Everyone has heard the famous saying from Kentucky Fried Chicken that their chicken is made with “11 herbs and spices”. But, many of us use these terms interchangeably. Herbs and spices are two completely separate and different things that are used in different ways and for different results. Understanding the difference between these items will make your meal preparations easier and more successful.
Herbs are the leaves of aromatic plants that are used for both cooking and medicinal reasons. Herbs are, in general, used for adding flavors to foods, both cooked and raw. They can be used to flavor soups and stews, as vegetables, as salad ingredients and as garnishes. Herbs should be used to enhance and balance the flavors of any other ingredients. Herbs should be used fresh although some respond well to drying. Dried herbs, such as bay leaves, sage and rosemary, should be used within 2 3 months of drying so that their flavors are still strong. Fresh herbs, such as basil, cilantro, mint, savory and tarragon should be used within a few days of purchase or harvest.
Spices are the pungent and aromatic dried roots, barks, buds, seeds and berries of plants. Spices have intense and powerful flavors and smells that are used to flavor foods all over the world. Nearly all spices are sold dried although you can find them in both whole and ground forms. Spices are used in every aspect of cooking, from sauces to cakes to salads. Spices can be kept for much longer than herbs. Whole spices keep longer and are preferred. Most spices can be kept for up to six months before they begin to lose potency. Spices can be used for both sweet and savory dishes and can be combined in numerous ways. Some spices include caraway, chili powder, cinnamon, cloves, mace, paprika, pepper, saffron and turmeric.
The best thing to remember when you are deciding between the use of an herb or a spice is that the flavors need to complement each other. Adding either spices or herbs to your dishes should bring out the flavors of your ingredients, not overpower them. Fresh herbs should be added towards the end of the cooking time while dried herbs and spices should be added early. Herbs and spices can both be overpowering if used in too large of a quantity, although herbs are less likely to make a meal inedible. Any addition of herbs or spices to a dish should be done in moderation and with the understanding that the longer the herbs or spices cook, the more flavor will be released into a dish.