It's not uncommon for inexperienced cooks to shy away from recipes that use herbs and spices they're not familiar with, especially when entertaining. But herbs and spices can take an ordinary dish and make it a "wow" dish. It's also not hard to find most herbs and spices in local supermarkets, whether you're urban or rural. Most supermarkets have a selection of dried herbs and spices, and many even have a variety of fresh.
Herbs are the leaves harvested from low growing shrubs. These include parsley, chives, marjoram, thyme, basil, dill, oregano, rosemary, savory, and sage. They can be used either fresh or dried. When purchasing dried, there are several options - whole, crushed, rubbed or ground.
Spices are the bark, roots, buds, seeds, berries or fruit of tropical plants and trees. Some examples of spices are cinnamon, ginger, garlic, cloves, saffron, yellow mustard, allspice, pepper, paprika, poppy seeds and sesame seeds. Some spices are used fresh such as ginger and garlic, but many are only used in their dried form which is then sold either whole or ground.
Like most things, it depends on what you're using the herb or spice for. Dried herbs have a more intense flavor which is great for baking, stuffings and in sauces where the herb will be reconstituted. Fresh herbs have more moisture, so they're great for salads. There are some herbs, like cilantro, which lose their flavor and punch when dried. Be guided by the recipe when purchasing ingredients.
Like most baking and cooking supplies, dried herbs and spices need to be stored in appropriate conditions to ensure they stay fresh for as long as possible. Here are some helpful tips for storing and using dried herbs and spices:
Spices aren't all made equal, and some require special preparation before use. Here are some common preparation methods to follow when using spices. Be sure to read your recipes carefully before starting to cook, to ensure that you prepare the spice in the method specified in the recipe.
Toasting or roasting spices gently before grinding will intensify their flavor. Simply heat a heavy dry saute pan over a medium low heat. Add whole spice and toast for 2 to 3 minutes. Constantly toss the spices so they don't scorch. This technique works with coriander, cumin, fenugreek, mustard, nigella, poppy and sesame seeds.
Some whole spices are better if they are bruised, which can be done by using a mortar and pestle, or by placing the spice in a plastic bag and tapping them with a rolling pin. Spices that benefit from bruising include dried ginger, juniper berries and cardamom pods.
If you can't find a particular herb or spice locally, here are a couple of online stores you may want to try: