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Publication #FSHN13-03

Shopping for Health: Herbs and Spices1

Jenna A. Norris and Wendy Dahl2

Herbs and spices have been used for hundreds of years in cooking and medicine (Stephens 2010). They add a wide range of flavors to food and may also provide health benefits. For some people, using herbs and spices in cooking may be a challenge, but it doesn't have to be that way! The information below will get you on track to enjoying zesty, flavorful, healthy cooking.

Figure 1. 

What's the difference between herbs and spices?

People often wonder what the difference is between an herb and a spice. It simply depends on the part of the plant that is used. Herbs come from the leaves of plants that do not have woody stems and grow close to the ground in mild climates. Spices are native to warm, tropical climates and are obtained from roots, flowers, fruits, seeds, or bark. Spices tend to have a stronger and more potent flavor than herbs, so they are used in smaller amounts (Spicer 2003). Herbs and spices are commonly referred to as "seasonings" when they are used together.

Do herbs and spices have health benefits?

Perhaps the greatest health benefit of using herbs and spices is that they serve as flavorful alternatives to salt, fat, and sugar without adding any extra calories to meals. Instead of adding sugar to oatmeal, sweet potatoes, and desserts, try adding spices like cinnamon and allspice. For savory meals, replace salt with spices like black pepper, cumin, and dill seed. Try flavoring foods with herbs and spices instead of using breading, gravies, and sauces. Seasoning meats with herbs and spices and cooking them on the grill are healthy alternatives to frying and easy, flavorful ways to reduce fat intake. Adopting changes like these can help reduce sodium, fat, and sugar in your diet (Stephens 2010).

Choosing herbs and spices

Certain seasonings pair better with some foods than with others. Tables 1 and 2 list a few common herbs and spices. There are many more you can try, so be brave and experiment with your own combinations!

Should I use fresh or dried herbs?

The choice is completely up to you. Fresh herbs are not equal to dry in terms of the amounts that should be added to foods. A tablespoon of finely cut, fresh herb is equal to about 1 teaspoon of dried herb or ¼–½ teaspoon of ground, dried herb (Stephens 2010). In addition, fresh and dried herbs must be stored differently to ensure freshness. The tips below will help to ensure that seasonings stay fresh long after they are purchased.

Fresh

When choosing fresh herbs, avoid ones with brown or wilted leaves. Basil, cilantro, dill, oregano, parsley, thyme, and many more should be stored in the refrigerator between 32˚F and 41˚F. You can expect them to stay fresh for 2–3 weeks, although some of the flavor and aroma will be lost after the first week (Cantwell and Reid 2001). For short-term use (within a week), herbs can be refrigerated in a glass with some water in it and covered with a plastic bag.

Frozen

To preserve herbs for an extended period of time, you can freeze them. To do this properly, place them on a cookie sheet and then transfer to the freezer. Once the herbs are frozen, package them in airtight containers and store in the freezer. Frozen herbs are limp when thawed, so it is best to use them in cooked dishes (Stephens 2010).

Dried

Dried herbs and spices never actually spoil, but their flavor and aroma fade over time. They should be stored in a cool, dry place in tight containers and away from heat. When cooking, keep the container away from steaming pots to avoid exposure to moisture (Stephens 2010). Herbs that come in large flakes, such as parsley, basil, and oregano, remain fresh for 1–3 years. Ground spices, such as paprika, cinnamon, and nutmeg, can be kept for 2–3 years. Cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, and any other whole spice can be used for up to 5 years (Dermody 2004).

Cooking with herbs and spices

Delicate herbs, such as basil or chives, should be added just before serving because their flavor can be lost during the cooking process. Seasonings that are less delicate, such as oregano and thyme, can be added early in the process. Because the flavor of red pepper gets stronger as it is cooked, cayenne pepper should be added in small amounts (about ⅛ teaspoon) to begin with, then increased as needed. Always use small amounts to start with when adding herbs and spices. For 1 pound of meat or 2 cups of a soup or sauce, use ¼ teaspoon of dried ground herbs and add more if desired (Stephens 2010). When adding herbs and spices to foods that are served cold, it is important to refrigerate the food for a few hours to ensure that the flavors of the seasoning are well absorbed (Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center 2001).

