Pinch of Flavor How to Cook with Herbs and Spices

Add a pinch of this and a pinch of that. Used carefully, herbs and spices make many foods distinctive and "simply flavorful"!

Dry or fresh—which herbs should you use? Nothing beats the delicate flavor of fresh herbs. But they're not always available. And unless you have your own herb garden, fresh herbs can be expensive. Whether you use fresh or dry seasonings, use them carefully for their best flavor advantage:

  • Before using fresh herbs, wash them! Then pat them dry with paper towels.
  • If fresh herbs have woody stems, strip off the leaves before using them. Discard damaged leaves. If the stems are soft and pliable, use them, too. Stems often carry a lot of flavor and aroma.
  • To harvest herbs, pick them at their peak of flavor. That's just before they bloom. Remember: The flowers on many herb plants are very flavorful, too.
  • To release more flavor and aroma, crumble dry, leaf herbs—basil, oregano, savory, and tarragon, among others—between your fingers. Or use a mortar and pestle or coffee grinder. Finely chop fresh herbs.

Flavor Profile!

Would you combine tomato with basil, or with cinnamon, or with chile powder? The subtle blend of the two ingredients often defines the distinctive flavor of an ethnic cuisine . . . in this case, Italian, or Middle Eastern, or Mexican.

Many ethnic cuisines are defined partly by their mix of seasonings.

Italy

Tomato, olive oil, garlic, and basil

Mexico

Tomato and chile

West Africa

Tomato, peanut, and chile

Middle East

Lemon and parsley

Greece

Olive oil, lemon, and oregano

India

Curry, cumin, ginger, and garlic

Hungary

Onion and paprika

China

Soy sauce, rice wine, and ginger

Morocco

Cinnamon, cumin, coriander, ginger, and fruit

France

Thyme, rosemary, sage, marjoram, and tomato

  • In dishes that require a long cooking time, such as soups, stews, and braised dishes, add herbs toward the end of cooking. In that way their flavor won't cook out.
  • For chilled foods such as salads and dips, add seasonings several hours ahead so flavors blend.
  • When substituting fresh for dry herbs, figure: ! tablespoon of fresh herb equals ! teaspoon of dried herb. Dry herbs are stronger than fresh; powdered herbs are stronger than crumbled herbs.
  • Add dry herbs and spices to liquid ingredients. They need moisture to bring out their flavors.
  • Chop fresh herbs very fine. Kitchen shears are great for mincing and snipping. With more cut surfaces, more flavor and aroma are released.
  • Use seasonings with care—especially if you're not familiar with their flavor. They should enhance, not disguise, the aroma and taste of food. Start with !/4 teaspoon of dry herbs for ! pound of meat or ! pint of sauce. You can always add more herbs and spices, but you can't take them away!
  • Avoid overwhelming a dish with seasonings. A few simple herbs and spices bring out the flavor of food without confusing your taste buds.
  • If you're doubling a recipe, you may not need to double the herbs. Use just 50 percent more. If you triple the recipe, start by doubling the seasonings.
  • Toast dry spices in a dry nonstick skillet to enhance their flavor.
  • Use seasoning blends, including curry, fine herbes, and bouquet garni. Each one is really a blend of herbs—and maybe spices, too. Curry powder is a pulverized mixture of as many as twenty different spices, herbs, and seeds. The spice turmeric is the ingredient that makes curried dishes yellow. For a recipe to make your own curry, see "Kitchen Nutrition: Salt-Free
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