Properly seasoning your food can transform it from an average dish to a show stopper. Spices and herbs are sometimes used interchangeably, however there is a difference. Spices can be the seeds, fruit, root or bark of a plant, and are normally ground up making it easier to incorporate throughout a dish. While herbs are the leafy parts of the plant. The trick is some plants can be both herbs and spices. For example, cilantro, which we use the leaves as a herb and the seeds as a spice, commonly known as coriander. Knowing the difference between herbs and spices helps to use them better in the kitchen.
Spices are usually dried and then ground which means that they develop a concentrated flavor. Therefore, small quantities can go a long way. However, fresh herbs add an understated flavor, requiring larger amounts. Similar to spices, dried herbs have a more concentrated flavor, thus less is more. If you use dried herbs to substitute for fresh herbs, make sure to adjust the quantity. If too much dried herbs are used the subtly will be lost and the flavor will become overpowering. Remember, spices should be used to add bold flavors, while herbs should be used to add subtle complexity to a dish.
Spices and herbs do not just affect the way a dish tastes, it also affects the way a dish can look. Visually, herbs can be used as garnish to add a fresh finish to a dish, while spices such as paprika add a pop of color. Using a spice like turmeric creates a flavorful and intense yellow coloring. By adding spices, the color of your food may change drastically, making it look and taste much more dynamic. On the other hand, fresh herbs incorporated to infuse flavor can sometime become cumbersome if there are too many leaves in your pot. They also become dark and lifeless which is unappealing. To counteract this problem, you may chop them very fine so they are not easily seen, or tie together all the herbs so they are not loose in the dish. This way they can still incorporate properly, then take them out before serving, this is known as making a bouquet garni. Afterwards, you can garnish with a few fresh herbs that haven’t been cooked to brighten the dish. Using these little tricks can elevate your food by using the natural properties of the ingredients.
The basic tastes are; sweet, salty, sour and bitter, with umami(savory) being the elusive final taste. Any ingredient used alone or in excess is problematic because the taste becomes lopsided. Well seasoned food should have several of these elements, while great food has these elements in balance. Overly sweet or salty food may taste good but, they are out of balance and can be bad for you long term, and are ultimately, lazy cooking. Spices and herbs create this finesse. They can add sweet and salty elements in addition to other flavors that will round out your food. For instance, ginger adds unique aromatics and a spicy flavor without the heat of pepper or basil, which adds an earthy sweetness. Thyme and marjoram are commonly used in Caribbean cooking because they have a slight bitterness which balances the sweetness perfectly. Also, spices and herbs are relatively low in calories and some have helpful properties. Such as cinnamon which is high in antioxidants and can be used to add natural sweetness. Knowing how to use herbs and spices effectively creates tasty, balanced food that can even be good for you.
Complex dishes require layers of flavor. Knowing the difference between spices and herbs how to use them properly creates intricacies that taste unique. Something that is overly sweet or salty is tasty because it activates your tastebuds, but becomes boring because it is one-note. Incorporating spices and herbs into cooking creates nuances without adding large, expensive ingredients. Literally, spicing up basic dishes with just a few sprinkles.
This article was originally published in Fine Cuisine Magazine. Pick up your copy today. Also, for more articles like this one check out www.nationnews.com.