8 Tips To Know When Cooking With Spices And Herbs ~ Doable tips to help you use spices and herbs in recipes to their fullest flavour and fragrance potential.
It is a good thing we have spices and herbs to add to our food or it would be pretty bland and pretty blah. Spices and herbs have the important job of adding flavour and fragrance. Can you imagine eating chili without cumin or a chili spice? It just wouldn’t be chili. Can you imagine eating your favourite Italian pasta dish that is cooked without any basil, oregano or garlic? It just wouldn’t be the same.
When I was a busy working Mom with two young daughters I had a rule that no family member was to say, “I don’t like this” during dinnertime. The expectation was there be a level of respect and appreciation for the time and effort that the cook put into preparing the meal. Family members were allowed to share their opinion but it had to be stated a certain way. My daughters and even my husband were only allowed to say “This food was not quite my favourite but thank you for your effort.” or “This was not quite your best effort but thank you for the time you put into preparing this dish.” I didn’t want dinner to digress to an opportunity for whining and complaining about the food. Heck, I was happy just to get a meal on the table after a long day of work.
But I do have to admit not all of my prepared dinners were worthy of a positive review. When they did not taste very good it was usually because there was an issue with the taste. The type and amount of spices and herbs used were usually the issue.
So over the years, with some experimenting, trial and errors, lots of successes and a few failures I now feel pretty comfortable working with spices and herbs in my cooking.
I share this information not as a professional chef or an expert representing a company that produces and sells spices and herbs. I share this information, as most of you are, an unpaid cook who has a busy family that has to eat good nourishing food and somebody has to prepare it. That being said, I do like to cook, try new recipes and I do like to share some of my favourites with you on Time With Thea.
It amazes me how trained chefs just intuitively know what spices and herbs to add, how much to add and when to add them to a dish. But I also understand that they have trained for years to have that intuitive knowledge. I also think that we as the unpaid cooks of the household do not have to have the in depth knowledge that pros have. But we can have a basic knowledge so here I share with you…
8 Tips To Know When Cooking With Spices And Herbs
Tip 1 ~ Store Your Spices And Herbs So They Stay Fresher Longer
There is no sense cooking with spices and herbs that have lost their taste and fragrance potential because they were not stored properly. Best Spice And Herb Storage Tips will gives you some good need to know information. How To Store Bulk Dried Spices And Herbs gives a storage solution for those spices and herbs you bought in bulk at Costco or the on sale and come in all different kinds of packaging.
Tip 2 ~ Do What The French Do When They Cook
The French have a cooking strategy that I think is brilliant. Actually The French have coined the phrase for this technique but all of the professional chefs use it. It is known as ‘Mise En Place’ (pronounced MEEN – ahn – plahs). If you have been following me for a while you will know that I love to be organized. ‘Mise En Place’ is a French term that means “everything in its place”. In reality it refers to having every ingredient purchased, washed, cut and measured. It also means having everything needed to prepare the dish as in cooking utensils and measuring tools in place for preparing the intended dish.
I have to admit I do not have everything ‘Mise En Place’ before I prepare a dish but I always have the spices and herbs pre-measured ahead of time. Actually when starting on a recipe it is the first thing I get ready.
These are the seasonings that go into the recipe: Quick Taco Soup. It is a super tasty soup that cooks up quickly. It is perfect for a busy weekday meal.
Tip 3: Make Sure The Spices And Herbs Are Still Fresh Before Using
Do you have spices and herbs that you have no idea how old they are? If they are stored properly they actually have a pretty good shelf life. But in reality it is a couple of years and not a couple of decades. If you are not sure how old your spices and herbs are it is actually quite easy to check. When you open the spice container take a look to see how vibrant the colour is (with some exceptions like tarragon). Another sure test is to give it a good whiff. If a lot of aroma comes your way that is a good sign. There are some exceptions though. For example, bay leaves only emit their flavour and fragrance during the cooking process.
What I have done so I kind of know how the spice and herb should smell is every time I open a spice or herb jar I give it a smell. I do this for several reasons. It trains my brain to know what the spice and herb is supposed to smell like and frankly, I quite like giving the spices and herbs a sniff while cooking. My favourites are oregano, cinnamon and rosemary!
Tip 4 ~ Have A Go To System When Measuring Spices And Herbs
After your spices and herbs have passed the ‘I am still fresh test’ the next thing to do is follow the ‘Mise En Place’ cooking strategy and do your pre-measuring. I purchased special small little dishes that I use primarily for this purpose. Then use a dry measuring spoon and place all of the spices and herbs required in the recipe in this little dish. If some of the herbs are leaves as in basil, oregano or rosemary you will want to crumble them in your hands. This gets them even more ready to emit that flavour and fragrance these popular herbs are known for during the cooking process.
These are the seasonings that go into the recipe: Split Pea Vegetable Soup With Ham. I love cooking this recipe on a chilly winter day. The combination of spices and herbs are so fragrant to smell when the soup is cooking and flavourful to eat when enjoying the soup.
