The Beginner's Guide to Herbs and Spices

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Three weeks ago for no reason in particular other than a fit of good intention, I tipped half of the spice shelf into my basket at my local supermarket. Now don’t get me wrong, I know the basics. I can throw basil and oregano into pretty much anything involving pasta and I know exactly what to do with chilli powder – make chilli.

But I still had absolutely no idea what exactly I’m supposed to do with turmeric. So, I hit Google and started to research. If you too are looking to better understand the colourful jars of dried leaves and spices that TV chefs are forever chucking around, here’s a rough guide when and where to use them…

Paprika

This bright spice is principally used to colour and flavour stews, rice and soups. It is well matched with foods such as egg, cauliflower, chicken, shellfish, lamb, potatoes and rice.

Saffron

Saffron has been used as a fragrance, a spice, a medicine and a dye for thousands of years. It has featured heavily in North African, European and Asian cuisine in particular, and saffron threads are popularly used as a condiment to compliment rice based dishes. Use it to flavour seafood, curry, cakes, soups and chicken.

Turmeric

Not only is this spice great for use in curries, it has a variety of healthy benefits particularly for skin and hair due to its antioxidant properties. It also has the ability to help the body to fight free-radicals. Use it to compliment rice dishes, chicken, duck, salads and chutneys.

Dill

The uses of dill date back to the times of the Bible and it is commonly used to flavour soups, salmon, potato salads and a variety of Northern Vietnamese dishes. It is also excellent for use in coconut milk based curries made with prawns.

Tarragon

Because of its versatility Tarragon is referred to as the “King of Herbs.” It enhances the flavour of chicken, egg and fish dishes and much like many herbs is much more effective fresh than dried. Try using with nutmeg when roasting chicken.

Chicory

Chicory is a woody herb, the root of which is often included in coffee mixtures to enhance their flavour. Herbal tea and juice made with chicory extracts have been used for centuries in the treatment of disorders of the digestive tract. Its medicinal uses are much more common than its culinary uses as it tends to have a laxative effect, but can be used sparingly in casseroles.

Rosemary

Rosemary is said to improve concentration and memory; Greek students used to braid their hair with the herb to help them with their exams! It is also a wonderfully aromatic accompaniment to roasted meats – especially lamb – and stews.

Nutmeg

This spice has a warm, nutty flavour and is a very versatile ingredient. Try grating a thin layer on top of chocolate desserts and ice cream, or use it to flavour meats and poultry.

Thyme

Thyme is one of the most widely used spices due to its ability to blend with such a vast range of ingredients and dishes. Use whole sprigs when roasting meat or vegetables to enhance and flavour your dishes. It’s also lovely wrapped up with lemon slices on top of white fish before baking.

Do you have any interesting facts or uses for herbs and spices? Share your recipes and ideas in the comments below.

Herbs and Spices


Elise Lévêque is a freelance, French-born translator who loves haute cuisine. She’s constantly on the lookout for new recipes and writes for Wipe Easy Tablecloths when she isn’t elbow deep in home-made cookie dough!

Image: by Kate Ter Haar

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