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Herbs and Spices: How To Use Them

Today we’re going to look at the exciting world of Herbs and Spices, as used in the modern kitchen. No doubt your favourite celebrity chef has rattled off the names of some of these and you’ve wondered what it is, how it tastes, and maybe even where to get it from. Thankfully, we here at Silke can tell you that it isn’t quite as daunting as you might think.

First and foremost, any good supermarket should carry a decent sized stock of both fresh and dried herbs and spices- fresh you should only get if you are planning on using them immediately, and are more recommended for use as aromatics, whereas dried can be placed in a cupboard (or, if you’re thinking ahead, a decent spice rack) for future use, and can be kept for a considerable amount of time and see use throughout multiple dishes. Unfortunately, that’s where the simplicity and objectivity regarding these magical little flavour bombs ends.

The Truth is The Taste

Taste is ultimately a very subjective thing; what works for one might not necessarily work for another. This is why one celebrity chef might say certain herbs and spices work best with a certain meat, whereas another might tell you that adding the same herb ruins the subtle nuance of another dish. Add in that there are an absolutely enormous number of herbs and spices- some of which are very difficult to find without going to specialist stores or markets- and it can be incredibly daunting knowing where to start off. With that in mind, we decided to cover only a couple of the absolute basics as well as the most commonly known/accepted uses in cuisine, with plans for future editions covering more of them.

Rosemary

Rosemary is perhaps one of the most well known herbs, partially due to the fact that at least a few of us have found Rosemary bushes growing in our garden, giving off a very distinct (and some might say divisive) scent. In the culinary arts, it is most commonly associated with Italian cuisine, and has a very well rounded, bitter, astringent flavour. It tends to give cooked meats and vegetables a mustard-like aroma, with undercurrents of charred wood. It also carries a earthy note, as many herbs do.

Basil

Basil is another well known herb, and much like Rosemary is often paired with Italian cuisine- particularly dishes that also feature tomatoes or tomato sauce- but it is also very closely tied with Southeast Asian cuisine, featuring in many dishes from Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. The kind you’re mostly likely to find is what is often referred to as Sweet Basil, which is the kind used in Italian cooking; when fresh, it carries a slightly aniseed-tinged sweet flavour befitting of its name, but when dried, the flavour is much weaker, and takes on a Hay-like, heavily coumarin flavour. Celebrity chef’s will generally tell you to add it towards the end of the cooking process, as the cooking process can dampen the flavour.

Parsley

Parsley is a herb very famous the world over, and generally considered very versatile as far as it’s use in cooking goes. For example, fresh, uncooked Green Parsley leaves are used to garnish a wide variety of dishes; potato based dishes- typically Boiled or Mashed Potatoes- curries and rice dishes, even meats or fish. It’s considered a part of Bouquet Garni in central and southern Europe, a group of herbs often used for soups or sauces, and across eastern Europe and Aisa, it is often shredded or chopped and served atop numerous dishes. The subtle, slightly sweet and distinctly ‘fresh’ flavour of the herb, particularly in fresh form, makes it a good accompaniment to many dishes.

Adding Some Spice

Cinnamon is particularly well known in the world of herbs and spices, particularly because of its use throughout the baking and “sweet stuff” culinary arts, where it’s mellow, yet distinctly sweet flavour can really add to the overall dish. Specifically, Apple Pie, Doughnuts, the aptly named Cinnamon Bun, and even things like chocolate or coffees will often have cinnamon mixed in for flavour. However, it can also be used to flavour savoury dishes- in the Middle East, it is often used when flavouring savoury chicken or lamb dishes. It is also a very popular spice used when flavouring liqueurs or alcohols- very cheeky- and can even be used in pickling processes.

Not Technically A Nut

Nutmeg, similarly to Cinnamon, is a spice that tends to be associated with sweet dishes, but it is more commonly known to feature in savoury cuisine as well. It is actually very closely related to another spice- Mace- as it is derived from the same genus of tree, although as a general rule, Nutmeg is a little bit sweeter, and Mace a little bit more earthy. Perhaps its most famous use is as a key component of Rice Pudding, but across Europe, it is also closely tied to potato based dishes, and as a base spice for soups and sauces. Penang has perhaps the most interesting use of the spice in the popular Iced Nutmeg Juice drink, which can be made by blending fresh Nutmeg, creating a tangy, white-green and fresh tasting drink-,or by boiling it, which makes a strong, sweet brown drink instead.

Paprika

The ever useful Patrika is a very popular form of the Capsicum Annuum fruit that had been air dried and reduced to a powdered state. The history of the spice is as expansive as the number of countries that have formed cuisine standards using it, as any celebrity chef worth their salt should know; though native to the Americas (through which Spain and Portugal were introduced to it), it eventually reached central Europe via the Balkans, which, at the time, was Ottoman territory. Though the various countries that cultivate the fruit have an abundance of styles, Paprika is largely know for the Spanish variety, which Smoke dried typically with Oak, adding an earthy, smokey undercurrent to the strong Capsaicin flavour; it’s these qualities that make it a popular seasoning for soups, stews, and meats- especially sausages. Chorizo is an especially popular smoked, spicy sausage that owes its flavour to the same Capsicum Annuum fruit Paprika is made from.

