Herbs and spices can be classified as either medicinal or culinary. Examples of culinary herbs include basil, oregano, cumin, and dill. Examples of medicinal herbs include burdock, raspberry leaf, chamomile and peppermint. Some spices such as cayenne (red pepper), ginger, cinnamon and turmeric have medicinal properties.
Why This Matters:
Herbs can have unwanted effects in people when they are not educated about the herb's nutrient properties. It is always best to refer shoppers to an in-store reference, such as on medicinal herbs and spices and let them use their own judgment as to which herb or spice may be best for their needs.
Culinary herbs are the fresh or dried leaves of herbaceous plants that are used as a food flavoring. Culinary herbs can be sold fresh, dried, and as live plants. Some examples of herbs are basil, parsley, rosemary, thyme and dill. The difference between a culinary herb and a spice is the part of the plant that is used. Spices are from the bark, root, berry, seed, twig or other part of the plant. Examples of spices are cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and allspice. In some cases both an herb and spice may come from the same plant. Dill is an example of this. The seeds from the dill plant are spices, while the stalk of the plant is an herb.
Researchers are exploring the possible therapeutic uses for herbs and spices used in cooking. The benefits of culinary herbs and spices are primarily due to their antioxidant, antimicrobial, and antiviral effects. They contain a vast array of powerful phytochemical compounds that may help in the prevention of serious diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and infection. Typically, fresh herbs and spices contain higher levels of antioxidants than dried or processed products. For example, fresh garlic is 1½ times more powerful than dry garlic powder. In a recent study of 26 common spice extracts, researchers discovered that the phenolic compounds in the spices contributed significantly to their antioxidant capacity. Studies have also shown that the intake of herbs can contribute greatly to the total intake of plant antioxidants. For example, salad dressings containing herbs and spices can increase the antioxidant capacity of a salad. The American Institute for Cancer Research notes that herbs and spices should be used as flavor enhancers because of their health-protective phytochemicals, which can help fight cancer and other diseases, much like those found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other plant-based foods.
Dried herbs are sold in small 1-2 ounce bottles and also in bulk. Many customers like to purchase herbs and spices for home cooking from a bulk bin because they are able to buy small amounts which can be used quickly. Dried herbs and spices do not spoil, but they do lose their strength and flavor over time, especially if exposed to heat and light. Dried herbs and spices should be stored in airtight containers in cool dry places so they retain their potency for as long as possible, up to one year. They should never be stored near heat sources. Whole spices such as peppercorns, nutmegs, cinnamon sticks, cloves, cumin seeds, and cardamom pods will last much longer than ground spices. Some spices, such as chili powder, cayenne pepper, and paprika can be refrigerated in containers with tight fitting lids so they retain their color and flavor. The best temperature for spices is below 70°F.
Almost all conventional culinary herbs and spices in the market are radiated. Irradiation is a food sanitizing and preservation method that uses high-energy ionizing radiation from gamma rays (cobalt 60) or high-energy electrons, commonly known as x-rays, to reduce the number of microorganisms present in food. This process does not completely eliminate all bacteria, but it kills the majority of offensive bacteria in foods, along with important nutrients. The process can extend shelf life, if it is done when the plant is in prime condition. However, irradiation is controversial and some people wish to stay away from radiated spices. In the U.S., foods that have been irradiated must be labeled; however, a food that uses an irradiated ingredient does not have to note this on the label. As a result, a salad dressing could contain irradiated herbs and spices and it would not be labeled; however, if the spice was packaged alone for sale, it would have to be labeled.
Organic culinary herbs and spices are available from reputable companies such as Frontier Coop. Production of organic herbs and spices must follow all the same USDA rules required to display the organic label. Unlike medicinal herbs, most culinary herbs and spices are not wild-crafted.
Culinary Herbs & Spices with Medicinal Qualities
Why This Matters:
Being able to visually identify herbs is a great asset to your level of customer service. Images shown in this lesson focus on the source and are often shown in the whole form.