Tip 5 ~ Bay Leaves And Whole Spices Require Their Own Special Treatment
If the recipe calls for adding bay leaves or whole spices like peppercorns or whole cloves seeds you will want to tie these in a couple of layers of trimmed cheesecloth secured with a string. They can do their magic while cooking and the diner will not get a nasty surprise with a mouth full of these hard to eat spices when eating. Just pull the easy to find cheesecloth out of the cooked dish before serving.
Tip 6 ~ Never Add Spices And Herbs Directly From the Original Container To The Cooking Dish
There are a couple of reasons for this golden rule. Spices and herbs stay fresher longer if they are stored in a cool dry place. The key word here is dry. If you hover your container filled with basil or oregano while cooking your spaghetti sauce the steam and moisture coming form the sauce while add some unwanted moisture to your oregano and basil jars. Another reason is you don’t want to have an unintended extra amount of a spice or herb added because some extra spilled into the cooking pot.
Now is when the ‘Mise En Place’ strategy comes into play. If you have all of your spices and herbs pre-measured into a separate small dish and ready to add you will not have anything to worry about.
Tip 7 ~ Know When To Add Your Spices And Herbs
This is where the professional chefs really amaze me. They know when to add what spice and herb to what recipe at what time. In my case as the unpaid cook of the household I prefer to just know the need to know information. Here are the basic guidelines that I use:
- When There Is No Cooking Time: When you are adding spices and herbs to a dish that does not require cooking such as a dressing for a salad you will actually want to prepare it several hours before serving. This is known as ‘marrying’ the flavours in the culinary world. Actually you will want to add the spices and herbs to the vinegar ingredient, let that ‘marry’ for several hours and then add the oil just before serving.
- When It Is A Shorter Cooking Time: Most of the recipes we cook fall in this category. Adding the spices and herbs near the beginning of the cooking time will have them blend into the overall flavour of the recipe. Spices that are already ground like ground thyme and ground oregano particularly do not need a lot of time to do their thing in a recipe. If you want your dish to have a more distinct spice and herb flavouring then you will want to add them toward the end of the shorter cooking time. However, if the spices are whole as in bay leaves, black pepper seeds or whole cloves you will want to add them at the beginning because it takes longer when they are in their whole form for their yumminess to be released.
- When It Is A Longer Cooking Time: Apparently when it is a recipe that takes longer to cook like a stew or a dish cooked in a slow cooker it is better to add the spices and herbs later towards the end of the cooking time. This is the recommendation so the flavour is not ‘cooked off’ during the longer cooking process. I have to confess that I don’t always follow this guideline. When I cook a slow cooking dish I tend to throw it together, put it in the oven or the slow cooker close the lid or door and pretty well forget about it till it is dinner time.
- When It Is Best Not To Add Them To The Cooking Time: There are some herbs that are best not added to the dish when it is being cooked. Sometimes it is better to add the sprig of fresh rosemary or parsley when the cooked dish is being served for presentation purposes and just to give the dish a nice fresh herb fragrance when serving.
These are the seasonings that go into the recipe: Easy Oven Beef Stew With Red Wine. This beef stew is my all time favourite. The seasonings and I have to admit adding the red wine really makes this recipe a wonderful eating experience.
Tip 8 ~ Measure The Spices And Herbs Accurately
If you are like me and you are not a total whiz working with spices and herbs it might be better to stick to tested recipes from credible sources or with recipes that you know are a sure thing. It is a waste of time and money to cook up a recipe that has the incorrect amounts of ingredients, particularly when it comes to spices and herbs. Remember that is how many of my cooking attempts became failures.
Interestingly, if you are doubling a recipe you do not automatically double the quantity of spices and herbs. Instead you measure 1 ½ times the amount. Give the dish a taste test and if you feel it still needs more flavouring do so by adding more ¼ teaspoon at a time till you get the flavour experience you are happy with.
If you are working with fresh herbs use a 3 – 1 ratio. For example if the recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of dried thyme then you will add one tablespoon of fresh thyme in its place. A measuring equivalent that is handy to know is that there are three teaspoons in one tablespoon. Also, you will want to add the fresh herb at the end of the cooking time.
These are 8 tips to know when cooking with spices and herbs. Once you practice these tips they will become intuitive for you just like they are for the professional chefs. I still cook recipes that get rave reviews from the family and I still occasionally try new recipes that get the ‘This was not quite your best effort.’ comment. That is OK. Cooking is an ongoing process and being the unpaid chef of the household I am striving for my best effort not for perfection 100% of the time.
In my research I came across some fabulous sites with fabulous information and tips to know when cooking with spices and herbs. You may want to check these out too…
This quick reference chart developed by Spice Advice (not sponsored) details what spices and herbs to use with what foods and dishes… Spice Usage Tips. I also love their Spice Encyclopedia . It is a handy reference guide in a very user friendly format that provides detailed information about each spice and herb.
What rules do you have when it comes to making comments about your cooking? What other tips do you have when cooking with spices and herbs?