Summary

Using herbs and spices is a great way to reduce sodium, sugar, and fat in your diet while adding bold new flavors. It's a good idea to plan your meals before going to the grocery store so that you know which herbs and spices you will need. Use the advice above to keep seasonings fresh and flavorful. The examples listed above are just a snapshot of possible uses, so be creative! Follow these tips, and you will spice up your cooking in no time.

References

Cantwell, M., and M. Reid. 2001. "Herbs (Fresh Culinary): Recommendations for Maintaining Postharvest Quality." UC Davis Postharvest Technology. http://postharvest.ucdavis.edu/pfvegetable/Herbs/.

CNN Interactive. 1998. "Herbs and Spices." http://www.cnn.com/HEALTH/indepth.food/herbs/chart.html.

Dermody, C. 2004. "The Shelf Life of Spices." Reader's Digest. http://www.rd.com/food/spice-shelf-life/.

Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. 2001. "Herbs and Spices." http://www.hopkinsbayview.org/nutrition/patienteducation/healthydirections/herbs.html.

Spicer, F. 2003. "Herbs vs. Spices." Iowa State University Horticulture & Home Pest News. IC-489 (21). http://www.ipm.iastate.edu/ipm/hortnews/2003/8-22-2003/herbsnspices.html.

Stephens, J. 2010. "Seasoning with Herbs and Spices." K-State Research and Extension. http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/bookstore/Item.aspx?catId=390&pubId=12759.

Tables

Table 1. 

Common herbs

Name

Source

Flavor

Best used

Pair with

Basil (sweet)

Leaves and stems of the basil plant

Pungent, somewhat sweet

Fresh

Eggs, fish, marinades, meat, salads, sauces, seafood dishes, stews, tomato dishes, and vegetables

Bay leaf

Leaves of the sweet bay tree

Mild

Dried

Add two or three leaves to gravies, sauces, soups, and stews (remove leaves before serving)

Chive

Leaves of the chive plant, a member of the onion family

Sharp, onion/garlic flavor

Fresh, or frozen if fresh is not available

Chicken, cream cheese, cream sauces, eggs, fish, lamb, mayonnaise, sour cream, and vegetable dishes

Cilantro

Leaves of the coriander plant

Spicy, sweet or hot

Fresh

Salsas, guacamole, and salads

Dill

Leaves and seeds of the dill plant

Mild, somewhat sour

Leaves are best fresh; seeds are used whole

Breads, cream cheese, cottage cheese, chowders, dips, meat, potato salads, rice dishes, soups, stews, and vegetables

Fennel

Leaves and stems of the fennel plant

Like anise, but sweeter and lighter

Raw or cooked

Fish, Italian sausage, seafood sauces, soup, spaghetti sauces, stews, and sweet potatoes

Oregano

Leaves of the oregano plant

Warm and bitter

Fresh or dried

Eggs, fish, green salads, Italian dishes, meats, Mexican dishes, mushroom dishes, omelets, poultry, sauces, soups, spaghetti, spreads, tomato sauces, and vegetables

Parsley

Leaves of the parsley plant

Mildly peppery

Fresh; dried is a poor substitute

Dips, dressings, garnishes, herb spreads, omelets, potato dishes, sauces, soups, and vegetables

Rosemary

Leaves of the rosemary plant

Very aromatic, slightly lemony and piney

Fresh or dried

Fish dishes, herb breads, marinades, potato dishes, sauces, soups, and vegetables

Sage

Leaves of the sage plant

Musty, slightly bitter

Fresh or dried

Cheese dishes, chowders, omelets, pork, poultry, and rice dishes

Tarragon

Leaves of the French tarragon plant

Anise-like

Fresh or frozen

Chicken, fish, salads, salad dressings, sauces, shellfish, soups, and vegetables

Thyme

Leaves of the thyme plant

Minty, lemony

Fresh or dried

Cheese, fish, salad dressings, shellfish, soups, stews, stuffing, tomato sauces, and vegetables

(Source: CNN Interactive 1998; Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center 2001)

Table 2. 