Anise is an aromatic spice that imparts a distinct flavor of licorice and is commonly used to make the liqueurs ouzo, anisette, and Pernod. Anise is used in cookies and cakes, and can be added to fruit salads, particularly those utilizing citrus fruits, to give a distinct flavor. Anise has been used as medicine for upset stomach, as an expectorant, and for other common ailments. Some people apply anise to the skin to treat lice, scabies and psoriasis. There can be interactions between anise and birth control pills and Tamoxifen, a drug used to help treat and prevent estrogen sensitive cancers.
Basil is one of the most important herbs whose popularity has spanned many centuries and cultures. There are different types of basil, but the type most available commercially is Sweet Basil. Basil makes an excellent dried herb, but the result of using the dried form in cooking is very different then when fresh basil is used. Fresh basil is a primary component in pesto sauces and has a special affinity for tomato sauces and other tomato dishes. It is also used in soups, stews, poultry and meat dishes, flavored vinegar, and teas. Basil, which comes from the Greek word for "king", is rich in antioxidants and is widely used as medicine and is used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Basic extract is often used to reduce plasma cholesterol and the risk of atherosclerosis-related disease, reduce inflammation and swelling, and for its anti-aging properties. Basic extract contains antioxidant substances that have shown some protection against carcinogen-induce cancers.
Cayenne pepper is very hot spice, ground from dried hot peppers. A small amount goes a long way. It is used to give the hot, fiery flavor to Mexican, Indian, Creole, Cajun, and some Southeast Asian foods. It adds both heat and color to a recipe and is often used in vegetable or bean stews, curries, chili, spicy noodle dishes and hot-and-sour dishes. Cayenne pepper, which gets its name from the city of Cayenne in French Guiana, is a concentrated source of capsaicin, the powerful phytochemical that gives chilies their heat and appears to have chemo-preventative activity. Studies also suggest that the major capsaicinoids of peppers target a variety of pathways involved in cancer development and inflammation. Some experts report that capsaicin and its relatives are also powerful analgesics.
Cinnamon is among the earliest spices recorded and has been consumed since 2000 BC in ancient Egypt. Today it is among the most familiar and commonly used by American households. It comes from the bark of the cassia tree, a small evergreen. Cinnamon's sweet, spicy and warm fragrance adds pungent sweetness to baked goods and is also used as a component of curry blends. Cinnamon is a good addition to sweet or savory dishes of squash, pumpkin and sweet potatoes. Whole cinnamon sticks are often added to stewing fruits and hot beverages such as mulled cider. Cinnamon has been used as medicine since 2000 BC in ancient Egypt. During medieval times, it was used to treat coughing, arthritis, and sore throats. Today, the U.S. National Library of Medicine reports that cinnamon is used to help treat muscle spasms, vomiting, diarrhea, and helps to fight against bacterial and fungal infections. A study published in Diabetics Care stated that cinnamon may help improve glucose and lipids levels in people with type 2 diabetes.
Garlic is well known, used in most cuisines around the world and universally used by good cooks across many cultures. It is a member of the same lily family of plants that includes onions and shallots. There are many different varieties of garlic producing mild, medium, or strong flavors, different colors and sizes. Raw garlic has a strong, pungent, spicy flavor that mellows and sweetens considerably with cooking. Roasted garlic has a delicate, nutty flavor. To prevent sprouting, garlic should be stored in warm (above 64° F) and dry environments. Garlic has been used as medicine in many cultures for thousands of years, for conditions ranging from parasites to poor digestion. Olympic athletes in Ancient Greece were given garlic as a performance enhancer agent. Now garlic is being studied for its anti-cancer compounds such as quercetin and allicin. Aged garlic extract has also been associated with anti-clotting in blood and with modest reductions in blood pressure.
Why This Matters:
Garlic extract is one of the oldest nutritional supplements and can be found in almost every health food store. There is a wealth of information online regarding the medical uses for garlic, some of which have been confirmed in clinical studies and others of which have been passed down through the centuries by word of mouth. Store staff and their customers would be well served by learning as much as they can about the benefits of garlic.
