We all have that friend who always seems to throw a random selection of herbs and spices into their cooking, only for the end result to come out tasting amazing every single time. Whilst the important task of seasoning is second nature for some people, the majority of us need to do things a bit more by the book — and this starts with knowing the basics.
Whether you’ve always wanted to be a whizz with the spice rack but don’t know your cardamom from your cumin, or are looking for a way to spice up your weekday dinner go-tos, our beginner’s guide to herbs and spices will provide a simple breakdown of the culinary components with the power to make or break any dish.
First thing’s first, let’s take a look at the difference between dried herbs and fresh herbs and when to use each one.
Fresh herbs can add an unbeatable aroma to your cooking and always look appealing as a garnish. This being said, buying fresh herbs from the supermarket can get expensive, so you might want to invest in some plants to have at hand at home. While some fresh potted herbs, such as basil, can wilt after a few days in your kitchen unless you use a herb keeper, some are much more hardy, like rosemary, which can flourish in your garden even in the cold winter months. Think about which you’re likely to use the most and the space you have available.
As some leafy herbs such as tarragon, parsley, and chives lose their flavour when dried, some people are under the impression that fresh herbs are always superior to dried herbs. While this is true when making raw dishes such as salads and dressings, this isn’t always the case.
If you’re going to be cooking up a sauce, stew, or anything that’s going to be left to bubble away on the hob for a while, then dried herbs are your friends. Although they do lose their potency over time (they’ll usually keep for a year), certain herbs such as thyme, oregano, bay leaf, and marjoram retain their flavour extremely well when dried and will work wonders in your cooking.
Both fresh and dried herbs can add flavour, heat, and colour to your culinary creations, but there are some things you need to keep in mind when using these different forms. For instance, dried herbs are generally much more potent than fresh herbs, meaning that if a recipe calls for a certain amount of fresh herb but you only have the dried version, you will need to use much less of it to achieve the same depth of flavour. The recommended ratio is one teaspoon of dried herbs to one tablespoon of fresh herbs, but if you’re unsure you can always taste test as you go along.
The essential herbs and spices list for beginners
For complete herb and spice newcomers, we recommend getting started with some versatile staples. You’ll always find a use for these herbs and spices, whatever dishes you like to cook.
It only seems logical to start with the world’s most popular spice, and though you probably have it already, its importance should not be understated. Pepper can lift the flavour of almost any dish, so make sure you have a high-quality pepper mill at hand.
Cumin, a flowering plant in the Apiaceae family, is native to the Middle East and India and can be used whole or ground to provide an earthy, nutty taste to curries, soups, and stews. Its bitter, loamy flavour has a slight citrus edge and despite its strong smell, it’s hard to ruin a dish with too much of this all-round spice.
Paprika is a ground spice made from dried bell, tomato, sweet, and sometimes even cayenne peppers. As a result, its flavour can range from sweet and mild to strong and very hot. This versatile spice is often used to add a dash of heat in Eastern European, Thai, and Latin American cooking and works beautifully in meat and vegetarian dishes alike.
Cinnamon is the dried inner bark of Cinnamomum trees. While it’s commonly used in Middle Eastern and North African curries, you might want to experiment with adding it to your sweet treats, baked goods, and even your morning porridge for a sweet yet warming note.
Chilli flakes or powder
Chilli flakes are used extensively in cuisines all over the world, namely Asian, Chinese, and Indian, to add a real kick to a dish. A dash of this spice is a sure fire way to liven up a meal — just be careful to use it sparingly! Chilli can easily overwhelm the other flavours in your cooking, so make a note of the intensity of your chilli powder (you’ll find mild to extra hot options in most big supermarkets) and stick to a tried and tested recipe.
Native to the Mediterranean (although you can easily grow it in your garden), rosemary is a fragrant, woody herb with a strong aroma and distinctive piney flavour. Commonly used to complement roast chicken, lamb or vegetable dishes, a sprig of rosemary never goes amiss.
Also native to the Mediterranean region, sage (fresh or dried) is loved for its peppery, piney, and oh-so-warming flavour. This makes it a staple herb in Christmas and Thanksgiving cooking.
If you’re a lover of Italian food you might want to bump oregano to the top of your shopping list. Oregano is a key ingredient in Italian cooking. So, if you’ve ever fallen in love with the taste of an authentic pizza or pasta dish, you’ll have this warm, citrusy herb to thank!
Like oregano, basil is a wonderfully aromatic herb that can instantly lift a pasta sauce or bake to a new level of flavour. Use it dried in your cooking, or add a fresh leaf or two to a dish as a garnish. If you’re ever feeling really ambitious, why not try making your own fresh basil pesto?
Tips to use herbs and spices
If you’re new to using herbs and spices and want to get a feel for good flavour combinations, we recommend having a flick through the cookbooks in your house or our online recipe blog. Even if you don’t make any of the recipes yourself (though trying a few would be helpful!) you’ll quickly pick up on the key herbs and spices used in different cuisines and dishes.
Being able to freestyle your flavouring requires a lot of trial and error, so don’t be afraid to get things ‘wrong’. Remember, there are no rules when it comes to herbs and spices. Taste is personal to you, so experiment, get to know your pestle and mortar, and learn what you like!