9 herbs for everyday cooking

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HERB: any plant with leaves, seeds, or flowers used for flavoring, food, medicine, or perfume. SPICE: an aromatic or pungent vegetable substance used to flavor food, e.g., cloves, pepper,or mace.

Most of us have mastered salt and pepper, have a decent handle on garlic, and can manage cinnamon as long as we’re dealing with breakfast foods or apple cider. Some of us even chop cilantro for homemade salsa or put fresh mint in our tea – or whatever. But most of us have at least one jar of a spice we bought for a specific recipe and haven’t used since. And I can’t be the only one who’s stood mesmerized in the grocery store spice aisle. Turmeric, for example, has always baffled me. Marjoram? Absolutely no clue. Coriander seed? Is that even a real thing?

Sure is! According to Health.com, coriander seeds, in addition to being great on fish, turkey, and in soups, are rumored to help control cholesterol and blood sugar. Who knew?

In fact, lots of the mysterious-sounding herbs and spices in the baking aisle are completely usable in everyday life, can bring genuine variety into your weekly meal plan, and are far less intimidating to use than one might think. Before we start chatting specifics, though, let’s talk about the difference between herbs and spices because I, for one, didn’t even know there was a difference.

Per the USDA, a spice is a dried flavoring that comes from the non-leafy part of a plant. Most come from plant fruits, often tropical, though ginger is essentially a root and cinnamon comes from tree bark. No lie. Herbs, decrees the USDA, are the edible leaves of plants (at least when it comes to herbs used in cooking; technically any plant that doesn’t have woody perennial stems is an herb). Herbs can be used fresh or dried. Note that salt, which is a mineral, and not plant-based, isn’t a spice at all. It’s properly called a seasoning, along with all the blends and mixes we find on the shelves. Garlic is the real outlier. It’s technically a member of the onion family, so if you use it fresh it’s just a chopped or pressed veggie (although some say it’s a lily, not a vegetable). Dried, it becomes a spice. Garlic salt is really just salt seasoned with garlic. So…a seasoned seasoning, perhaps? You decide.

In any event, now that we know what to call the things, what do we do with them?

BASIL  – If you love basil, you probably already know it’s good on white meats like chicken and pork, and is a key ingredient in most pesto. Interestingly, it’s also reputed to bring a delicious earthy note to berries. Basil has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties and it’s high in magnesium. But, always add basil in last as cooking zaps the flavor!

CARDAMOM  – Curry and masala are the default use for this spice, but it also works in stews and in desserts that combine sweet and savory. It’s sometimes steeped with tea and coffee, or used to spice up mixed drinks and hot chocolate. It’s known as one of the most complex of the spices in terms of flavor and is variously described as spicy, floral, slightly sweet, and, of all things, herbal.

CUMIN  – Cumin is an oft-used ingredient in curry powder and in taco and chili seasonings. It’s described as slightly peppery, earthy, and distinctly nutty. In addition to stews and foods like guacamole, it works for salmon, lamb, and pork chops, as well as in dressings and sauces. It can be used in seed form or ground, and the seeds can be toasted to bring out the flavor.

DILL WEED  – Dill is not just for pickles! Chefs say it’s amazing with salmon and also great for soups and stews, potatoes, and veggies like beets, cucumbers, and carrots. It mixes well with yogurt, regular or Greek, or sour cream for a flavorful dip. Plus it’s a (minor) source of iron and calcium.

MARJORAM  – Oregano and marjoram are in the same family, but taste much different. Marjoram can be mixed with salt to use on baked chicken, is good in many soups, and works well with strong veggies. Egg, cheese, and mushroom dishes can benefit from this herb, as can many meat dishes. In fact, once upon a time, it was used as a meat preservative!

ROSEMARY  – Other than being a symbol for remembrance and rounding out the musical stylings of Simon & Garfunkel, rosemary is ideal for roasted meats and adds subtle flavor to sauces. It’s also great with spinach, tomatoes, and mushrooms – especially all together – and on breadsticks. It’s said to improve digestion and circulation and is high in fiber, calcium, and iron.

SAGE  – Speaking of S&G, sage is great for recipes that require long cooking times as its bold flavor can definitely take the heat. A bit peppery and a bit earthy, sage is a classic stand-by for stews, sausage, and even cheese dishes. It also offers a nice counter-point to sweet fruits and vegetables like squash, apples, pumpkin, zucchini, carrots, and strawberries. And it’s an antioxidant to boot!

THYME  – Why not round things out? Thyme works great on lamb, eggs, and poultry, but it’s also crazy good on veggies, especially mushrooms. Since it’s also ideal for bean dishes, it’s a must-have for vegetarians. Blend it with bay seasoning and parsley on your seafood for extra yum. The big news about Thyme is that just two teaspoons provide half the adult daily serving of vitamin K.

TURMERIC  – Turmeric is another key ingredient in curry, but can zing up virtually any stir-fry. It’s a great source of B6, iron, and manganese, and some arthritis sufferers say it helps reduce their symptoms. Do be aware that this spice has a pretty distinct flavor. If you’re just starting out, you might want to go with white turmeric or one of the other mild varieties.

So go on, get spicing! I think I’ll start with cardamom hot cocoa.

Maggie Worth

Maggie Worth is a freelance writer and consultant with a PoliSci degree and 15 years in project management and marketing. An avid mystery reader, co-founder of the Southside Scribes writer's group and member of BWFC, Maggie lives in Fayetteville with her husband, Shane, and their "kid," Rowdy.

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