Ginger is the underground rhizome-like root of a tropical plant that is sold fresh in most produce departments, and also sold as a dried, ground form that is commonly found in bulk or small 1 - 2 ounce containers. Ground ginger is not a substitute for fresh and vice versa. Dried, ground ginger is a fragrant spice used for baked goods such as gingerbread cookies, or as a spice in pumpkin, squash, sweet potato, and sweet or savory dishes. Fresh ginger is used frequently in the cuisines of Pacific Rim countries and can be pickled, dried, preserved, and crystallized. Ginger has been used as medicine for centuries and is now being studied for its use as an aid for pain, nausea, and vomiting. Some of the compounds in ginger, such as gingerols, beta-carotene, capsaicin, caffeic acid, curcumin and salicylate, have a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect.
Mint is a versatile herb that can be used to deodorize a room, freshen breath, create hot and cold teas, add to numerous dishes including salads, juices, spreads, fruits, etc. Mint is extremely popular in Middle Eastern cooking where it is used in an extensive range of sweet and savory dishes, including chutneys and palate-cooling relishes called Raita. The two most popular types of mint are peppermint and spearmint, with spearmint being the milder of the two. Peppermint is one of the most widely consumed single herb teas and has been used in traditional medicine for centuries. The leaves contain phenolic properties along with several flavonoids. The main active components of the essential oil of peppermint are menthol and menthone which have antimicrobial and antiviral effects, and strong antioxidant and antitumor actions.
Nutmeg is the dried seed of a small pear-shaped fruit of the nutmeg tree, an evergreen tree native to the rain forests of the Spice Islands (Indonesia). The lacy covering of the seed is mace, which is also harvested, ground and sold as a spice. Nutmeg is sold as a fine powder or as a whole kernel. Most cooks prefer to use the whole kernel and grate the amount that is needed for their recipes, in part because the powdered form can be adulterated. Warm and sweet, nutmeg adds rich flavor to sauces, especially curries, soups, and sweets such as pies, cakes, donuts, and other desserts. Nutmeg has been highly prized since antiquity for its aromatic, aphrodisiac and antioxidant properties. The active plant compounds have therapeutic applications in many traditional medicines as anti-fungal, anti-depressant, and digestive support. However, large amounts of two or three teaspoons can be toxic.
Oregano has been used for thousands of years in cooking and for medicine. It is sold fresh, dried and also as an essential oil that can be applied topically. Oregano is similar to marjoram, but more pungent and not as sweet. Interestingly, oregano was not well known in the United States until after World War II ended and soldiers from Italy returned home raving about it. Mediterranean oregano is milder than Mexican oregano, but both are excellent additions to meals with artichokes, beans, chicken, eggplant, fish, lamb, mushrooms, pasta, peppers, pizza, pork, potatoes, rabbit, sausages, tomatoes, veal, and zucchini. Oregano contains fiber, iron, manganese, Vitamin E, iron, calcium, omega fatty acids, and tryptophan. It is also a rich source of Vitamin K, antioxidants and provides antimicrobial benefits. Oregano has been used to treat respiratory tract disorders, gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, menstrual cramps and urinary tract disorders. Oregano oil can also be applied topically to help treat skin conditions including acne and dandruff and can be used as an insect repellant.
Rosemary is an herb from the sticky, spiky leaves of a small evergreen shrub that belongs to the mint family, which also includes basil, lavender, myrtle and sage. It's traditionally used to season lamb, chicken, stuffing, stews, herb breads, soups and sauces. It plays a prominent role in Mediterranean cooking, where the plant is indigenous. Rosemary leaf and oil are used in foods; the oil is also used in beverages and as a fragrant component in soaps and perfumes. Rosemary has been used for medicinal purposes throughout history. Studies on rosemary have shown its antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. Rosemary essential oil is often used in aromatherapy to help relieve pain and improve mood.
Turmeric is the product of a dried, ground, fleshy root and is prized for its brilliant yellow color, much as is saffron, although turmeric is not nearly so expensive. This spice has a unique, rather “woodsy” flavor and scent and is almost invariably one of the main components of curry mixes. Chefs use it to brighten rice pilafs, curries, corn dishes, pickles, and relishes. Curcumin and curcuminoids, which are found in turmeric and curry powder have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal properties and may be a very good anticarcinogen and promotes wound healing. Typically turmeric is sold in its dried form in small bottles, but some natural foods stores may sell the whole root. Curcumin is often sold in the vitamin department as a nutritional supplement.