Herbs and Spices: Every Chef’s Secret Weapon

Celebrity chefs will continually hammer in the importance of using herbs and spices in the cooking process, and they’re not wrong; knowing your way around a spice rack can sometimes make or break a meal, and arguably, herbs and spices are the backbone of a good meal.

Turmeric is a Spice primarily found in Indian dishes, although it also crops up in many dishes originating in Southeast Asia, where it is primarily sourced from. Despite being a plant within the same family as the Ginger root, Turmeric couldn’t possibly taste more different- it’s known for having a very powerful, earthy, bitter flavour that, in excess, can overpower any other flavour in a dish. However, in the right amount, Turmeric adds a really nice subtle note to your dishes that can really “complete” them. It’s primarily used for savoury dishes- curries in particular- but it can also be used to dye dishes, as Turmeric tends to colour things it’s mixed with a very prominent yellow colour. It’s also frequently used for medicinal purposes, as it contains antibacterial properties- any celebrity chef that knows their stuff should be able to tell you that.

Sage

Though used throughout a variety of European dishes, Sage is considered one of the essential herbs used in cooking throughout Britain, alongside Parsley, Rosemary, and Thyme, primarily for it’s slightly peppery, savoury flavour. The most well known use is through Onion & Sage Stuffing, commonly paired up with Roast Chicken or Roast Turkey, although Sage is also considered an excellent accompaniment to Pork Casserole, and is one of the staple ingredients of the famous Lincolnshire Sausage. There is also a variety of Derby cheese called Sage Derby Cheese that makes use of the herb for a slight minty edge, and has a unique marbled, green texture.

Chives: Not Just For Crisps

Chives are an incredibly popular choice of herb throughout France and Sweden, be it soups, fish dishes, even with pancakes although its most popular use is probably in Sour Cream and Chive dips and sauces, although many soft cheeses also use chives as an additional flavour; Boursin has a variant that comes with Chive, for example. What many celebrity chefs won’t mention, however, is that the flavour of chive is extremely fresh, fairly savoury, and quite powerful even in small doses, and it tends to suit a wide selection of dishes very well, regardless of the surrounding flavours. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Chives, though, is that its powerful flavour is barely impacted by the freeze-dry process most dried herbs are subject to, meaning you get just as much oomph using dry or fresh Chives; you simply get to make the call as to which of the two would better suit what you’re making.

Never Enough Thyme

Thyme has come a considerably long way since its humble beginnings as an embalming agent in ancient Egypt, although it seems the Romans were the ones responsible for popularising the idea of using it in the culinary arts, often using it to aid the flavour of cheeses and liqueurs. Nowadays, it’s used in a wide variety of dishes and combinations, with certain dishes calling for solely the leaves, solely the stems, or full sprigs of the herb. Although it unfortunately doesn’t have a very long shelf life in fresh form, the good news is that Thyme retains much more of its flavour in dried form then most herbs do, and it is considered acceptable to substitute dried Thyme for fresh Thyme where needed. It is known for having a very well rounded, earthy flavour.

Cayenne

Cayenne is a spice derived from the family of peppers of the same name, and ranks around 30,000 to 50,000 units on the Scoville Scale, meaning they’re reasonably hot, and have something of a bitter flavour. Named for a city in French Guiana, Cayenne has become a relatively popular spice the world over, from Europe to East Asia, cropping up in various dishes in both powdered and fresh form, and is a popular flavouring for hot causes- typically thinner, vinegar-based ones. In one of the more unique uses herbs and spices, Cayenne has also been used as the base for energy drinks produced by Bonavitas.

Ginger

Finally, Ginger is an immeasurably popular spice the world over, and not strictly for it’s culinary use either; it is used in medicine quite frequently, typically for combating some kinds of nausea, and even heartburn- which is ironic, given it’s pungent, fiery flavour. Ginger is typically associated with various Asian cuisines, including savoury dishes from India, China, Korea, and Vietnam, but it is often used as an additional flavour or accompaniment to baked good such as Gingerbread Men, as well as carbonated drinks like Ginger Beer. The root the spice is harvested from typically when it’s older and has a stronger flavour is sometimes instead harvested when it’s young, and are pickled in either vinegar or sherry, or turned into sweets.

And that’s pretty much all the herbs and spices you’ll ever need to use in the modern kitchen, with one exception. Can you guess what it is? Saffron of course! That one gets it’s own article… How fancy!

If you have any questions and would like to speak to someone at Silke about your current or new kitchen, be sure to contact us for friendly help and advice.