Spice "How-To"

The art of using herbs and spices is learning how much to add and how to combine flavors.

  • History of Spice
  • Spices Information
  • Storing Spices
  • Using Herbs & Spices
  • What with What?
  • Substituting
Wars have been fought and countries discovered because of spices.  Through the ages herbs have been used not only to create specialty food, but also as preservatives and medications.  Today, herbs and spices come from all over the world.  Using herbs and spices in cooking offers the chance to prepare exotic, gourmet dishes. They also allow a way to cut calories in foods without sacrificing taste. The calories in herbs and spices are far less than in breading, batters, gravies, sauces and fried foods.  Using herbs and spices can also be money saving as inexpensive foods and be enhanced with fewer ingredients. 

Spices have been used from ancient times for seasoning food.  They are an important part of history and an important part of our food.  Nearly every country in the world, including our own, supplies items for the spice shelves of America. The term "spices" refers to food seasonings made from aromatic plants.  A "seasoning" is a blend of herbs and spices which make the art of flavoring foods easy for the cook.  The word "spices" is often applied to herbs and seeds. Spices, herbs, and seeds are nature's own products.  They enhance the flavor of foods and add interest.

Spices have little nutritive value but they do stimulate the appetite.  Some are valued for their flavor and some for their aroma.

Vegetable seasonings are not true spices, but they are excellent flavor enhancers.  Examples include celery, celery salt, chives, garlic, and onion.

The basic spice staples should include such spices as black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mustard, nutmeg, paprika and one or more of the dehydrated forms of garlic and onion.  Spices are not expensive, considering how far they must travel to reach us--from all over the world.


Spices are the dried seeds, buds, fruit, flower parts, bark, or roots of aromatic plants which usually grow in tropical climates.  Examples include allspice from the unripened berry of a tree; cinnamon from the bark of a tree; cloves from the dried, unopened buds of a tree; ginger from the root of a plant; mace from the lacy wrapper or membrane which is the outer covering so the nutmeg seed; nutmeg from a hard, large seed of a peach-like fruit of the nutmeg tree; paprika from the dried fruit pod of a red pepper plant; and pepper from the dried berry of a vine. 

Herbs are always the aromatic leaves of plants which usually grown in temperate climates.  Examples include basil, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, tarragon, and thyme. 

Seeds are the aromatic, dried, small, whole fruits or seeds of plants which are usually grown in temperate climates.  They grow in many parts of the world.  Examples include caraway seed, cardamom seed, celery seed, dill seed, mustard seed, poppy seed, and sesame seed.

Spices and herbs contain aromatic substances called "essential oils", which are responsible for the aroma and much of the flavor.  Most spices and herbs are available in ground and whole form. 

Whole herbs and spices last much longer than crushed or ground.  Many people prefer to buy the whole form and crush or grind as needed.  Herbs and spices can be crushed with a mortar and pestle, or a coffee grinder.  Check ground spices for freshness at least once a year.  If no aroma is detected, the seasoning needs to be replaced. 

Spices and herbs should be kept in tightly closed containers in a cool, dry, dark place.  A screw-cap container is better than a flip-top container because it can be tightly resealed. 

1.  Keep them away from heat. Do not store near dishwasher or refrigerator, and they should never be stored near the range, even though it may seem more convenient.  Heat, air, and light cause aromatic oils to evaporate, which causes spices and herbs to lose their flavor.

2. Store away from moisture as dampness will cause caking and loss of quality.  Store in tightly covered jars and use clean, dry spoons for  measuring.  If you live in a high humidity area you may experience difficulty with caking.

3. Store in cool place away from light.  Do not store in a window or in sunlight.  Spice racks are nice, but not the best way to store your spices.

4. Refrigerate cayenne pepper, chili powder, and paprika to retain color longer.

Shelf Life:  Whole spices----2 to 5 years
Ground spices---6 months to 2 years
Leafy herbs-------3 months to 2 years
Dehydrated vegetables---6 months

Tip: Make a note of the date of purchase on the label; then check them once a year and replace as needed.

