Herbs versus Spices

I was having a conversation recently with a registered dietician and it rapidly became clear to me that she did not know the difference between an herb and a spice; in fact, she seemed to think that the two terms were virtually interchangeable. This person is trained in nutrition and food, so how can she possibly not know that there is a difference between an herb and a spice? (I thought to myself.) And if she doesn’t, then it only makes sense that there must be more people out there who believe the same. So, this month’s article is going to put a stop to that – right now! 

It is pretty straight forward to spot which is an herb and which is a spice as herbs always come from the leaves of a plant – think of basil, rosemary, thyme, etc. 

A spice can come from any number of places – the root, the stem, the seed, the fruit, the flower or the bark! But NOT the leaf. 

Now that is a nice, simple, definitive description, BUT it can get a little confusing as some plants can be the host to both an herb and a spice at the same time, like coriander and cilantro. Cilantro is the aromatic leaf of the plant (Coriandrum sativum), while coriander is the seed that comes from that same plant. There are also other differences worth noting. 

Herbs tend to come either fresh, dried or powdered and are much more delicate in flavor and constitution than spices. This knowledge is important to know when using in cooking as you need to add herbs at the last few moments of cooking so you do not lose all of their flavor. There are also occasions when it is important to use fresh herbs, such as in pesto, on pizza or pasta or in tabbouleh. The fresher the better in this case and as they are so easy to grow, why not just pick them straight off the plant?!  

Basil, rosemary, thyme and cilantro are super easy to grow in pots on windowsills, even through the colder months. I have basil and rosemary growing in my kitchen windowsill right now. Only grow the ones you use though, as if you don’t “prune” them (by eating the leaves) they will soon become “leggy” and eventually die. A well pruned plant can last for years. 

When you look in the (mis-named) spice aisle of a supermarket, you will see a selection of both herbs and spices, with the spices generally being in powdered form. Whole spices, however, such as cinnamon sticks, allspice berries and cloves will keep fresh for much longer. The moment that a spice, or herb, is ground its surface area is increased and exposed to oxygen. Oxidation is the resulting effect, with the spices losing their flavor rapidly and, indeed, going rancid. Unless you are going to use a whole jar of powdered spice quite quickly, then it is best to buy your spices whole and grind them as you use them. (You do not need to have an electric grinder either, a mortar and pestle works just fine, as does a fine grater – especially good for nutmeg😊) And some spices you can actually cook with whole and remove them from the dish before serving; cinnamon sticks for example, or clove buds.  

Ten points for guessing an herb that you do the same with. You got it – Bay Leaves! 

Unlike herbs, however, spices are much more robust and can withstand much longer cooking times and higher levels of heat. In fact they are often enhanced by dry-roasting and being added early in the cooking process. In most Indian cooking, for example, the spices are added to the oil in the pan before anything else and cooked for 2-3 minutes to bring out their flavor before adding meat or vegetables.   

I hope this has helped clarify the difference between an herb and a spice. Remember, using either will add a nutritional value to your food as well as giving it a flavor profile unavailable any other way. You will have your favorites among them and that is fine; I have not heard of any addiction issues. Both have been used for thousands of years in holistic medicine – ginger for digestion, chamomile to help you sleep, etc. Many of them have health benefits, but if you just like the taste, the that’s fine too. Just consider expanding your repertoire, one at a time. See what 2020 brings.  

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