.
The high percentage of menthol present in mint is mainly responsible for its flavor and carminative, antispasmodic, and slightly analgesic effects.


Epazote

Pungent herbaceous aroma; earthy, resinous and warm notes
Use fresh for intense and rich flavor
Native to Mexico and Central America
Popular in Mexican and Guatemalan cuisines.
Typically used for black beans, quesadillas, soups, tamales and to flavor huitlacoche (a mushroom that grows on corn).
Possesses carminative and antispasmodic properties along with calcium, iron, phosphorus, and Vitamin A and C.9


Chives

Bright, delicate onion and/or garlic notes, depending on the variety
Preferably used fresh; add at the end of the cooking process.
Two main varieties: regular onion chives and Chinese chives; the latter tend to have a bolder garlicky flavor, often referred to as garlic chives.
Common in French, Nordic, and Asian cuisines
As a fine herbe, it pairs beautifully with eggs, shellfish, fish, potatoes, white or soy-based sauces, salads and soups.
Contain sulfur compounds responsible for its onion and garlicky flavor.
Rich in potassium and vitamins A and C.9

Hope this was helpful and informative!

Thanks for reading!

References
1. Parthasarathy, V.A.; Chempakam, Bhageerathy; Zachariah, T. John. Chemistry of spices. London: Oxford University Press, 2008.
2. Schab, Frank R.; Crowder, Robert G. Memory of odors. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1995.
3. Peter, K.V. Handbook of herbs and spices: Volume 1 & 2. Cambridge: Woodhead Publishing Ltd, 2004.
4. Ravindran, P.N.;  Babu, K. Nirmal. Ginger: the genus zingiber. Florida: CRC Press, 2005.
5. Negbi, Moshe. Saffron: Crocus sativus. Hardwood Academic Publishers, 2005
6. Evans, Kellie. “Many shades of green.” Saveur No. 140 Aug/Sept 2011: 81.
7. Mark Moss, Jenny Cook, Keith Wesnes, Paul Duckett (2003). Aromas of rosemary and lavender essential oils differentially affect cognition and mood in healthy adults. International Journal of Neuroscience 113 (1): 15–38.
8. Akhondzadeh S, Noroozian M, Mohammadi M, Ohadinia S, Jamshidi AH, Khani M. (2003). Salvia officinalis extract in the treatment of patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease: a double blind, randomized and placebo-controlled trial. Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics 28 (1): 53–9.
9. Raghvan, Susheela. Handbook of spices, seasonings, and flavorings. 2nd Ed. Boca Raton: CRC Press, Taylor and Francis Group, 2007.
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