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How Herbs and Spices Can Make You Cook Like a Pro

Knowing how to season your food is one of the easiest ways to be a better DIY cook.

Bundle of fresh and cutting Italian herbs rosemary, oregano and sage over old dark wooden and black ornate background. Top view with copy space
REDA&COGetty Images

Although herbs and spices are often grouped together, they are actually completely different cooking elements with one basic similarity: They come from aromatic plants.

Herbs are the leaves, stems, and flowers of those plants found in temperate climates, and are generally soft (like basil) or slightly woody (like rosemary). Spices are the bark, roots, seeds, buds, and berries of plants from tropical and subtropical zones, and are generally hard in texture, like peppercorns or cinnamon sticks.

Whether a recipe calls for herbs or spices (or how it combines the two) can provide a history lesson that links the origin of a dish to its community roots. For example, the long list of spices and herbs in the great one-pot dishes of New Orleans like gumbo and jambalaya reflect the layering of that port city’s Western European and Afro Caribbean influences. Every different culture—from Italy to the West Indies—stirred a little something into the pot.

However, the great distinction between spices and herbs is in the manner and timing of their usage, which all comes down to one issue: HEAT. Spices like it. Herbs do not.


Because their essential oils are diminished by heat, herbs are added toward the end of savory cooking time as a way of balancing flavor. When heartier stems of herbs are used early in the cooking process—such as rosemary or thyme in making stock or in a braising liquid—they are discarded after lending their essential oil to the liquid. Then the same herb, freshly chopped, is added right before serving.


Because they are typically hard in texture, spices require heat and moisture to release their essential oils. They are introduced early in the cooking process, playing more of an integral role in flavor development. Spices can produce an almost endless spectrum of flavor—from subtle to complex— providing you know how to treat them. Once you understand that applying the right heat method unlocks and maximizes their flavor contribution, every dish you make with spices will be noticeably better.

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Whole spices are typically immersed in cooking liquid, for example, cloves, allspice, or peppercorns in a stock or braised dish like pot roast. Place spices in a small square of cheesecloth, draw the edges together to form a bag, loosely tie it with kitchen twine (or use a small pre-made "spice bag”), and place it on a clean work surface. Using the side of a knife blade, press down on the bag and “bruise” the spices. This will crack open the surface of the whole spice (without grinding) and allow maximum flavor to be released as the liquid heats. At the end of the cooking time, it is easy to remove the bag—without the need to strain loose spices from the seasoned liquid—and continue with your recipe.

The Stuff You Need

Spice Bags, made with 100 percent cotton muslin and sturdy enough for hours of braising.

Regency Natural Spice Bags 100% cotton set of 4
Regency Wraps

Cheesecloth, unbleached cotton 90 grade, with fine mesh, can be cut to any size.

100% Unbleached Cotton Reusable Cheesecloth

Cooking Twine, 16 ply 100 percent cotton.

Regency Natural Cooking Twine 100% Cotton 500ft
Regency Wraps
$3.99 (27% off)

Ground Spices

Ground spices—say in a stew or chili—should be sprinkled over aromatic vegetables like garlic and onions as they are being sautéed, allowing the natural moisture in the vegetables to help “cook” the spices as a way of intensifying their flavor before additional liquid (such as chicken stock) is added. During this process, you should be stirring frequently to prevent the spices from burning.

• When using a dry rub on meat that is to be seared, the surface of the skillet should be covered with just enough oil to coat the spice crust (without submerging the meat). This allows the hot oil to “cook” the spices and also prevents the dry rub from sticking.

• Grinding your own spices is a vital part of kitchen awareness, connecting you on a much deeper level to the smell and sounds of good home cooking. Toasting them first will only add to their flavor contribution.

• To dry roast spices, place them in a small, heavy skillet over medium heat. We like the Lodge Cast Iron Spice Skillet, with a pre-seasoned cooking surface that is just the right size for toasting small quantities of spices.

Lodge 6.5 Inch Cast Iron Skillet

Cook, shaking the pan frequently, until the spices become aromatic and start to darken. Spread out the roasted spices on a large plate (crowding will cause them to steam and soften). When cool, use a mortar and pestle or spice grinder to get the coarseness you want. If you’re using an electric blade grinder, periodically shake it (while holding the cover tightly) to keep the spices evenly distributed for a uniform grind. No one likes to bite into a chunk of clove.

Mortar and Pestle

As opposed to an electric spice grinder, when you pulverize spices with a mortar and pestle, there’s minimal friction—no heat from a motor to burn off the oils—for a greater release of flavor and aroma. You also get better control, grinding the spices to the texture you need, from barely cracked to fine as powder. There are many different materials, but marble remains the best for spices. The hard, nonporous surface is good for grinding, won’t absorb or transfer odors, and is easy to clean. A mortar should only be filled less than halfway to prevent spillage over the sides when grinding. Look for a four-inch diameter mortar with approximately a two-inch deep unpolished bowl and a pestle with a textured or matte working tip for better traction. Sit the pestle on top of the spices, apply downward pressure, and work the pestle in a circular motion, grinding the spices against the walls of the mortar.

Classic style in Carrara marble, also good for grinding salt.

HIC Solid Carrara Marble Mortar and Pestle
HIC Harold Import Co.

Manual Spice Grinders

As with the mortar and pestle, these crush the spices without heat from mechanical blades that can burn off essential oils.

Kuhn Rikon High Performance Ratchet Grinder, Swiss high-style design of BPA-free material with a unique back and forth handle movement and noncorrosive ceramic stone grinder.

Kuhn Rikon High Performance Ratchet Grinder
Kuhn Rikon
$22.00 (15% off)

Bazaar Anatolia Spice Grinder, a small but beautifully vintage looking grinder with a completely metal body and mechanism of corrugated rollers that produce a relatively even grind.

Bazaar Anatolia Pepper Mill, Spice Grinder
Bazaar Anatolia

Electric Spice Grinders

Stainless-steel Secura Spice Grinder, two removable bowls with different blade mechanisms, one for chopping and one for grinding.

Secura Electric Coffee Grinder & Spice Grinder
$84.39 (40% off)

Cuisinart SG-10, grinds with an easy press-down power lid and a larger-capacity cup.

Cuisinart SG-10 Electric Spice-and-Nut Grinder

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