How to Tell the Difference Between Herbs & Spices

For the non-cook, the difference between herbs & spices may not mean much, but to the professional caterer or home chef, the use of them is essential in flavoring the perfect dish. We couldn’t imagine a Caprese salad without the taste of sweet basil, or gingerbread without ginger! Do you know the difference between an herb and a spice?

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What is an Herb?

Essentially, herbs are the leaves of plants with fragrant or aromatic qualities that are used to flavor a dish, but they are not used as a main ingredient. This rules out leafy green vegetables like lettuce and spinach. Some of the most popular herbs used in cooking are basil, rosemary, mint, oregano, dill, parsley, thyme, and cilantro.

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Throughout history, herbs have been used for their medicinal properties and in teas. In addition to essential vitamins A, C and K, herbs offer protective polyphenols that provide anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. They are also anti-microbial to combat bacteria.

What is a Spice?

Spices are derived from the bark, roots, seeds, berries or twigs of a plant. Basically, any part of the plant that is not a leaf could be considered a spice: cinnamon is tree bark, cloves are dried flower buds, and cardamom is a seed pod. Other commonly-used spices include paprika, nutmeg, ginger, black pepper, and cloves.

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Spices also offer health benefits. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, they can boost antioxidants. Cinnamon is known to lower blood sugar, aiding in the treatment of those with Type 2 diabetes, ginger relieves nausea, garlic can protect your heart from heart disease, and cayenne can ease pain through a substance called capsaicin.

Freshness Counts

We love to grow our own herbs to ensure the freshest taste in our cuisine. We have huge pots of them growing right outside our door!

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Once an herb is picked, it begins to dry, and the problem is that as a dried herb ages, it loses flavor. Herbs should be replaced every one to three years, but to get the brightest, freshest flavor from herbs, they should be used fresh.

Spices are often drier in nature and are purchased whole or ground. A whole spice can stay fresh up to four years, while a ground spice remains fresh only about two or three years.

It is best to use fresh herbs, or purchase herbs and spices close to the time when you will use them, and store herbs and spices in containers with tight lids away from direct sunlight or heat sources.

Check the “Best By” Dates

McCormick, one of the most popular purveyor of herbs and spices, puts “best by” dates on the bottom or side of its bottles to help you keep track. Use your products by this date, and toss expired items to replace them with fresh. Except for black pepper, McCormick products in rectangular tins are more than 25 years old!

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To tell if an herb or spice is fresh, rub a little between your fingers. Then smell and taste it. If you cannot detect the aroma or flavor, the item should be replaced.

Maison Culinaire: The Freshest Catering in the DC Metropolitan Region

Maison Culinaire knows well the difference between herbs and spices and sets its reputation on providing the freshest and tastiest catering menus in Washington DC, Maryland and Northern Virginia. In addition to growing our own herbs, we source our foods locally to ensure their freshness. We often purchase directly from local farms! You can’t get much fresher than that.

When you need delicious catering for your special event, wedding or corporate affair, contact Maison Culinaire!

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