When Is An Herb An Herb And A Spice A Spice?

You hear a lot about herbs and spices to flavor the foods you cook. But, do you know the difference?

Basically, the difference between the herb and spice families is that herbs grow in temperate climates while spices come from the tropics. The leaves of herbs usually provide the seasonings, but the leaves of spice plants are seldom used for the same purpose. Herbs and spices accent and complement food, and can enhance the flavor to all kinds of recipes.

Since the strength of herbs and spices varies so much, it can be difficult to know the exact quantities you should use. Start with just a small amount, 1/2 teaspoon of mild herbs and 1/4 teaspoon of strong herbs or spices. Taste and experiment with the amounts used, changing the amount to fit your own tastes.

Essential oils are the source of the characteristic aroma and flavor given off by all herbs and spices. These oils are released either by grinding, as with a pestle and mortar, or by fine chopping. This is one of the reasons that herbs and spices that are bought already ground lose their flavor more quickly than those that are whole seeds or leaves. Replace your herbs and spices as soon as they lose their scent. Keep them away from light by storing in a dark place and in dark, solid containers.


Some herbs are so popular or easy to grow that they can be bought throughout all of the seasons. Parsley is a good example of one of these herbs. These herbs are very easy to grow, and can be planted in window boxes or pots on the patio.

Some of the more popular herbs are parsley, basil, dill, mint, sage, tarragon, savory and thyme. I bet you considered most of these herbs spices, didn’t you?

Spices were an important ingredient used in the Middle Ages. True spices come from tropical plants so are not normally grown by the home gardener. They are the seeds of fruits, the fleshy covering of the fruits, the unopened flower buds, the roots, barks or berries. They can be sweet, like nutmeg and cinnamon, or peppery like black pepper, ginger and cloves. When cooking with spices pay attention to the odor as well as the taste buds in determining the exact amount needed for a recipe. Your personal taste will dictate how much of a spice a dish needs.

Many cooks like to purchase “whole” spices and grind them just prior to adding them to a recipe. Spices that are freshly ground are much more full-flavored than those that are already ground and put in containers for marketing to grocery stores.

Some popular spices include allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, ginger, mace, nutmeg, dried peppers (chili, cayenne, Tabasco, paprika), saffron, curry, sesame and vanilla. Again, spices should be stored in a dark , cool cupboard or pantry.

Vanilla, although it is not a “dried” spice, comes from the vanilla bean, which comes from an orchid (of all things). In ancient times, it was used only as a flavoring for hot chocolate, but now is used in many different recipes to enhance flavor.

Herbs and spices can be extremely useful in creating delicious meals. Remember to store them properly and replace with fresh when their scent becomes weak.