One measure of a good cook is how skillfully he blends seasonings to bring out the optimum flavor of foods. While a correct blend of seasonings enhances a dish, combining the wrong seasonings can destroy a meal. Two common forms of seasonings are herbs and spices. Consumers often use the terms interchangeably. Both come from plants, but not from the same part of the plant. Some plants provide both spices and herbs.
Kitchen gardeners grow their own herbs as houseplants or in the garden. From these small, non-woody plants, leaves provide flavor and aroma to recipes. Common herbs include sage, oregano, thyme, mint, rosemary, basil, chives, parsley and marjoram. Use the herbs fresh, or dry the herbs to preserve. One way to dry herbs is to snip off a bunch of leaves and hang upside down, in a dry, dark area. If using your own homegrown herbs, don’t use pesticides. Rinse the fresh herbs before adding to a recipe. Dried herbs are readily available in the dried spice section of the grocery store, while fresh herbs are located in the store’s refrigerated produce section.
The fact that salt and pepper shakers are standard on most dining tables, indicates that both are popular, widely used seasonings. While pepper is a spice, salt is a mineral. Culinary salt types available to the consumer include iodized salt, salt kosher salt, sea salt, smoked salt, rock salt, pickling salt, Hawaiian sea salt, grey salt and black salt.
Like herbs, spices come from plants. Unlike herbs, spices come from woody as well as non-woody plants. Instead of the leaves, spices come from a plant’s fruit, seeds, roots, flowers or bark. Plants used for spices tend to come from warm, tropical areas. Familiar spices include cumin and nutmeg, both made from seeds; cinnamon, made from the cinnamon tree’s bark; vanilla made from an orchid’s undeveloped fruit; ginger, made from a root; and cloves and saffron, both made from the parts of a flower.
Different Types of Spices
Seed spices can come in the form of the seed or they can be purchased in powder or paste form. In some cases, what is referred to as a seed spice is actually the fruit of the plant but is called a seed due to its diminutive size. A few of the common spices that fall within this type include celery seed, cumin, fenugreek, coriander, dill and mustard.
Star anise, mace, nutmeg and vanilla are all examples of fruit spices. Vanilla bean, for example, is the fruit of a tropical climbing orchid which is the only fruit-bearing orchid. Nutmeg and mace both originate from the same fruit even though they are entirely different spices.
Leafy spices are used world-wide for cooking as well as medicinal purposes. Mint, basil, parsley, bay leaves and tarragon are just a few of the types of leaves that are used as spices. Spices that are leaf based are used in powdered or dry form.
This type of spice includes black and white pepper and chili peppers. Paprika is a spice that falls into the pepper category. It is also known as pimento pepper or sweet red pepper and is a type of chili pepper.
As the name implies, root-type spices originate from the root of plants. They include well-known spices that are used in powdered or dried form. Some of the more recognizable root spices are garlic, ginger and turmeric.
Flower spices include saffron and capers, it takes nearly 80,000 saffron roses to produce 1 lb. of saffron threads.
The bark of certain plants serve as a type of spice that when ground or used whole imparts flavor and taste to cooking and baking. One of the most widely recognized spices that fall within this type is cinnamon. It is available in powdered form or “quills” — strips of bark that have been rolled tightly.
Cooks use flavorful sauces and marinades to add seasoning to food. This might include soy sauce, tomato sauce, Worcestershire sauce, barbecue sauce or hot sauce. Wine, sherry, lemon juice and vinegar’s also add flavor to some recipes. To sweeten recipes, use sugar or honey. When preparing some ethnic dishes, such as Chinese food, look for prepared sauces, such as Chinese chili sauce, to season food properly. Other options include, satay sauce or hot bean sauce. Cooking foods in flavored oils will also impart flavors to the final dish.