Cooking Basics

Learning to cook with herbs and spices

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Learning to cook with herbs and spices is an essential kitchen skill

Cooking at home is a fun and meaningful way to take care of yourself and nourish loved ones. Experimenting with new dishes and techniques will absolutely improve your kitchen skills, but it's all about taste in the end. Learning to cook with herbs and spices is the number one way to boost the taste, aromas and appearance of your meals.

The more herbs and spices used in the kitchen, the better. Once you fall for these bold, delicate, peppery and sweet flavors, thereís no going back. Itíll completely transform your experiences in the kitchen. The smells alone will have neighbors knocking on the door, wondering whatís cooking.

Using fresh herbs on a side dish and understanding which spices enhance favorite ingredients is a huge step in every chefís journey. At first it may seem like the possibilities are endless. You'll be tempted to add a pinch of everything and wind up with more herbs on the plate than anything else.  You may over season and will most likely create a few dishes that just donít work, but itís all part of the journey to becoming a better cook.

Most people have way more spices in their cabinet than they actually use. Thatís okay, especially in the beginning when youíre just figuring out what you like. Gradually a dozen or so will rise to the front of the shelf as your go-to seasonings while the others will be relegated to supporting roles for certain dishes.

Whatís the difference.

Herbs and spices often come from different parts of the same plant. The former are the leaves while the later is a combination of roots and seeds. For example, cilantro leaves come from the same plant as coriander seeds. They taste wildly different from one another, though both are staples in Indian cuisine, often used in the same dish.

Bring the flavors out to play

The first step of learning to cook with herbs and spices is practicing different ways to open up their flavors. Dried herbs will taste dull if you put some on your tongue. They need to be broken up with a pestle or your fingers and heated in liquid to brighten.

Use oil, butter or even water in a pan with dried herbs. This way the liquid will absorb the flavors and in turn infuse the meat, pasta or other primary ingredient. In general, youíll use more when working with dried as opposed to fresh because the drying process reduces flavor. Fresh herbs are a seasonal treat guaranteed to help you cook better.

Spice things up

Adding spice doesnít necessarily mean adding heat to a dish. The variety of flavor youíll discover on the spice rack far exceeds the herb garden, plus they're more potent so you only need to use a little. Experimenting with a new-to-you type of cuisine Ė Indian, Chinese, Mexican Ė is an excellent way to broaden your usage.

If youíre a baker, too, youíll notice that cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and cardamom work with both savory dishes and desserts, including apple muffins, pumpkin bread and beef. The more uses you find for a single ingredient, the more youíll understand what it will bring to a dish before you add it!

Start with pinches

Avoid throwing away inedible food by only adding small amounts of seasoning at a time. One of the simplest ways to experiment is to add a new spice, say sumac or turmeric, to a familiar ingredient like pan of buttery potatoes or small pot of rice. In addition to getting a sense for the favor, youíll notice how paprika or turmeric turns food a beautiful shade of red or yellow.

Sort favors to avoid clashes

Learning to cook with herbs and spices takes some time. Your palate and brain must work together to sample and sort so future experiments pleasantly surprise you. For instance, dominant flavors shouldnít be combined with other dominant flavors (ginger, mustard, rosemary, cardamom). On the other hand, those with a medium level of flavor often go well together (garlic, oregano, thyme, fennel, turmeric). Fresh dill, parsley, chives and other herbs with delicate flavors can be used in larger quantities to balance bold dishes.

Cooking from scratch will produce marvelous results. Refer to cookbooks, magazines and food sites to find recipes that incorporate these new flavors.

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