How To Spice Things Up!

By Leslie McKenna February 17, 2013 06:00 AM
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How To Spice Things Up!

A Beginner’s Guide to Your Spice Rack

A friend of mine suggested that I should write an article about what spices you should have in your kitchen and what they are best used for, which I thought it was a great idea. I think most people limit themselves when they are cooking because they don’t know which spices are best to use and compliment the dish. So here is a basic guide that will help you be more adventurous when purchasing and cooking with spices and herbs.

Nowadays in most places, fresh herbs are readily available, so I want to talk about using fresh herbs as well as dried herbs and spices and the differences between the two.

Let’s start with the simple difference between herbs and spices.  Herbs are the leaf or flower portion of the plant, which can be used either dry or fresh.  Spices can be from the bark, seeds, shells, pods, pit, roots, stamen, and fruit of the plant, which have been dried and are sold either whole or ground.  There are also salts, seasonings, blends, rubs and condiments which will be part two of this article.

If you are buying spices that are whole, they have a better shelf life than ground because they are still intact and the oxygen doesn’t penetrate them as quickly. Ground herbs have a lesser shelf life because they have been broken down from grinding and have more exposure to oxygen so the oils will dry out quicker. However, they do still last quite some time and if they have been around for a while, you can lightly toast your spices in a pan for a few seconds and it will help bring out the oils and flavors refreshing them.

herbsHow you store herbs is also important in how long they will hold their flavors. They should be stored out of direct sunlight, away from heat and ideally in non-transparent containers. You should never have your spices stored over or near your stove or oven. The heat can make some of the oils turn rancid and dry out the oils far more rapidly.

When you are using fresh herbs as opposed to dry there are a couple of tips you should have.

1. Always make sure your fresh herbs are clean and wash them gently and dry before you use them (with the exception of dill — it will get destroyed if you wash it and it’s normally very clean.)
2. You only want to use the leaf of the herbs so make sure you remove the leaves from the stems and only chop the leaf portion.  (You can use some of the stems when chopping cilantro; they are very soft and won’t be a problem.)
3. When using fresh herbs, add ½ the amount of herbs during the cooking time as per you’re your recipe and the other ½ at the very end. This way the delicate flavor of the herbs that has been cooked down is refreshed and you get a nice hit of flavor to finish your dish. If you are substituting fresh herbs for dry you will have to use about ¼ to ½ more the amount called for since they are more delicate.
4. Dry spices are more pungent and strong so be careful not to use too much. You can always add more, but once it’s in there, you’re stuck. Also, if you can buy them whole they will last longer.
5. Try to buy organic or non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) products when available. It better to buy quality products and, if available, will impart a better flavor.
6. When you think about which herbs go with what, think of the consistency and robust nature of the herbs. If you have a delicate herb then you should use it on things that are more delicate, such as fish or seafood. Of course chicken can take just about any herb or spice. The heartier the herb like rosemary or thyme, you want to use with stronger flavors like lamb, duck or beef.  Below is a simple guide that will help you decide which herbs to use.

Basic herbs and spices you should have on your spice rack or fresh in your refrigerator:

  • Basil – Soft and delicate herb with lots of flavor. Use with vegetables, tomatoes, dressings, fish/seafood & chicken.
  • Oregano – Hearty plant with a very pungent strong flavor. Use with poultry, beef, pork, lamb, vegetables (especially eggplant) and dressings. (Pairs well with lemon.)
  • Dill -Very delicate and soft flavor. Use with fish/seafood, smoked fish, poultry, pork and vegetables.
  • Tarragon – Hearty herb with a very strong flavor. Use with poultry, veal, pork, seafood/fish. Great for cream sauces.
  • Thyme – Hearty and strong flavor, very robust. Use with poultry, fish/seafood, pork, game, dressings, vegetables and soups.
  • Rosemary – Very hearty and strong herb, very strong in flavor and aroma. Great to use on poultry, lamb, pork, game, fish/seafood and vegetables. Use sparingly, as it has a very pungent taste.
  • Mint – Very versatile herb, medium heartiness. Great with lamb, poultry, fruit and dressings.
  • Paprika – there are many types. Rich and flavorful. Use with poultry, fish/seafood/ beef, vegetables, soups and sauces.
  • Curry Powder – (yellow) Very flavorful, strong and versatile. Use with poultry, fish/seafood, vegetables (especially potatoes), lamb or beef and dressings.
  • Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Ginger, Cloves - Mostly used for baking, however also used in savory dishes. Use with poultry, beef or vegetables, soups and stews.
  • Sesame Seeds – (toasted) – Very versatile. Use as a coating on poultry, beef, pork or fish/seafood or just sprinkle on as garnish.
  • Cumin – Very pungent and strong in flavor. Use with poultry, beef, pork, and some seafood. Great in dressings and stews or chili.
  • Cayenne Pepper - Hot and spicy  and can be used instead of black pepper but is spicier. Use when you want to add some heat to your dish.
  • Sage – Very strong and powerful herb, use sparingly. Great with poultry, game, and biscuits or breads.
  • Bay Leaves – Hearty herb. Great for sauces, stews, soups. Always remove the leaf after cooking.
  • Coriander – Delicate herb (cilantro). Use with poultry, fish/seafood, pork, dressings, chili, anything with tex-mex flavors.
  • Salt – I prefer to use kosher salt for cooking.
  • Black Pepper – You should ALWAYS use whole peppercorns and grind them fresh — they have much better flavor and because they are whole, they have a better shelf life too. Buy a good peppermill. The black pepper you buy ground is not as healthy for you as fresh ground. It can actually clog your prostate gland, and they don’t digest.
  • *Garlic Powder, *Onion Powder – I like to have both of these on hand for a quick fix if I don’t’ have fresh on hand. Also great to use in dressing, marinades and just to sprinkle on your product to add flavor. They can be used in anything.

*(I prefer powder over salt, since you don’t have control over the amount of salt you are adding when you use a garlic or onion salt.)

Chef Leslie McKenna has been a chef for over 25 years working at such prestigious restaurants as Maxwell’s Plum in New York with Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton as well as Piero Selvaggios’s Valentino’s Restaurant in Santa Monica, CA, where she was published in Bon Appetit and Wine Spectator magazines. Chef Leslie now owns Chef’s Inc. cooking school in LA. To find out more visit