How Do I Use Herbs and Spices in My Cooking? Lisa Responds…

By Lisa Shanken | Blog

Dear Lisa,

I just got a spice rack for Easter and I haven’t got a clue what to do with it. I use ‘ Italian’ seasoning for pasta, and I pepper my steaks. That’s about it. Help!

Yours truly,

Hi Waldo,

I was really intrigued by your e-mail so I decided to answer it in a blog post. You didn’t say where you were from – so I guess you’re inviting me to play a game of ‘Where’s Waldo?’ but I’ll assume you’re from a location where you have access to a green grocer or farmer’s market. You won’t be able to live without them once you master the fine art of herb-driven flavor. Without much ado, welcome to the wonderful world of gourmet cooking with herbs!

Fresh Herbs vs. Dried Herbs

Nothing beats fresh herbs if you have access to them, but a spice rack can be a great choice for the busy suburbanite. Fresh herbs should have a strong aroma when crumbled or torn, and have a beautiful strong color, not black, too dry or wilting. Dried herbs should be from a reliable provider. Some herbs even show their best side when dried, such as bay leaf, thyme or rosemary. In these cases, the drying process improves the herbs’ flavor.

When to Add Herbs

Regardless of what you use, almost all herbs should be added near the end of cooking, unless you’re trying to flavor oil, or are making a stock. For example, if you’re making authentic Italian pasta, you might want to cook the chili flakes along with the garlic at the beginning of the process. However, basil should always be added near the end of cooking time.

Herbs & Spices: When dried, use less.

Rule of Thumb: When Dried, Use Less

When using dried herbs, always use only a third of the amount you would’ve used had the herbs been fresh. Now, if you’re making a soup stock, and simmering for a long time, adding herbs to the soup early helps imbue the soup with that essential flavor. You really can’t go wrong as long as you add slowly and taste frequently. Let your nose be your guide.

Learn Instinctively

Another tip is to pay attention to food when you eat out – try to identify every herb used by taste or sight. For example, you might discover that salmon is almost always accompanied by dill. Another interesting fact is that authentic chili con carne is made with chocolate!



The Herb-Food Combination Guide

Below are some herb-food combinations that can’t be beat. However, try to focus on 1-3 different herbs per dish at a time, until you get comfortable with experimenting.

Beef - Bay leaf, cayenne, chili, curry, dill, ginger, mustard, paprika, marjoram, oregano, parsley, rosemary, thyme.

Pork  -  Allspice, basil, cardamom, cloves, curry, ginger, marjoram, mustard, oregano, paprika, parsley, rosemary, sage, savory,  thyme.

Lamb - Basil, cardamom, curry, dill, mace, marjoram, mint, oregano, paprika, rosemary, turmeric.

Poultry - Allspice, anise, bay leaf, cayenne, curry, dill, ginger, marjoram, mustard, nutmeg, paprika, parsley, pepper, sage, savory,  tarragon, thyme.

Fish - Allspice, anise, basil, bay leaf, cayenne, chives, curry, dill, fennel, ginger, marjoram, nutmeg, oregano, paprika, parsley, tarragon, thyme.

Fruit - Allspice, anise, cinnamon, cloves, curry, ginger, mace, mint, nutmeg, pepper.


Green Beans - Dill, marjoram, nutmeg, oregano.
Beets   -   Allspice, nutmeg.
Broccoli - Mustard, nutmeg, sage.
Carrots -   Dill, nutmeg, parsley, rosemary, thyme.
Cucumbers - Basil, dill, parsley.
Eggplant - Oregano, parsley.
Mushrooms - Garlic, sage.
Peas  -  Marjoram, mint.
Potatoes   -  Chives, cumin, dill, fennel, garlic, mace, parsley, rosemary, tarragon.
Squash   - Cardamom, ginger, nutmeg.
Tomato  -  Allspice, basil, cloves, cumin, fennel, marjoram, oregano, parsley.

Rice - Chives, cumin, curry, nutmeg, parsley, saffron, turmeric.

For more information, check out the BBC h2g2 guide on using herbs and spices:

Got the Thyme?
…if so, leave a comment below  I love hearing tips and suggestions from readers.