How to use herbs and spices

Mar 2, 2018 | Cooking Tips

Knowing how to flavour foods with herbs and spices is an important skill to develop. There are so many varieties of seasonings out there that it can seem daunting. I can’t tell you every herb and spice combination, or every herb and spice that should go with every ingredient. What I can do is give you a kind of breakdown how to use spices, and fresh herbs and dry herbs to make the most flavourful food you can.

Knowing when to add ingredients is just as important as knowing what to add. Adding fresh herbs to a dish too early will destroy their flavour. Adding dry herbs to late, you won’t rehydrate them enough to draw the flavour out of them. There are exceptions to every rule, so I can’t give absolutes. I can however, give you a basic guideline of when and how you should add fresh or dried herbs, and spices to your dish.

First of all, let’s talk about the difference between soft and hard herbs. Hard herbs like rosemary, thyme, and oregano (herbs with a woody stem), can withstand a longer cooking time than soft herbs. Soft herbs are leafy green herbs like parsley, cilantro, and sage. The flavour of soft herbs is lost quickly when exposed to high heat for an extended period of time. Because of this, hard herbs may be add to a dish earlier in the cooking process than soft herbs. In fact, soft herbs are generally added to a dish after the cooking has been completed to add a fresh bright flavour. Hard herbs may be added to a dish relatively early in the cooking process, especially if the dish is being cooked on a low heat for a long period of time like a stew or braised meat.

Dried herbs, generally need a longer cooking time than fresh herbs and so are usually added to a dish in the first stages of cooking. This is because the herbs need to rehydrate fully before their flavour is released. Dry herbs have their own unique flavour which is sometimes desirable. People will often sprinkle dry oregano or basil over pasta or pizza.  Dry herbs can be added later in the cooking process, but if you want a flavour closer to that of the fresh herbs, you will need to add them early.

Spices like cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and ground chilies should be added very early in the cooking process. They are their most flavourful when they are cooked in a bit of oil over a moderate heat. This would generally be done just prior to adding a liquid to a dish. For example, if I were making a chili, or curry, I would saute some onion, garlic, and likely ginger prior to adding any liquid ingredients like tomatoes. A minute or two before adding an any liquid ingredients I would add my spices. It is important that there be a generous amount of oil in your pan when you do this as your spices will burn quickly otherwise. Cook the spices with the onions and whatever else until you can really smell the spices, that’s how you know they have opened up and begun to release their oils. Now, add any liquid ingredients and continue your cooking.

The essential oils in spices, just like with herbs, are volatile. This means that if you cook them for too long they will lose their flavour. It is a myth that you should simmer chili for hours and hours. An hour is good two hours is pretty much the max, after that you are cooking flavour out rather than in.

Knowing what herbs and spices to use takes time and experience. I can’t give you a full guide of what goes with what. It’s just not practical. However, I call tell you to Toucan Sam it. Ie. follow your nose. Your sense of smell and your sense of taste are very closely related. Because of this relationship it is generally true that things that smell good together will taste good together. Smell, and taste as much as you can. Other than that, the only way to really gain an solid understanding of how flavours interact is through experience. You need to cook, and you need to cook things that are outside your usual comfort zone. You will use herbs, spices, and techniques you never knew about, and you will create new flavours you never dreamed about. Cooking is an experiential process. So, go experience.



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