Other Popular Culinary Herbs
Bay Leaf is an aromatic herb that comes from the evergreen bay laurel tree, native to the Mediterranean. Early Greeks and Romans attributed magical properties to the laurel leaf. The two main varieties of bay leaf are Turkish (which has 1- to 2-inch-long oval leaves) and Californian (with narrow 2- to 3-inch-long leaves). The Turkish bay leaves have a more subtle flavor than do the California variety. Bay leaves are used to flavor soups, stews, vegetables and meats. They're generally removed before serving. Overuse of this herb can make a dish bitter. Fresh bay leaves are seldom available in markets. Dried bay leaves, which have a fraction of the flavor of fresh, should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place for up to six months.
Chives are related to onion and leeks. Fresh chives are long green flat grass-like hollow stems with a fragrant, onion flavor. They are available both fresh, frozen and freeze-dried, although fresh will provide much greater flavor. Both chives and their edible lavender flowers can be used in potatoes, dips, and even as a garnish to a lot of creamy soups. Chives are a good source of Vitamin A and also contain a fair amount of potassium and calcium.
Cilantro is the green leaves and stems of the coriander plant. Also called Chinese parsley and coriander, cilantro has a pungent fragrance and flavor that complements highly spiced foods, especially in Latin and Indian cuisine. Coriander seeds are harvested when the plant grows enough to go to seed and then the entire flower is harvested. The seeds can be toasted and ground with a mortar and pestle or herb grinder. Cilantro grows year around and is usually sold in bunches and both the leaves and stems can be used in recipes.
Dill has been used for thousands of years. An annual plant, it has feathery green leaves called dill weed which is sold in fresh and dried forms. Fresh dill is very aromatic, but must be added to cooked foods at the end so it retains its flavor and fragrance. It is often used in salads, vegetables, meats, sauces, salad dressings and dips. It can increase "shelf life" of food and help slow the onset of fermentation. The small tan flat dill seed is the dried fruit of the herb. Dill seed is often used as part of a pickling mix for dill pickles.
Marjoram is a member of the mint family. There are many species of this ancient herb; the most widely available is sweet marjoram, usually simply called "marjoram." It has oval inch-long, pale green leaves and a mild, sweet, oregano like flavor. Marjoram shouldn't be confused with wild marjoram which is another name for oregano. Fresh marjoram has limited availability and is more often sold dried in small bottles. Marjoram can be used to flavor a variety of foods, particularly meats (especially lamb and veal) and vegetables. Because marjoram's flavor is so delicate, it's best added toward the end of the cooking time so its essence doesn't dissipate.
Parsley is the world's most popular herb. There are more than 30 varieties but the most popular in the U.S. are curly-leaf parsley and the more strongly flavored Italian or flat-leaf parsley. Fresh parsley is widely available year-round, and is also sold in freeze dried form in bulk spices or small bottles. It has a delicious and vibrant taste which is often ignored in its popular role as a table garnish, and is often used in Mediterranean, East European and American cuisine. Native to the Mediterranean region, parsley is an excellent source of vitamins A and C and has antioxidant and disease preventing properties.
Sage is the leaves of an evergreen perennial with woolly grayish leaves that add strong, complex tastes to foods, most particularly stuffing, sausages, pork, poultry and game dishes. Indigenous to the Mediterranean, this herb has been used for centuries and is now sold fresh year-round or dried in small spice containers. Meat substitutes such as TVP, tempeh and seitan are often seasoned with sage to add the meat-like sensation. Sage may also be used sparingly in grain dishes, soups and winter quash dishes.
Savory comes in summer and winter varieties, both of which are related to the mint family and may be used interchangeably. Summer savory, an annual plant, is more widely available and has a milder, sweeter flavor than the perennial winter savory. Savory is a useful seasoning that imparts a subtle flavor that tastes like a cross between parsley and thyme. Dried savory is available year around; fresh savory may be available in some full service natural food markets. Savory adds a piquant flavor to pâtés, soups, meat, fish and bean dishes.
