Article By: Maria Tucker, MPH, RDN, LDN, CDCES
Maria Tucker is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator with over 20 years of experience assisting patients with diabetes, obesity, and nutrition-related conditions. Maria is also the Founder of MyBiyaya.com, a site dedicated to healthy recipes and kitchen shortcuts.
If you’ve been intimidated by using herbs and spices when you’re cooking and don’t know how to use them, here are a few to have on hand that you can start with.
1) Basil. This annual herb is a leafy plant from the mint family. It is native to India, Africa, and Southeast Asia but is grown all over the world. It is popular in Italian and Asian dishes with the most popular being Genovese basil and Thai basil. Other varieties include purple and lemon basil. This herb can be chopped, placed in ice cube trays, and frozen for later use. It is the main ingredient in pesto but will also brighten up a dish when used as a garnish. Basil has been studied for its many potential health benefits. It is known to contain antioxidants including leutin and beta-carotene. Basil’s health benefits are best obtained from fresh basil as these compounds can disappear during the drying process. Basil can also be added at the end of cooking to retain the most flavor.
2) Black pepper. The dried berries of a vine native to Malabar in Southern India, black pepper is used in many different cuisines around the world. It comes whole (known as peppercorns), cracked, or ground. It is used as to spice up rubs, salad dressings, savory dishes, and even desserts. The heat from black pepper comes from the compound piperine, and the spicy heat will get milder when used in cooking. It is combined with other spices to make spice blends such as the Bajarat, berebere, and zhoug in the Middle East, garam masala in India, quatre epices in France, and lemon pepper in the US. Because it is sold and used as dried berries, black pepper stores well and does not lose its flavor for years, especially whole peppercorns. Though reported in some studies to have health benefits, it is usually consumed in such small amounts, the benefits may be negligible. Black pepper can have negative interactions with certain medications, so caution should be taken when consuming black pepper.
3) Cayenne peppers. These are the long, skinny peppers with a glossy, cherry-red hue of the pepper plant. Officially known as capsicum annum, these pungent peppers are members of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, along with their distant cousins, potatoes, eggplants, and tomatoes. Cayenne peppers are thought to have originated in South America, but their easygoing spice has made them a popular addition to cuisines around the world. Cayenne peppers are sold dried and ground but can also be found fresh in Asian grocery stores. They give savory dishes a spicy kick and a small amount goes a long way.
4) Cinnamon. According to the National Center for Integrative Health of the National Institutes of Health, cinnamon comes from the bark of various species of cinnamon trees. Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum), grown primarily in Sri Lanka, is known as “true” cinnamon. Cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum aromaticum), grown in southeastern Asia, is the most common type sold in North America. Ground cinnamon retains its flavor after cooking and is used in both sweet and savory dishes.
5) Cumin. This spice comes from the parsley family. The dried ripe fruit of the cumin plant is an ingredient in chili powder and taco seasoning. It has been used for centuries and was popular in the Middle Ages. Cumin provides warm earthy flavors to any dish. Using ground cumin instead of whole cumin seeds allows the flavor from this herb to be distributed more evenly in your dish. It goes well with other spices and herbs such as turmeric, red peppers, cinnamon, and oregano. Studies have been done looking into cumin’s health benefits including lowering weight and cholesterol and decreasing stress response and memory loss.
6) Garlic. The bulb of a perennial plant, Allium Sativum, this odoriferous herb or spice is native to South and Central Asia and Iran. It has been used to flavor foods and in Eastern medicine. China is the largest producer of garlic in the world. Garlic bulbs are called heads, and each tiny bulb inside the head is called a clove. It is sold fresh as whole heads or minced and jarred as well as dried and ground or fried crisp. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, garlic is known to have health benefits including lowering total and bad cholesterol; however, it can interfere with the effects of some medications.
7) Ginger. The rhizome or underground stem of a plant native to China, India, and Japan, this herb is used in most Asian cuisine for its spicy, sometimes a little sweet heat. It is sold as dried powder and as fresh ginger. It has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries and has been shown to help with mild nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. In the Philippines, ginger is used to make tea to help prevent sore throat, especially when singing. Freshly grated ginger can add zing to hot tea. Water infused with grated ginger and cucumber slices makes a very refreshing drink!
8) Oregano. A perennial plant from the mint family, oregano is an herb grown all over the world and is known for its strong flavor and aroma. It is sold fresh, dried, and as an essential oil. Studies show that the oil from this staple of the kitchen contains antioxidant, anti-microbial, and anti-viral properties. It is used in stews, pasta dishes, and soups for its strong flavor that can warm up a dish. Oregano’s essential oils contain antioxidants, which according to some studies, can help prevent free radical damage to the cells.
9) Paprika. This brightly colored red spice comes for dried and ground red chili peppers. Paprika is sold as Hungarian, sweet, Spanish, or smoked paprika. Sweet paprika is used to flavor mild dishes such as soups and casseroles. Smoked paprika is smoked with oak wood, dried, and crushed. It is best used for heartier dishes such as strews and as a rub for grilled meats and fish. Paprika can be sprinkled on food, but its flavor is brought out more by heating it in oil.
10) Thyme. This aromatic herb has origins that can be traced to the Mediterranean region. It has been used for centuries in cooking but was also found to be used medicinally in ancient Egypt as part of ancient embalming rituals due to its antiseptic properties. Thyme is sold fresh or dried. The leaves of thyme is what is used to flavor savory dishes, as rub for meats along with other herbs and spices, or to season soups and stews. It also adds a depth of flavor to savory baked bread.
Having these herbs and spices on hand can enhance your dishes and culinary experience. Storing fresh herbs in the refrigerator is best to help them stay fresh. Fresh herbs like oregano, thyme, and basil can be kept in a glass jar with a little water and covered lightly with plastic wrap in the refrigerator. Keep them in the refrigerator for 3-5 days, replacing the water every other day. Dried herbs and spices can be kept for a longer period of time in a cool dry place. Remember to check the expiration date on your spice jars and discard them once expired. Spices can lose their flavor as you get closer to the expiration date. Buy small jars of spices and herbs you don’t use frequently.
Start with these herbs and spices, and experiment with different combinations to bring a depth of flavor to your dishes. Then, try others such as turmeric, coriander, sage, etc. There are even spice blends you can try including za’atar, garam masala, and harrisa. Enjoy!
BariMelts provides general recommendations, not to be construed as medical advice. Please consult your doctor.