How Much to Add

1. Use strong, pungent spices in small amounts.  More delicate seasonings can be used in larger amounts. Remember, herbs are supposed to enhance the flavor, not overpower it. When trying a new idea, it is safest to begin with 1/4 teaspoon (except for red pepper which would be less) to a pint of sauce, soup, or vegetable.....to a pound of meat, fish or fowl, or to a dish that serves 4.  If you aren't following a specific recipe, start with a little herb or spice; taste to decide whether to add more. It's fun to experiment!!

2. A Bouquet Garni: Combine equal portions of:  BAY LEAF, THYME, PARSLEY, MARJORAM. Tie up in a small square of muslin and drop into a simmering stew. 

When to Add

Whole Spices

1.  Tie herbs and spices in a cheesecloth, nylon net, muslin bag, or tea ball to make removal quick and easy. 

2.  Add whole herbs and spices at the start of cooking in recipes that will cook for an hour or longer, such as soups and stews.

3.  Seeds used for flavor can be toasted briefly to bring out the flavor.

Crushed or Ground Herbs and Spices

1.  Add about 15 minutes before the end of the cooking time as flavors in crushed and ground spices are released quickly.

2.  Freshly ground pepper has the most flavor.

3.  For cold products, add the spices several hours before serving for flavors to develop.

4. If it's a steak you are preparing, about one hour ahead, brush with oil, sprinkle with herbs and refrigerate until needed.

5. If it's hamburgers, meat loaf, or stuffing, add herb when mixing.

A Simple Diagram to Understand "What With What"

Breads: Poppy Seed, Sesame Seed, Fennel Seed, Anise Seed, Caraway, Dill Weed, Thyme, Parsley.

Vegetables: Tarragon ,Rosemary, Parsley, Oregano, Marjoram, Sage, Garlic, Thyme, Dill, Anise, Basil.

Beef: Tarragon, Rosemary, Dill Weed, Thyme, Bay Leaf, Basil, Oregano, Marjoram, Garlic.

Poultry: Tarragon, Parsley, Sage, Thyme, Rosemary, Caraway, Oregano, Basil, Paprika, Bay Leaf.

Pork: Rosemary, Cumin Seed, Caraway, Parsley, Mustard, Fennel Seed,Thyme,Basil.

Lamb: Thyme, Dill Weed, Fennel Seed, Basil, Sage, Marjoram, Tarragon, Rosemary, Caraway.

Soups: Rosemary, Dill Weed, Caraway, Anise, Parsley, Sage, Basil, Bay Leaf, Oregano, Chives, Tarragon.

Fish: Marjoram, Tarragon, Rosemary, Bay Leaf, Basil, Thyme, Dill Seed, Sage.

Shellfish: Oregano, Basil, Garlic, Salt, Marjoram, Thyme, Dill, Tarragon, Turmeric.

Eggs: Thyme, Garlic, Chives, Bay Leaf, Oregano, Dill, Basil, Parsley, Rosemary, Tarragon.

Cheese: Anise, Seed, Thyme, Parsley, Caraway, Dill Weed, Sage, Basil, Tarragon.

Desserts: Vanilla Bean, Anise Seed, Allspice.

       Be Creative!!!

Substituting dried herbs for fresh ones:  
A ratio of one part dried herbs to three parts fresh herbs works as a general rule because most dried herbs have a more intense, concentrated flavor than the fresh ones.  Example: when a recipe calls for one tablespoon of fresh herbs, one teaspoon of dried herbs can be substituted.

Basic Substitutions for dried vegetables:
Recipe calls for: Substitute:
1/3 cup fresh onion 1/4 cup onion flakes
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic 1/4 teaspoon dried garlic
1 clove garlic 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 cup bell pepper 1/4 cup dried bell pepper
1/2 cup diced celery 1/4 cup dried celery flakes
1/2 cup celery, onion, peppers, carrots 1/4 cup mixed vegetable flakes
1/2-1 cup parsley 1/4 cup dried parsley
1/2 cup chopped fresh ginger 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 cup chopped mint 1 tablespoon dried mint
1 teaspoon lemon or orange peel, grated 1 teaspoon dried orange or lemon peel or 1/2 teaspoon extract