I have always loved cooking, but I have also made my fair share of mistakes when it comes to seasoning. Pairing herbs or spices with the wrong meat or vegetable is a travesty!! Especially when my rule is, no wasting. If I screw it up, I still have to eat it. By now, I have gotten the swing of it, but some of you, like I once was, are stymied when it comes to anything past salt and pepper. But there's no need to stay confused, or intimidated. With the help of SUITE101.COM, the information below can help you to get it right the first time!
THE MINT FAMILY
Mint has a “spicy sweet menthol flavor”. Peppermint is the predominant flavor for candy and sweets, but is best used as an oil or extract. Spearmint is a more versatile culinary herb, and is classically paired with lamb, peas, and all manners of desserts, not to mention tea. Try it also with black beans, eggplant, lentils, and tomato based dishes.
Rosemary has a “piney flavor with hints of lemon”.It is used with lamb, pork, and beef. Try it also with mushrooms, potatoes, salmon, and beans. Rosemary is one herb that dries well, so use it during the winter.
Marjoram and Oregano are actually almost the same herb; oregano is wild marjoram. They are interchangeable although some chefs believe that marjoram is like oregano with a bit of basil taste. Classically used in tomatoes and pizza, try either with fish, potatoes, and summer squash. Choose Turkish oregano over Mexican unless making actual Mexican recipes.
Savory is not as widely known here as in Europe, it is a “cross between thyme and mint”. It’s most often cooked with beans, esp. bean soup, but use it also on grilled chicken.
Sage is somewhat bitter and has a “musty-mint” flavor. It is used especially with pork and other meats or in stuffings. Try it with tomatoes, grilled tuna or other oily fish, and grilled poultry. The leaves are especially good for decoration and can be fried. Like rosemary, sage dries well so it is a good cold weather flavoring.
Thyme is one of the most basic herbs, having a “pungent, minty, light lemon aroma with a hint of clove”. It is essential in French cooking as a member of the bouquet garni that flavors stocks and soups. It is used with all meats, but think about using it with Mediterranean foods. Use it with figs and goat cheese and try to find wild thyme honey. Thyme is a hardy perennial and like sage and rosemary dries well.
Basil is a “cross between licorice and cloves”. A lot of different basils are now available at nurseries, but they’re interchangeable in recipes. Basil is extremely versatile. Besides being almost married to tomatoes, it goes especially well with cheese, poultry, eggs, fish, in salads and combined with all manners of vegetables.
THE CARROT FAMILY
Parsley has a slightly peppery flavor. You can buy it in a curly form, which is best used for garnish, or as “Italian parsley” i.e. flat leafed, which has the better culinary flavor. Try it with chicken, eggs, fish, pasta, potatoes, rice, and vegetables. Some restaurants also put out parsley sprigs for people to eat to freshen their breath after consuming garlic.
Chervil has a slight licorice flavor. Part of the French “fines herbes” combination, it is used with carrots, eggs, fish, and salads. Consider chervil to be a substitute for parsley.
Coriander/Cilantro/Chinese Parsley - the same plant has a number of aliases. The leaves are sold as Cilantro or as Chinese Parsley; the seeds are sold as Coriander. This is a very pungent herb that people seem to love or hate. Those who dislike it find it soapy; others find it tastes somewhat like anise. It is very popular in Mexican and Thai cuisine; it would be hard to have good salsa or guacamole without cilantro. Use cilantro also with chicken, fish, and root vegetables. Try combining coriander with pork and lentils or other dried beans. Add coriander to any dish that has ginger.
Cumin, on a worldwide basis, is the second most popular spice behind pepper. It is very compatible with hot chilies – you would recognize cumin’s flavor in any prepared Chile dish. Try it also in bean soups, chicken, lamb, pork stews and sausages.
Fennel or Anise has a strong licorice flavor – fresh fennel is sometimes sold in stores as “anise”. This versatile plant is used in three ways. The bulb of the fennel plant is excellent cut in chunks and braised or served raw in a salad – pair it with apples. The feathery green tops are chopped and used as herbs in seafood, sausages, and salads. The seeds are ground and used to flavor sausages, tomato sauce, and on pork.
