So, logically, we know that eating more healthy vegetables is a good idea for our health in general. That being said, is following through on this tidbit of health wisdom always a walk in the park?… Meh..not so much.
Despite there being a good many of us with the best of intentions, we often fall into a rut where vegetables just don’t appeal to our taste buds or we tend to focus too much on a single option
Additionally, while there are many ways to work more vegetables in some of our favorite dishes, there is also the danger of adding too much of the things we don’t need to be putting into our bodies (Did someone say cheese?! Salt?! Butter?!) in the attempt to make a dish a little more palatable.
Fear not, though! For there is a hero waiting in the wings. Herbs and spices can be handy ingredients to use when you want to add a bit of extra flavor to your veggies, but don’t want any extra salt, sugar, or calories. They add an extra kick to keep your mouth watering and many provide major health benefits, too!
But, while tossing in some oregano or the odd sprig of rosemary might not be anything new, there’s still a lot to consider when selecting the right seasonings. For example:
- What’s the difference between fresh or dried?
- When is it better to use each one?
- How long do different ingredients keep anyway?
To help you answer these questions, I’ve compiled a list of basic tips to get you started and further along towards getting healthy in 2021.
Herbs and spices: so what’s the difference?
We tend to use the words herbs and spices interchangeably, but there is indeed a difference. Whether a seasoning is classified as one or the other has to do with what part of the plant it comes from and how it’s processed.
To put things simply, herbs are the leaves from certain non-woody plants (think basil, oregano, and cilantro) while spices come from pretty much everything else — root, stem, seeds, fruit, flower, and bark (cinnamon, ginger, cumin).
Since herbs and spices are classified based on what part of the plant we get them from, in some cases it’s possible to get an herb and a spice from the same plant.
Take the plant Coriandrum sativum for instance. As you might have been able to glean from its name, the seeds of this plant are how we get the spice coriander. As for the leaves…cilantro, anyone?
In comparison to spices, herbs are said to have a more delicate flavor. And, as you probably know from a casual stroll down the aisles of your grocery store, they can usually be found both fresh and dried.
For some recipes, either one of these is acceptable with the general ratio being that one teaspoon of dried herbs is equivalent to one tablespoon of fresh ones.
Depending on what you’re making though, it’s important to keep in mind what form you’re using. Sometimes one just goes better than the other.
Case in point, if you’re making a dish that will be eaten raw like salad or guacamole, it is probably best to go fresh. That said, there’s no saying that you CAN’T use dried herbs if that’s your preference or what you happen to have on hand, but keep in mind that fresh herbs offer a fresher taste that just works (You will pry fresh basil in a Caprese salad out of my cold, dead hands).
Dried herbs can be somewhat dusty so they’re not always the most pleasant thing in the world to toss into certain dishes, but then again, that’s a personal preference.
When making something like a sauce or a stew, on the other hand, take the dryer path. Because dried herbs are more potent, they can add flavor as a dish as it cooks whereas the flavor of many fresh herbs becomes suppressed with the cooking process.
If you do want to add fresh herbs, though, remember that thicker, woodier herbs like rosemary or thyme can be cooked along with whatever you’re making. With softer, leafier herbs, like basil, make sure you add them towards the end of cooking to keep the flavor.
Bottom line. If you want fresh flavor, go fresh, and if you want strong (and potentially cheaper) flavor, go dried.
Keeping it fresh
Something else to be conscious of when cooking with herbs is how to make sure that they’re properly stored. And not just the fresh ones either ( I’m sure that most of us have gone to grab parsley from the fridge at one point or another only to realize what was left of the bunch was just its withered corpse — we’ll get to it).
While they do last longer than fresh ones, dried spices also need to be properly kept and they do have a shelf life. Over time, herbs do lose their potency so it’s a good idea to replace them after a while.
In order to extend said shelf life, store herbs in a cool, dry space. Keep them in airtight containers and out of direct sunlight. This is especially important because exposure to sunlight, oxygen, and moisture can spoil herbs or make them lose their flavor more quickly.
Soft vs. hard herbs
With fresh herbs, how you store them can have a lot to do with what type of herb you’re working with. Remember how we mentioned “woody” and “leafier’ herbs earlier? Herbs are generally categorized as soft or hard.
Soft herbs are the ones with flexible, green stems soft leaves like cilantro or parsley while hard herbs have woody stems with tougher leaves such as sage, rosemary, and thyme (if you have the Simon and Garfunkel song stuck in your head after that one, my apologies)
Soft herbs store well using something called the “Wet Jar Method.” This involves storing bunches of certain herbs in a jar with just enough water to cover the ends, but not the leaves.
Cover the jar with a plastic bag and store it in the fridge, switching the water out every few days. With some herbs, like basil, this method works better when the jars are kept where the herb can get some sunlight.
With hard herbs, you can store them by sealing them in a damp paper towel and a resealable bag in the fridge. This will keep them from drying out or getting too much oxygen. Just be sure to moisten the paper towel as needed.
Like dried herbs, dried spices should be stored in a cool, dry environment away from any direct sources of heat so don’t store them next to your stove or oven.
Additionally, spices tend to be more flavorful in their full form. Once a spice is ground, it begins to lose some of its potency due to exposure to oxygen so while whole, dried spices have a two-year shelf life, for ground ones, that period falls down to six months.
To help make your spices last, you can buy whole spices and ground them yourself as needed. It might require a bit of elbow grease, but the flavor is well worth it.
You can even play around with how you ground them. For example, while peppercorns are perfectly fine fresh from the grinder, smashing them with a pot or pan can give you a coarser version ideal for seasoning certain foods. Other spices like cinnamon could even be grated in.
To further pump up the flavor, try toasting your spices. This can be done with both ground or whole spices in a dry frying pan to make the flavor stronger.
Proceed with caution, though. If you toast whole spices, do so before grinding them. Ground spices can be toasted, but they burn more easily. If you do use this option, keep it quick. Just a few seconds should suffice.
A few suggestions before you go
Obviously, we can’t include a comprehensive list of every single herb and spice as well as their benefits, uses, and intricacies (we’d be here all year), but I’d like to leave you with just a few examples of my favorites.
This one is a tad controversial. While cilantro is used in a plethora of different cuisines around the world, that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. Some people love it and others just taste soap.
If you do happen to fall in the former category, cilantro can be the perfect addition to salads, sauces, or a garnish for soups. It also has a reputation for helping to lower blood sugar.
A personal favorite dish of mine that prominently features cilantro is ‘ensalada chilena’ or Chilean salad. This salad consists of sliced tomatoes and onions seasoned with salt, oil, and cilantro (I also like to add a squeeze of lemon, but that’s just me).
It’s the perfect dish to serve chilled at a barbeque or as a side dish. If cilantro is not your thing, though, you can easily substitute it for parsley.
Among other benefits, cumin is naturally high in iron and can help to ease indigestion. In fact, my mom would always throw in a bit into hummus and other bean dishes to give them a smokey flavor and help ease flatulence (be mature).
In addition to beans, it also goes well with veggies like corn, eggplants, and tomatoes.
Turmeric has long been hailed for its anti-inflammatory properties. Commonly used in the Caribbean and Middle Eastern cookery, it adds a bitter, earthy flavor to food and pairs well with potatoes, sweet potatoes, and cabbage.
If you want to get the anti-inflammatory benefits be sure to pair it with pepper and a healthy oil to help with absorption. Be prepared, though, this stuff will stain your hands for days!