Tarragon is an expensive herb from the pointed dark green leaves of a perennial plant. Tarragon is widely used in classic French cooking and is best known for its role in making an infused vinegar and béarnaise sauce. It also plays a role in an herb combination called fines herbs. It has a sharp-sweet, anise-like flavor and scent. Tarragon adds a distinctive touch to fresh green vegetables such as fresh peas, green beans, asparagus, or Swiss chard and green salads. Tarragon makes ordinary mayonnaise special, adds an unusual touch to omelets and tomato dishes and is also used in the preparation of fish and chicken.
Thyme is a member of the mint family, a perennial herb native to Southern Europe. There are a number of sub-varieties of thyme including lemon thyme, French thyme and English thyme. Fresh thyme is commonly available in most natural food markets and dried thyme - in both leaf and powder form - is also available in the spice section. Thyme is an important seasoning in classic French and Creole recipes and is good used whenever a mixture of dried herbs is called for. Soups, vinaigrettes, grain and bean dishes, corn dishes, and tomato sauces all benefit from the distinctive flavor of thyme.
Other Popular Spices
Allspice is the spice made from the hard berry of an evergreen tree native to the West Indies and South America that imparts the aroma and flavor of a trio of warm seasonings — cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. It is most commonly sold in ground form, though the whole berry is available in spice shops and is used in pickling and to flavor broths and marinades. The mildly spicy-sweet flavor of ground allspice enhances apple desserts, banana breads, spice cakes, cookies, chutneys, and recipes utilizing squash, pumpkin, or sweet potatoes.
Caraway seeds are from a biennial plant in the parsley family that is native to Europe. The seeds have a sharp, distinctive taste and are best known for their use in rye and pumpernickel breads. They can also be added to potatoes or other root and cabbage family vegetables, stews and meat dishes and are widely used in German, Austrian, and Hungarian cuisine. They are also used, along with cumin and fennel to produce Kümmel, a sweet colorless liqueur.
Cardamom comes from a plant in the ginger family that is native to India. When whole, the seed pods must be opened to reveal 17 to 20 small, dark seeds. The whole seeds can be used to provide a complementary aroma to both sweet and savory dishes, including grain pilafs especially those with fruit and nut additions, and curries containing potatoes and peas. The ground version of cardamom has a sweet, warm taste and an exotic floral aroma which is most often added to the same baked goods in which allspice is used. Once cardamom is ground, it begins to lose its essential oils, so many customers may be offered whole cardamom in the bulk section and encourages to grind their own to preserve and use all of the aromatic and flavor aspects.
Chili powder is a blend of spices with dried, ground red chili pepper as its base. The consistent ingredients, along with chili pepper, often include cumin, oregano, and garlic, but may also contain salt and other seasonings as well. There are a variety of chili powder blends available in the market, in various degrees of heat and spice. Chili powder is most often added to - chili - and other bean stews and soups. It's also added to various Latin and Oriental-style dishes.
Cloves are considered one of the world's most important spices. Cloves are the dried, unopened flower bud of a tropical evergreen tree. Reddish brown and nail-shaped, cloves are sold whole or ground and are used to flavor a multitude of dishes from sweet to savory. Cloves have a pleasant, sweet spice similar to cinnamon, but are stronger and have a sharp aroma. Cloves are often used to stewed fruits, fragrant pilafs, curries, chutneys and a host of baked items, often in combination with cinnamon.
Cumin is one of the world's oldest spices, dating back to the time of ancient Egypt. It is particularly popular in Mexican, Spanish, Middle Eastern, Asian and Mediterranean cooking and is used to make curries, chili powders and Kummel liqueur. Cumin comes from the seeds of a dried fruit of a plant in the parsley family. The caraway-like shaped seeds are extremely aromatic, with a warm, spicy, slightly bitter, earthy flavor. Cumin is sold in whole seed form and ground. Cumin can be found in soups, tomato-based sauces, bean dishes and vegetable stews. Spinach, lentil and tempeh recipes often have cumin added.
Curry powder is a blend of spices used in Indian and southeast Asian cuisine. Cumin, coriander and turmeric are the spices always used in curry, with varying other ingredients including cayenne pepper, black pepper, saffron, tamarind, mace, mustard, fenugreek, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves or cardamom. The variations and spiciness are endless and in Indian recipes, the individual spices freshly ground the day of use to create a unique curry flavor, instead of a prepared curry powder. In grocery stores, there are typically two types of curry powder - the standard mild type and a hot, spicier type called Madras. Curry powder is used to add flavor and color to grain dishes, lentil soups, stews, potato dishes and egg recipes.
