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Cooking School Day 9: Herbs & Spices

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)
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  • Today’s Topic: Herbs & Spices
  • The Goal: 20 lessons, 20 days to become a better cook at home
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Today is all about learning how to use fresh herbs and dried spices in your cooking — basil and dill, paprika and cumin, even salt and pepper. More accurately, we’re learning how to season our dishes and make them taste amazing. It’s not always as easy as knowing one herb from another or following a recipe precisely. It’s a bit more of an art — an art you’re about to master.

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

Day 9 Lesson: Herbs & Spices

What’s the Difference Between an Herb and a Spice? Herbs are the leaves and tender stems from a plant, and spices are the dried seeds, roots, or bark. Herbs are best when they are fresh, though having some dried herbs is great for emergencies. Spices can be bought whole or ground; whole spices stay fresher for longer, but ground spices are often more handy for everyday cooking.

Storing Herbs and Spices: Store fresh herbs in the fridge in a glass of water and refresh the water daily. They will keep for about a week. Dried herbs and spices should be stored in airtight containers out of direct sunlight. They will stay good for about a year and should be discarded when no longer fragrant.

Building Your Spice Collection: Don’t feel like you need to go out and buy an enormous spice collection in order to be an awesome cook. Start with a few basics — pick five or so dried herbs and spices you always see popping up in your favorite recipes. Learn to really cook with those few seasonings, then start to expand your collection. This is also one place where quality really matters — it’s worth it to buy the best herbs and spices you can. Look for fresh, strong-smelling seasonings, and buy from bulk jars when you can. That way you can sniff before buying, and buy just a little bit to try at first — not a whole jar.

Prepping Fresh Herbs for Cooking: Most fresh herbs are sold as sprigs —long stems with the leaves still attached. If the stem is tender, you can chop it up along with the leaves. If it’s woody or tough, pull the leaves off the stem by pinching the stem at the bottom and sliding your fingers up the length. Mince or chiffonade large-leafed herbs; small-leafed herbs like thyme can be left as is.

Pro Tip!

Fresh herbs can generally be substituted for dried and vice versa, but there are a few things to keep in mind. If using dried instead of fresh, start with half the amount called for in the recipe and then add more as needed. Remember that dried herbs need some time to cook and soften for the full flavors to come out, so don’t use them in uncooked recipes or for sprinkling at the end like you would with fresh herbs.

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

Adding Herbs During Cooking: Hardy, woodsy herbs like thyme and rosemary are do well if given some time to cook with a dish — they can sometimes taste bitter if added too close to serving. Delicate herbs like basil and chervil can lose their punch if cooked for too long. Usually, these herbs are best stirred into a dish or sprinkled over top just before serving.

Adding Spices During Cooking: Spices usually need a bit of fat to develop their flavor and make sure the flavor is carried throughout the dish. Be careful, though, because they can burn if cooked over high heat for too long. Simmering spices in liquid will also pull their flavor in to a dish. If your dish tastes bitter, it could be that you used too much spice, your spices were old, or they burned when you added them to the dish.

What It Really Means to “Salt to Taste”: Salt is neither herb nor spice, but it is extremely vital to our cooking. Salt reduces bitterness and enhances the flavors of other ingredients in foods. A dish that is under-salted might taste flat or overly bitter. Only dishes that are over-salted actually taste salty. You’re looking for the sweet middle ground. When tasting a dish, try to ignore your instinct to taste for saltiness and instead ask yourself if the flavors are flat or bright, or if it’s a touch bitter. Recipes almost always instruct you to use the minimum amount of salt; you can always add more — or start with less if you think the recipe is calling for too much.

Why It’s Important to Taste as You Go: It’s also important to taste your dish at multiple points throughout the cooking process — you see chefs doing this all the time on reality cooking shows. Taste the onions before adding the tomatoes; taste the sauce before and after adding the seasonings; taste the finished dish before you put it on the table. Not only will you see how your dish is evolving, but you’ll be able to tweak the amount of herbs, spices, and salt as you go. Your dish should taste pretty good at every single stage — that’s how you end up with a well-seasoned dish.

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Every lesson has three homework options. Maybe you’ve already got one down, or you just have time for a quick study session. So pick one, and show us by tagging it with #kitchnschool on Instagram or Twitter.

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Study: Read through this Quick Guide to Every Herb and Spice in the Cupboard. Choose three new-to-you herbs or spices that you’d like to try soon.

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Practice: Spend a few minutes with your spice cupboard today. Open up the jars and give each one a good sniff. How does the cinnamon compare to the cardamom? How is dried thyme different from dried oregano? What do you think about chili powder and garam masala? We don’t often smell individual spices outside the context of a recipe, and this exercise will help you get more familiar with spices on their own. Toss any spices that no longer have an aroma and take some time to organize the rest.

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Improve: Make an quick compound butter. Pick any herb or spice, or combination of herbs and spices, that you have in your cupboard and work a teaspoon into 4 tablespoons of butter. Taste it an add a little more spice if you want (or a little more butter if the spice is too strong). A compound butter like this is a great way to familiarize yourself with a new herb or spice, get rid of something that needs using up, or just make something a little fancy for dinner! Spread compound butters on dinner rolls, melt them over steamed veggies or baked potatoes, toss them with pasta, or serve them alongside steak, chicken, or fish.

(Image credit: Anjali Prasertong)

The Kitchn Cookbook & Herbs

The Cooking School was inspired by our new book, The Kitchn Cookbook and there’s plenty in the book to help your Cooking School experience.

Today’s tip: If you’re seriously craving herbs, see page 228 for a recipe that uses gobs of them — Green Goddess Dressing.

5 Recipes to Practice Cooking Herbs & Spices

The Kitchn’s Cooking School

The Kitchn’s Cooking School is 20 days, 20 lessons to become a better cook at home. Every day we’ll tackle an essential cooking topic and explain what you should know. Each lesson has three different homework options, so you can choose the one that teaches you what you need. Whether you want to refresh your skills or start from scratch, come to school with us!