It isn't known when or where the use of herbs and spices began, but historians agree that they have been used to flavor foods for a long time. Herbs and spices have little if any nutritional value. Humans can subsist on unseasoned food. So what purpose did herbs and spices serve? The answer to this question could be answered quite practically. It's often said that in the days prior to refrigeration, herbs and spices were used to mask the foul odors and tastes of rotten foods that were too disgusting to eat without the added flavor but were too valuable to waste. Herbs and spices also are said to aid the digestion of fibrous vegetables or greasy meats and to relieve the distress caused by eating too much. The aroma of seasoned foods also is believed to stimulate gastric juices, or to put it another way, to make your mouth water. Good food is different than food that is good for you. And, for most people, herbs and spices are used to make food taste better creating both delicious tasting and healthy food.
Herbs are generally fragrant leaves or tops gathered from herbaceous or shrubby plants native to temperate climates. Spices are aromatic seeds, fruits, bark, roots, or resins from tropical plants. Twelve of the most commonly used herbs include:
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) leaves and stems are used fresh or dried. It is widely used to flavor all types of foods as well as vinegars and teas.
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) has the flavor described as a combination of orange peel and sage. Ground seed is called coriander but the fresh leaf stage is known as cilantro. The seed is used to make curry powder, the leaves are used in Chinese and Mexican cooking.
Dill (Anethum graveolens) is used either fresh or dried. The seeds, stems, and leaves can all be consumed. It is used to flavor many types of foods from meats to breads and desserts. One of its most common uses is in flavoring dill pickles.
Mint (Mentha spicata and/or x piperita) has sweet, fresh aromatic leaves that are used either fresh or dried. The refreshing tastes are used not only to flavor meats, soups, desserts, vegetables, salads, and dressings but also to make wonderful iced drinks and teas.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum) has a sharp aromatic flavor. The leaves are used fresh or dried. It is widely used in Mexican and Italian dishes to flavor meats, soups, vegetables, salads, eggs, and cheese dishes.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) has a refreshing peppery flavor. The leaves can be used fresh or frozen. The most common use is as an edible garnish.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) has a pungent flavor. The leaves are used either fresh or dried to make excellent tasting sauces, fish, vegetables, stuffings, and meats.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) has a strong, musky flavor. The fresh or dried leaves are a natural flavoring for poultry, veal, game, lamb, and pork dishes as well as vegetables and tea.
Savory (Satureja hortensis or S. montana) has a peppery, spicy flavor that works well with boiled meats, chicken, fish, lamb, veal, and seafood. It is commonly used in various soups and stews as well as flavoring vegetables, gravies, and sauces. It also makes a wonderful flavored vinegar.
Sweet Marjoram (Origanum majorana) is a sweet, fragrant herb whose leaves can be used either fresh or dried. It is used for flavoring fish and meat, soups and stews, and egg and vegetable dishes.
Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa) has an aniselike flavor that adds an interesting taste to poultry, seafood, lamb, and veal. Like savory, tarragon can be used to flavor vinegar, sauces, and vegetable dishes.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) has a strong pungent flavor for all kinds of meats, soups, vegetables, seafood, and breads.
Today, gardeners are enjoying the wide variety of herbs and spices that fit with our individual styles of cooking. If you are not a cook who experiments with many flavors, try some of the plants listed above for a flavorful cooking experience.
This article originally appeared in the May 16, 1997 issue, p. 69.