Why This Matters:
Mustard, cinnamon, and cumin all have distinctive and strong flavors. While saffron has flavor, especially when fresh, its color is much more intense than its flavor.
Fennel seed is another of those small, elongated seed that can be used whole or ground in both sweet and savory foods. They are also used to flavor several liqueurs. They give a subtle anise or licorice flavor and are used in some traditional Italian bread recipes and stews. They are also used in Indian grain pilafs and curries, tossed into fruit salads, added to green beans or root vegetable dishes.
Mustard seed is one of the oldest of spices, native to Asia and used to make the popular mustard condiment. There are two types of mustard seeds - white (or yellow) and brown. The white/yellow seeds are larger than the brown variety and are mild in flavor. The brown variety is more pungent and the main ingredient in American-style mustards. White and brown seeds are blended to make English mustard, and brown mustard seeds are used for pickling and are the main ingredient in European and Chinese mustards. Mustard seed is sold in whole seed form and also ground. The spicy, peppery flavor goes well with pungent spices like garlic and chilies and is often used in soups, salad dressing, grain dishes, potato dishes, chilies and curries.
Paprika is a powder made by grinding aromatic sweet red pepper pods. The flavor can range from mild to pungent and hot; the color from bright orange-red to deep blood-red. Most paprika comes from Spain, South America, California and Hungary, which has used paprika as a mainstay flavoring for centuries. A special Spanish paprika called Pimenton is made from peppers that have been slowly smoked and dried over oak fires, resulting in three versions - sweet and mild, bittersweet medium hot, and hot. Paprika is used to add warm, natural color and mildly spicy flavor to soups, stews, grains, and a variety of hors d'oeuvres. Its bright red color makes it a favorite garnish.
Pepper, or peppercorns, is both the oldest and most widely-used spice. It's been used in one form or other around the world to enhance the flavor of both savory and sweet dishes. Peppercorn come from the whole, dried berries of an evergreen vine, in red, white, black, pink and green varieties. White and black peppercorns are available whole, cracked, coarsely or finely ground. Whole peppercorns freshly ground with a pepper will deliver more flavor that pre-ground pepper, which loses its flavor quickly. Green peppercorns are packed in brine and available in jars and cans. Known as the "King of Spices" and the "Master Spice", pepper accounts for one-fourth of the world's spice trade. Pepper stimulates gastric juices, which provides a digestive benefit for those people who can tolerate its spiciness.
Poppy seeds are tiny, round, bluish-gray seeds of the notorious opium poppy plant. They contain none of the drug, but are thought to have a slightly calming effect when consumed in large quantities. They measure less than 1/16"in diameter and it takes about 900,000 of them to make a pound. They have a crunchy texture and a nutty flavor and are used in cakes, pastries, and as a topping for many different baked goods, along with a variety of cooked dishes including noodle and cabbage dishes, casseroles, and root vegetable dishes. They can be purchased whole or ground and when toasted, give a heightened flavor.
Red pepper flakes are made from various combinations of hot, dried red peppers including ancho, bell, cayenne and other dried red peppers. The flakes combine the seeds with the dried flesh of the peppers resulting in an extremely hot spice that is used in Indian, Southeast Asian, Mexican foods and in Cajun dishes from Louisiana.
Saffron is considered one of the world's most precious spices. This expensive spice comes from the dried, brilliant-yellow stigma of the autumn crocus. Each flower provides only three stigmas, which must be carefully hand-picked and then dried - an expensive laborious process. Thousands of years ago saffron was used to flavor food and beverages and also to make medicines and to dye cloth and body oils a deep yellow. Today it is most used in foods where it imparts a beautiful yellow color, sweet aroma and subtle taste to Mediterranean, Arabian, and Indian recipes. Use it in grain, fish, and egg dishes; or in salads, dressings, breads, and sauces. Due to its cost, a common substitute for saffron is turmeric.