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Get Comfortable Cooking with Herbs and Spices

June 15, 2020

By: Joanne K. Gardner, MS, RDN, LDN, Integrative Nutritionist, Duke Integrative Medicine

Herbs and Spices: What is the difference?


Herbs are always the leaves of plants. Many herb plants are “herbaceous” (non-woody) and the stems are tender and flavorful, but some herbs have tough woody stems. Mostly we use herbs for savory purposes in cooking, and when compared to spices, we tend to use them in larger quantities. Examples of herbs include rosemary, oregano, sage, thyme, basil, parsley, cilantro, mint, and dill.

For some ideas on using a few of these herbs in your kitchen, check out our Seven Ways with Herbs Guide.


Spices are different parts of plants; they can be either roots/rhizomes, flowers, fruits, seeds, or bark. They tend to be more potent, so we tend to use them in relatively smaller quantities. However, this always varies by recipe and by cuisine. Examples of spices include peppercorns (fruit/seed), paprika (fruit), cinnamon (bark), cumin, coriander and nutmeg (seeds), clove (flower bud), and ginger and turmeric (rhizomes).

For some ideas on using a few of these spices in your kitchen, check out our Seven ways with Spices Guide.


Buying and storing

  • Light and heat are the enemies of dried herbs and spices, store them in a cabinet away from light and the heat of the stove. They lose their potency during storage, so it is wise to buy small quantities every 6 months.
  • Label and date your herbs so you know when it is time to replace them.
  • If you do purchase in bulk, store a small amount in your cabinet and keep the rest in an airtight, tightly wrapped container in the freezer. Remove small quantities as needed.
  • Unsure? Open the container and smell it. If the smell is strong and pleasing to your nose, it will still likely add a nice flavor to your food.

Getting the best from your herbs

  • In a recipe, 1 tablespoon fresh is equivalent to 1 teaspoon dried herb or a 3 to 1 ratio.
  • In general, use 1 to 1½ teaspoons fresh or 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of dried herbs per serving.
  • To release the dried herb’s flavor and fragrance, consider crushing the leaves between your fingers.
  • Add herbs either at the beginning of cooking, or about 20 minutes before the end.
  • Try mixing herbs with 1 tsp of oil and leaving for 10-15 minutes before using in dressings, marinades, or sauces.
  • Instead of sprinkling dried oregano on a pizza, steep it in a little oil and use it as a drizzle.

Since herbs enhance flavor, you will be able to depend less on salt and add less salt to your recipes.

Cooking with Herbs

When do you add herbs and spices? It depends on the kind of herb or spice you are dealing with and the cooking time the recipe calls for.

  • Herbs with mild flavors, like basil and parsley, work best when added right at the end, while strong-flavored herbs like bay leaves and sage work fine over the length of the cooking.
  • When cooking in the crockpot, add dried herbs (and fresh herbs, too) at the end of cooking time. Although for a double dose of benefit, you may add some at the beginning of cooking time and add more at the end, to your taste.

Compared to whole spices, the flavor of ground spices is more concentrated; ground spices will infuse sauces with flavor quicker than whole spices.

  • If you have a short cooking time, add ground spices at the start.
  • If your recipe calls for a slow simmer, it is okay to add them near the end of cooking.
  • Long-simmering stews and soups are also great for whole spices, whose flavors will release at a leisurely pace.
  • Toasting seeds and certain spices (like cumin) in a dry skillet can also enhance flavors and aromas.

Dry your own

  • Put sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, mint or marjoram leaves in a single layer between sheets of kitchen paper and microwave on high for 1-2 minutes until brittle.
  • Alternatively, place fresh herbs loosely in a paper bag and leave the bag flat on the counter until they are dry (one day to one week).

Books to Consider Adding to Your Kitchen Collection:

The Flavor Bible
Healing Spices

You May Also Be Interested In:

Seven Ways to Use Common Foods


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