Using herbs and spices can be intimidating for new or inexperienced home cooks. Very few other ingredient types seem to have their kitchen confidence-crashing power. While there is no single wrong or right way to use herbs and spices, there are a few rules of thumb that I like to follow. I bring you seven tips for using herbs and spices!
Dried herbs are more potent than fresh herbs
In general the dried versions of herbs pack much more of a flavor punch than their fresh counterparts. If substituting dried for fresh keep in mind that you will need much less. A good rule of thumb is a ratio of 3:1 fresh to dried. That means for every three units of fresh herbs you probably only need one unit of dried (e.g. if you need 3 tablespoons of fresh parsley, you would only need one teaspoon of dried).
Add dried herbs closer to the beginning of cooking
It takes little time to coax the full flavors out of dried herbs, so I recommend adding them into the dish earlier than later (unless the recipe says otherwise). If you put your dried oregano in your tomato sauce right at the end of cooking chances are you won’t even taste it. That being said…
Fresh herbs can be a perfect way to finish a dish to brighten and freshen it up
Fresh herbs are great for adding later in the cooking process or using as a garnish. Their flavor will be preserved by minimizing their cooking time, and they’ll also add a great pop of color! If you have a long cooking dish where flavors are blending and getting “muddy,” a sprinkle of fresh herbs can brighten and clarify flavors.
You can always add spice to a dish, but you can’t take it out. Start slowly if you are unsure and add as needed
I think one of the reasons that spices can be intimidating is their unique power to ruin a dish if overdone. When adding spices (especially when you aren’t following a trusted recipe) it’s a good idea to start with less than you think you need, taste, and adjust as you go along. You can always add spice to a dish, but you can’t take it out.
Toasting spices can be another way to enhance their flavor
You can take dry spices to another level by toasting them before use. Simply put your dry spices into a dry skillet on medium heat. Stir them around until they become aromatic (don’t let them burn, but a tiny bit of smoke is ok). Then go ahead and use them in your dish.
Whole spices will keep longer and are more flavorful than ground
Using whole spices instead of pre-ground will result in more flavorful spices. It can be a little more work, but it’s kind of fun to grind your own. Either invest in a mortar and pestle and grind them by hand or use and electric grinder. If you choose to use an electric grinder, make sure you don’t share it with your coffee grinder; you’ll never get rid of the residual spice flavors. Some spices, like whole nutmeg, won’t work in a grinder and you’ll need a microplane.
Store your herbs and spices for later use
You can practically keep dried herbs and spices indefinitely; they will lose flavor over time but they won’t go bad. To get the most mileage, keep them in a dark, dry area away from heat. Conventional wisdom says you should “refresh” your spices each year but I think that is a tad excessive (and expensive) for most home cooks. I’m not saying keep your spices for 10-year stretches, just don’t feel like you need fresh spices all the time. Most fresh herbs will keep for a while in the fridge washed, wrapped in paper town and stored in a zipper lock bag. Basil is a bit touchier and prefers storage at room temperature in a water (like fresh cut flowers). One other option might be to freeze your herbs!
The Spice and Herb Bible – A wonderfully comprehensive tome all about herbs and spices. Great images and tons of ideas for flavor pairings.
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