A panoply of herbs and spices will add zest to any kitchen. (For Spectrum Health Beat)
A panoply of herbs and spices will add zest to any kitchen. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Ever wonder what distinguishes herbs from spices? They’re close in definition, but unique in their own regard.

So let’s keep it simple: Herbs are the edible, leafy parts of plants that typically grow in temperate climates. Think rosemary, cilantro and thyme. They can be prepared fresh, partly dried or dried.

Spices are from the other parts—roots, seeds, stem, bark and so on—of plants such as pepper, cinnamon and cumin. They’re often ground into the consistency of power or granules.

Simple descriptions aside, we recognize herbs and spices as the flavorful leafy or dried ingredients that can quickly take a food or beverage from “Blah” to “Ahhh.”

These enhanced flavors can sometimes get us to eat healthy foods that we might otherwise find bland.

You’ve likely experienced the flavor power of herbs and spices in Italian or Mediterranean cuisines. You’ve probably tasted fresh basil on a margarita pizza, and fresh basil-and-oregano mix in a tomato sauce poured over pasta.

And maybe you’ve experienced the goodness of fresh cilantro in Mexican guacamole, and fresh parsley in the Middle Eastern dish tabbouleh.

These exquisite cuisines are certainly recognizable by sight, but they’re also memorable by taste and smell.

The best thing about herbs and spices: It’s easy to learn how, and when, to use them.

Herb Shopping 101                                                        

When shopping for herbs, make sure you buy items that look fresh—they should not be wilted or discolored.

Many companies prepare a realistic serving size of herbs in smaller containers so that you don’t have to buy a large quantity you’re unlikely to use. Some sellers also offer “partly dried” herbs that still have a strong aroma and flavor—stronger than dried, but perhaps not quite as strong as fresh.

Partially dried herbs are most often found near other fresh herbs in the produce section. (They still need refrigeration after opening.) You’ll get a slightly longer shelf life with partially dried herbs compared to fresh, but always mind the expiration date.

The benefits

The Mediterranean diet has been associated with better health and a longer life, but is there more to it than just food?

Could herbs and spices used in the Mediterranean diet also provide benefits that support health? If so, which ones should we try to include?

A review published recently in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition took a look at these questions.

It examined the possible benefits of 25 herbs and spices common to the Mediterranean diet, including basil, bay leaf, cumin, coriander, dill, fennel, marjoram, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme, lavender, hyssop, summer savory, annatto, hoja santa, tilia, all spice, cardamom and star anise.

According to the review, the Mediterranean diet can improve blood glucose regulation, lipid profile and inflammation. Some of these improvements could be attributed to individual herbs, or to some combination of herbs with Mediterranean diet foods.

Many of the active compounds in fresh herbs become more concentrated in dried herb form, as seen in basil, bay leaves, dill, fennel leaves, marjoram, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, thyme, summer savory and coriander leaves.

Keep in mind the review included studies that used large amounts of herbs and spices in the research. For everyday cooking and recipes, normal food amounts are recommended.

Savor the flavor

The Food Network has a handy online piece, Guide to Fresh Herbs, which lists 10 of the most common herbs and spices: basil, parsley, cilantro, mint, rosemary, sage, thyme, chives, dill and oregano.

Here’s a rundown on these items and some ideas for incorporating them into your food and beverages. Remember that fresh herbs are usually recommended, unless a recipe benefits from using a dried herb instead.

Basil

Basil is used often in Italian and Mediterranean dishes.

Here’s one way to give it a quick try: Take fresh tomato slices and layer them with an equal number of slices of fresh mozzarella. Sprinkle on the fresh basil, then drizzle on some balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. The taste and smell are simply amazing.

Parsley

Parsley is versatile in many cuisines, although sometimes simple is best. Potatoes with parsley, for instance, make for a recipe that requires little preparation.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Thoroughly rinse 1 pound of red skin potatoes, cutting them into halves or quarters of about equal size. Place them in a large bowl and drizzle them with about 1 to 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Add 2 tablespoons of fresh parsley and 1 teaspoon of paprika. Mix so potatoes are coated evenly. Place the potatoes in the oven on a rimmed cookie sheet coated with olive oil, to keep them from sticking. Cook for about 25 to 30 minutes, stirring about halfway through. Potatoes are done when they can be poked with a fork or when their edges start to turn golden.

Cilantro

Cilantro is frequently used in Indian, Latin and Asian dishes. If you’re making guacamole, be sure to add a sprig of fresh, chopped cilantro—it takes this item up to a whole new level. Cilantro also goes great on dishes with Basmati rice, or with seafood such as cooked shrimp.

Mint

Mint is often used in Mediterranean dishes, but it’s also an infused water ingredient.

Here’s one way to do it: Take a pitcher of ice water and add 1 cup of fresh mint leaves. Add slices of fresh fruit, such as lime and lemon, and then let it sit in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before serving. The flavors fuse together beautifully, and you won’t even miss the sugar.

Rosemary

This traditional herb is often used with meats. If you’re making a dish with lamb or if you like Greek food—especially meat dishes—rosemary should be on your shopping list.

Sage

The holidays just wouldn’t be the holidays without sage, an herb with a great flavor reminiscent of seasonal traditions.

This is a traditional herb commonly used with more savory meat dishes. If you’re making stuffing, try whole grain bread stuffing mix or make your own toasted whole grain bread cubes and use dried sage in the recipe.

Thyme

Another holiday favorite, thyme has, well, stood the test of time. It goes with most meats and has a flavor profile that compliments traditional cooking.

Chives

Chives are common in many different cuisines, as they add crunch as well as flavor. They’re fun to chop and eat and they can make a dish look beautiful. As a relative of the allium or onion family, they go great in soups, chili and Latin dishes.

Dill

Dill is immediately recognizable for its role in making pickles, but it’s actually versatile in many different cuisines, including European dishes.

If you like baked potatoes or seafood, be sure to include dill in your recipe. If you’re adding panko to your seafood fillet, for example, add dill into the mix—just sprinkle it on and place the seafood in the oven.

If you’ve never warmed to seafood, you may find fresh dill improves the flavor. (Fresh dill is best, but dried is also delicious.)

Oregano

Oregano is used frequently in Italian and Latin dishes. If you like a flavorful pasta sauce with depth, oregano is probably in the recipe. Oregano is also found in salsas and marinades.

Fresh or dried?

When swapping dried herbs for fresh, or even fresh herbs for dried, follow a 3:1 ratio. That means three times as many fresh herbs for every one measure of dried herbs.

If you’re making a recipe that calls for 3 tablespoons of fresh herbs, for example, you can use 1 tablespoon of dried herbs.

Also, if you use rosemary, sage or thyme in your recipe, you can expect to use less salt. These herbs all create flavors that should reduce the need for salt.

An excessive amount of any herb or spice—even in supplement form—could possibly interact with medications. If you’re thinking about taking any herbs or spices in supplement form, it’s imperative that you discuss it with your doctor before making a decision.