Dill leaves are used as an herb; the seeds as a spice. Some people like dill’s tang, others really dislike it. The seeds are classically paired with cucumbers to make dill pickles. The leaves are most commonly used with salmon and other fish, see the recipe for gravlax in Section 8. If you like dill, it goes well with cream based products - mix it in sour cream to serve on your next potato.
Caraway seeds are classically used for rye bread but also in cabbage, sauerkraut and sausages. Try them with soft cheese or with root vegetables.
OTHER HERBS AND SPICES
Bay Leaf or Laurel Leaf is pungent and piney, and, unlike most fresh herbs, can be cooked for a long time in a sauce. Bay leaf is sourced from either California or Turkey – use the Turkish for the best and less strident flavor. Bay leaf is a crucial part of the bouquet garni used in stocks, soups, or stews. Try a little in rice or grain dishes. Bay leaf dries well and makes a great kitchen gift wreath in December.
Chives have a mild onion flavor. Besides being a great garnish, they add a little zip to salads, especially in the vinaigrette. Use them where you would use onions, but add them at the last minute to get their full flavor. They freeze dry well, but need to be rehydrated.
Tarragon has a predominant licorice flavor. If you like that flavor, you’ll add tarragon to numerous dishes. Tarragon is especially compatible with chicken and white meats as well as most vegetables. Throw some in a salad. If you have a choice, buy French tarragon.
Juniper Berries give gin its flavor. If you like gin, you’ll like juniper berries. The berries are also classically used with game, such as venison and rabbit. Juniper’s flavor is very strong; try a few berries with lamb, beef, or in cabbage dishes.
Mustard comes in either a powder form or as seeds. It is very hot; the temperature of prepared mustard is determined by dilution. Besides providing the base for the condiment, the powder can be added to vinaigrette or in crab cakes. The seeds are usually used for pickling or in sausages. Try them in barbecue sauce.
Saffron is the stigma of the crocus flower, i.e. a little thread found in the flower. It is the most expensive spice in the world, as each little stigma has to be plucked by hand. However, a little goes a long way, so the expense can be moderated. Saffron’s taste is somewhat medicinal. Buy saffron only from a specialist and never as a powder, only as threads. A lot of saffron sold is adulterated, often with turmeric. Saffron is an essential ingredient in risotto, bouillabaisse, and paella. Use saffron with any fish or rice dish; it is also good with lamb.
Turmeric is a spice that is valued mostly as a great dye – it turns anything yellow. It is often combined with saffron to exaggerate the yellow color. It is also used in curries, chicken or even bread.
Garlic almost always should be used fresh. However, while the minced garlic in jars has little resemblance to the real thing, Penzeys and others spice purveyors will sell dried, granulated garlic, which can be used in an emergency. It needs to be rehydrated.
Horseradish is a rhizome, and can now be found fresh in produce sections. You grate it like fresh ginger; it is very hot. Besides combining with sour cream to make the classic sauce served with roast beef, mix it with any other sauce made with cream – sour cream, crème fraiche, or yogurt.
Cardamom is native to India; it comes in a both a green and black variety. Cardomom is technically a pod; however, the flavor is in the seeds. Try to buy the seeds alone, and grind them as needed. Cardamom is used here mostly for baking, but is used widely in Asia in numerous meats and vegetables.
PEPPER AND CHILE
Pepper deserves almost an entire course in itself – given both its historical significance and it predominance in cooking. For a more involved discussion, see Demystifying Salt and Pepper.
Black and White Pepper is now available from several sources. Penzeys sells seven different peppercorns from various sources in Asia– the one I like is Tellicherry. To make white pepper, the berries are allowed to ripen further, and then the black covering is stripped. White pepper has less heat than black pepper. White pepper is usually used when black specks are undesirable in, for example, a cream sauce. For fun with pepper, try a little on strawberries.
