Herb and Spice Use 101

Adding herbs and spices,
A ‘Duh’ cooking moment?

Well, yes and no…
 photo IMG_3155.jpg
(And yes, that’s really our cabinet…)

First off, disclaimer, this is a quick overview in response to a question from a reader, not The Big Picture view, K?

The first and most important answer to the question is this: Herbs and spices and herbs should be used to compliment the flavors of great food, not overwhelm them. In other words, all things in moderation, eh?

With that in mind, do think of salt and pepper as spices. They impact the flavor of foods and should not be left out of your thought process when deciding what to add, if for no other reason than not to add too much or too many. You can almost always say yes to salt, to some degree. Just a little shake or two of salt will wake up natural flavors and help others blend. Likewise, pepper adds a pleasant bottom note, a base to a flavor profile if you will, that’s more often worth it than not.

So, what else, if anything, do you need? The answer is again, moderation, most of the time. If you’re not making black mole, you don’t need 20 different spices and herbs. If you’re unsure what you need, but confident you do need some thing, try 2 and 3 component combinations that will enhance the flavor of the dish you’re building. It may be as simple as salt, pepper and lemon, or salt, pepper and garlic, or maybe garlic, lime and dill. Be selective, add a bit, allow the flavors to marry, then taste and see where you’re at.

Take for example, something simple like chili – what could and should go into your signature taste for that dish? We braise our meat in beer, add a dash of salt, onion, a little garlic and fresh cilantro to the base tomato flavor, and then use our house made chili powder, and that’s it.

The chile powder looks like this:
3 Tablespoons ground Chiles of your choice
1 teaspoon ground Cumin
1 teaspoon ground Mexican Oregano
½ teaspoon smoked Paprika
½ teaspoon ground Garlic

There’s a great example of a wealth of complex flavor fueled mostly by the food, enhanced with just a few choice herbs and spices.

The next question that gets asked a lot is when to add herbs and spices. There’s no one answer to this question; it depends on what you’re cooking and adding. Here are some general rules of thumb.
1. You can add herbs anywhere in the cooking process. In general, if you want the flavor note of the herb to stand out more, add it toward the end, and I f you want the flavor note blended with the dish more thoroughly, add it at the start.
2. Ground spices and dried herbs release flavors quite quickly; they can and will peak and diminish if added too soon. For instance, in that chili we’re making up there, we add the chili powder when there’s about an hour left to go in the process; that lets the flavors infuse, but also keeps them brighter than they would be if they were in there for hours on end.
3. Whole spices release flavor more slowly than ground or leaf form. This is why we toss Bay leaves, whole pepper corns, Juniper and stuff like that in when we’re making stock; they can and should do their thing through the whole process to maximize the flavor notes they add to the mix. Try tying these kinds of herbs and spices into a sachet of cheesecloth; that’ll make them really easy to fish out when their work is done.
4. When making uncooked foods like salads, salsas, and dressings, add spices and herbs an hour or two or three before serving; that’ll allow flavors to marry properly. For salad dressings, add the spices to the vinegar and let that sit for half an hour before adding the oil.
5. For marinades, try briefly and gently heating the seasoned liquid and then allowing it to cool completely; that’ll help release the flavor notes from the spices.

And then there’s the ‘How Much to Add’ question.
It’s real hard to form a viable general rule for the correct amount of spices and herbs to use, ’cause the strength of each differs widely, as does their effect on different foods.
I think it is a sound rule of thumb to say that, the stronger the herb or spice, the more sparingly you should employ it. For example, it doesn’t take a whole lot of Rosemary to go from herbed to overwhelmed, so go easy with those bad boys.
Keeping in mind that recipes are often written to the lowest common denominator, you may want to get a feel for altering them effectively, and more to the point, you probably want to get comfortable building your own ideas for scratch, right?
If you need a starting point and just don’t have a comfortable reference, try this:
Use 1/2 teaspoon per pound of meat or pint of sauce or soup.
For strong herbs and spices and hot chiles, start with 1/4 teaspoon and adjust as you see fit.
It’s always easier to add than take away…

BTW, don’t shake herbs and spices from the jar into what you’re cooking; you’re asking for a disaster when the whole thing cuts loose and falls in, and besides that, rising moisture can ding the potency of the herb or spice. Crush leafy herbs in your hand and then add them to your dish.

Finally, store your stuff in airtight jars, away from strong light, heat and moisture, and if you don’t use it inside of year, reevaluate if you need it, and consider getting some fresh stuff, too!

Vas-y!

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2 thoughts on “Herb and Spice Use 101”

  1. OO, like the stepped spice risers; where did you get those? I find when I live alone, my spices stay put, but sharing a kitchen with pretty much anybody else (as I have for years now), they end up in a jumble. Maybe those spice steps would help???

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