Common spices

Name

Source

Flavor

Best used

Pair with

Anise

Seeds of the anise plant

Sweet, similar to licorice

Dried seeds

Apple pie, cakes, coleslaw, cookies, cottage cheese, fruit dishes, salad dressing, and spicy meat mixtures

Capers

Unopened flower buds from the caper bush

Pungent

Pickled in liquid brine

Beef gravies, deli sandwiches, eggplant dishes, salads, sauces, and tomato dishes

Caraway

Seeds of the caraway plant

Sweet, nutty

Whole

Baked goods, cabbage, carrots, cheeses, coleslaw, cucumber salads, green beans, pickles, potatoes, and sausage

Cardamom

Seeds from the cardamom tree, a member of the ginger family

Slightly sweet and also spicy

Whole or ground

Breads, cakes, cookies, curries, custards, punches, and rice

Cayenne

Ground dried fruit or seeds of the cayenne pepper plant

Fiery hot

Dried and ground, or fresh and finely chopped

Curries, meats, Mexican dishes, sauces, and stews

Celery seed

Seeds of the celery plant

Strong, pungent celery flavor

Dried whole seed

Breads, coleslaw, egg salads, potato salads, and tuna salads

Cinnamon

Dried bark of the cinnamon tree

Pungently sweet

Dried sticks or ground powder

Breads, cakes, chicken, coffee, cookies, pork, spiced beverages, sweet potatoes, squash, tea, yogurt (often paired with allspice, cloves, and nutmeg)

Clove

Dried flower buds of the clover tree

Sweet or bittersweet

Dried and ground

Baked goods, beets, chili sauces, cookies, curries, fruit sauces/syrups, gingerbread, squash, and tomato sauces

Coriander

Seeds of the coriander plant

Spicy, sweet, or hot

Ground or whole

Baked goods, beverages, candies, curries, dairy desserts, meats, and relishes

Cumin

Seeds of the cumin plant

Peppery

Whole or ground

Chili powders, curries, meats, stews, tofu, and vegetable dishes

Garlic

Bulbs of the garlic plant, a member of the onion family

Pungent, onion-like, mildly hot

Fresh, or granulated if fresh is not available

Breads, fish, Italian dishes, meat, soups, stews, and tomato sauce

Ginger

Roots of the ginger plant

Mix of pepper and sweetness

Dried powder or freshly grated from root

Beets, beverages, breads, cakes, cheese dishes, chutneys, cookies, curries, dipping sauce, dressings, meat, poultry, soups, stews, and yellow vegetables

Mace

Outer covering of the nutmeg seed

Similar to nutmeg, but stronger

Dried or ground

Baked goods, pickles, and stews

Mustard

Seeds of the mustard plant

Hot and tangy

Powdered or whole seeds

Dips, cheese dishes, eggs, fish, pickling spice, salad dressings, sauces, spreads, tofu, and vegetables

Nutmeg

Seeds of the nutmeg tree

Warm, spicy, sweet

Freshly ground

Applesauce, baked goods, beverages, cheese dishes, cream dishes, desserts, ground meats, pies, sauces, soups, stews, and many vegetables

Paprika

Fruit of a sweet pepper plant

Sweet to hot, somewhat bitter

Dried and ground

Eggs, cheese, Hungarian goulash, pasta, potatoes, and sauces

Saffron

Dried stigmas and upper styles of the saffron crocus plant

Pungent, aromatic

Dried and ground

Use small amounts crushed in breads, cakes, fish, poultry, and rice dishes

Turmeric

Root of the turmeric plant, a tropical plant related to ginger

Pungent, somewhat bitter

Dried or ground

Curry powders, egg dishes, Indian dishes, rice dishes, and salad dressings

(Source: CNN Interactive 1998; Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center 2001)

Footnotes

1.

This document is FSHN13-03, one of a series of the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Original publication date April 2013. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

Jenna A. Norris and Wendy Dahl, assistant professor, Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Gainesville, FL 32611.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.