Cayenne is a powder made from a very hot pepper. If you like heat in your food, substitute cayenne when a recipe calls for paprika. Also sprinkle some on fresh corn or on potatoes before roasting.
Paprika by contrast is a powder made from a very mild pepper. While it has traditionally been used either for decoration, e.g. sprinkled on devilled eggs, or in Eastern European dishes such as goulash, good quality paprika has a nice roasty flavor. Try it on rice and potatoes.
Other Dried Chili Peppers come in a large variety and you should choose which one you want based on desired heat. All dried chiles need to be rehydrated. The spice sold as “crushed red peppers” is quite hot, and often used on pizza or pasta. For something different, make them into an oil; we’ll discuss how later. Chiles are also remarkably sympathetic to fruits, especially citrus. Try a sliced orange salad sprinkled with chives and chile.
CLASSIC BAKING SPICES
The group below includes spices usually associated with desserts; but I add some suggestions for savory uses.
Vanilla is an essential dessert spice, and can be bought in a variety of ways – extracts, imitations, or as beans. If you make a lot of desserts, it is worthwhile to understand these varieties, so you can choose correctly. I always keep both real vanilla extract and vanilla beans on hand. There is a substantial difference between real and artificial vanilla, and the real is worth the extra price. The seeds in the vanilla bean add great flavor to flan, ice cream, and milk drinks. The used vanilla beans can be put into a container of sugar to make a great tasting vanilla sugar. Vanilla can add mystery to fish dishes.For a complete discussion of vanilla, see Vanilla–Worth Its New Price?.
Cinnamon is actually mislabeled and two separate spices use the name. The type with which we are familiar is actually cassia, and comes from several countries in SE Asia. Ceylon or true cinnamon is much less sweet and rarely found here. Cinnamon also comes in a variety of grades. It’s worth checking out Grade A cinnamon from the spice purveyors vs. the Grade B cinnamon sold in grocery stores.
Cloves are used whole for sticking into roast hams or to flavor stock, while ground cloves are found in baked goods. Cloves are also compatible with beef – add a little to the next gravy you’re making or throw some in the next beef marinade.
Nutmeg/Mace. Nutmeg is the seed kernel of a fruit grown on the nutmeg tree; mace is the covering of that kernel. Mace is subtler, but you can use the two interchangeably. Try not to buy ground nutmeg as it ages fast. It is very easy to grate whole nutmegs on any kind of grater, or you can buy a special nutmeg grinder – useful if you make a lot of eggnogs at holiday times. To experiment, use nutmeg in barbecue sauces or try it on a variety of vegetables like spinach and carrots.
Allspice adds a touch of sweetness to desserts. Like nutmeg, freshly ground allspice is much more flavorful than bottled ground. Besides baking, it can be used on a surprising variety of foods such as beef, onions, squash and carrots.
Sesame seeds/aka Benne Seeds come in both black and white varieties. The black variety is favored in Asia. Given their high oil content, they particularly benefit from toasting. For an incomparable dish, coat a sushi grade tuna fillet with a little sesame oil, add a little salt, roll it in black sesame seeds, sear it and serve while still raw in the center. If you’re not quite that experimental, use sesame seeds on noodles or on eggplant.
Poppy seeds come in both blue and white varieties – the blue is sweeter and used in desserts while Indians prefer to use the white in their cooking. Add poppy seeds to salad dressings, especially if the dressing is to be used on fruit salads.
Ginger, especially grated freshly, has historically been used far more widely in Asia than we have used it here. However, as Asian cuisine has become more popular, ginger is now widely used outside of baking. Teriyaki marinade would be dull without it. Try it on tomatoes, onions, ham, or in chicken soup.
FOR MORE ON seasoning food, see these links at SUITE 101.com Lesson 3: Oils, Vinegars, & Other Seasonings Lesson 4: Rubs, Brines, Marinades & Classic Combos Lesson 5: Vinaigrettes & Salads Lesson 6: Breads Lesson 7: Beverages Lesson 8: Garnishing, Special Dishes, & Herbal Desserts