How to Use Herbs and Spices

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between an herb and a spice? Most people assume they belong together in one category and say “herbs and spices” without giving it another thought. This post- Using Herbs and Spices will teach the difference between the two and includes an easy-to-read, printable chart for reference!

What’s the difference between an herb and a spice?

First, let’s clarify what is an herb and what is a spice?
Herbs and spices are both derived from plants, and are used to flavor foods. The difference is what part of the plant is used.  An herb comes from the stems or leaves of a plant. Herbs can be used fresh, dried, whole or ground.  A spice, on the other hand, comes from the seed, roots or bark of a plant. It is usually dried and ground, although some seeds are used whole. 

Herbs and Spices

Both an Herb and a Spice

Some plants double as both herb and spice! Coriander is an example of a plant that provides both an herb and spice. The leaves of the coriander plant are an herb called cilantro, and used in Asian and Mexican dishes; while the coriander seed is a spice and used in many cuisines. Now you know! 

This Caprese Pasta Salad uses fresh basil and also dried Italian herbs listed on our chart

I’ve created a list of the most essential herbs and spices for your kitchen. This list is a simple reference if you’re learning to cook or if you’re purchasing a gift.

Essential Herbs and Spices and where to start?

Honestly, it is easy to think you need every herb and spice on the grocery store shelf! I have found the best way to purchase spices (once you have the basics) is to do a little menu planning and then buy as you go. Some spices will sit forever in your cabinet, with only a teaspoon used, and finally tossed years later.

Easy Lemon Chicken dinner includes tarragon, one of my favorite herbs to use with chicken!

Shelf life of spices

An often asked question is how long do spices stay good after opening? According to the authority in spices, McCormick, the shelf life depends on the type of spice or herb. Whole spices, such as peppercorns, allspice, cloves are good for 3-4 years. Salt has an indefinite shelf life!

Ground spices (cumin, cinnamon, ginger, paprika etc) are good to use for 2-4 years, and herbs in leaf form such as basil, oregano, parsley etc stay fresh for 1-3 years. Spices and herbs don’t necessarily spoil, but they will lose a substantial amount of their potency after a few years!

Spice Market in Dehli

I use up many of my herbs and spices before the expiration date simply because I cook. A lot! Occasionally, I find out-dated spices in my cabinet and toss them after 3 years have passed. For this reason, unless you cook for large groups or know you are going to use a pound of cinnamon in a two year period, I don’t recommend buying spices in bulk at warehouse stores. They are only a good deal if used within the time mentioned above!

Spicing up ground chicken or ground turkey

How to take a meal from blah to WOW. This recipe for Ground Turkey Enchiladas is one of my favorite meals. I never used to be a fan of ground turkey until I learned how to cook it properly. Ground turkey needs a good dose of spices and herbs to wake up the flavor of the turkey. Give this recipe a try if you want to experiment using a variety of herbs and spices in a recipe.

How to Cook with Herbs and Spices

Along with the essential list of herbs and spices, I’ve also compiled a list of spices that blend well with meat, poultry, fish and eggs, and also suggested spices for specific cuisines. Get creative as you’re using herbs and spices to add your own special touch to your favorite recipes.

For example, if you are just learning to cook, take a look at the chart next time you make spaghetti sauce. Follow a recipe and then add an herb or two that are not called for in a recipe. Start small, then add more as you become more confident in the kitchen!

This Indian Butter Chicken is a great starting point if you want to make an Indian dish, but have been afraid to try!

I hope this post will help you understand more about the use of herbs and spices in cooking. The printable chart below can be used as inspiration for using herbs and spices, as a quick reference guide or a checklist while shopping.

Gift giving idea

To create a fun and practical gift, print the chart on a piece of card stock and laminate, or place in a clear plastic sleeve. Attach a ribbon to one of the holes on the plastic sleeve, and purchase a few herbs and spices on the chart. Place in a basket lined with a dishtowel or two and you’ve got an easy-to-make, useful gift!

The “Spain Version Chart” was created for cooks in Spain with an English to Spanish translation of commonly used spices.