Herbs and Spices

views updated May 23 2018


HERBS AND SPICES. The terms "herb" and "spice" describe plants or parts of plants used for medicine, cooking, and pleasure all over the world. These plants number in the thousands and come from almost every plant family known. This makes it almost impossible to generalize about their uses and properties. However, a treatment of this length could not be written without generalizations, so it is important to keep in mind that for every statement made one or more exceptions exist.


Herbs are the green, leafy parts of plants. They are most efficacious and flavorsome when used fresh, and they are mostly grown in temperate to hot regions. Spices are derived from any part of a plant that is not a leaf: for example, cloves are flower buds, cinnamon is bark, ginger is a root, peppercorns are berries, nigella is seed, cumin is a fruit, saffron is stigmas, cardamom is pods and seeds, and asafetida is a gum. Spices are usually used in small amounts, are best used dry (the drying process often enhances the flavor), and most grow in subtropical or tropical climates. One single plant can be both an herb and a spice. Aromatic seeds like dill are a spice, while dill leaves are an herb. However, coriander and hamburg parsley roots, garlic and fennel bulbs are all regarded as herbs rather than spices.

What Do They Look Like?

Herbs and spices cover the complete range of growth habits and sizes of plants, and they can be annuals, biennials, perennials, trees, shrubs, climbers, and grasses. They grow in a wide range of conditions and habitats from the tropics to polar regions. They can be found at sea level, some even grow in the sea or in fresh water, and others grow near the tops of the highest mountains. Despite this diversity it is true that many of the better-known herbs and spices fall into distinct groups. One group contains those plants found in the Lamiaceae (mint family). They are characterized by young stems that are four-angled, simple opposite leaves, and flowers with five more or less fused petals. Glands on these plants usually contain volatile fragrant oils. Most originate in the Mediterranean or Central Asia and are used as potherbs, to make perfumes, and in the manufacture of pharmaceutical products. Well-known herbs such as basil, bergamot, calamint, hyssop, lavender, lemon balm, mint, rosemary, sage, savory, and thyme are in this family.

In the Apiaceae (carrot family) are important herbs and spices such as angelica, anise, caraway, chervil, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, gotu kola, lovage, and parsley. These plants mostly originate from temperate regions all over the world. They are characterized by being aromatic and having hollow stems and dissected leaves arranged in spirals, often attached by a base that sheathes the stem. The usually small, five-petaled flowers appear in umbels and are followed by strongly scented fruits (often called seeds). The leaves of many of these plants are important herbs, while the fruits are widely used spices.

French tarragon is in the Asteraceae (daisy family), members of which grow mostly in temperate regions all over the world. Plants in this group usually have simple or dissected leaves arranged in spirals. Flowers are usually tiny discs grouped together in compact heads and surrounded by a ring of ray flowers with straplike petals. Other herbs in this family include burdock, chamomile, chicory, dandelion, marigolds, pyrethrum, safflower, wormwood, and yarrow. Some are important culinary herbs, while others are important medicinal herbs. The group also includes herbs used to kill and repel insects and to produce dyes.

The Lauraceae (laurel family) consists mostly of aromatic, evergreen shrubs and trees originating from warm and tropical regions of Southeast Asia and northern South America. The herbs and spices in this family include sweet bay, camphor, cassia, cinnamon, and sassafras.

Allspice, cloves, cajuput oil, eucalyptus, and myrtle are all in the Myrtaceae (myrtle family). These are trees and shrubs that grow in tropical and warm areas of the world. They bear scented leaves containing important essential oils, and many also bear edible fruit.

Some important root spices are in the Zingiberaceae (ginger family). These plants mostly grow from thickened aromatic rhizomes with large, upright, alternate leaves. They are mostly found in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. In this family are cardamom, Chinese keys, galangal, gingers, torch ginger, turmeric, and zedoary.


Archaeological evidence shows that the use of spices and herbs dates back to long before recorded history, when human ancestors first added sharp-flavored leaves to early cooking pots. Roaming hunter-gatherer groups experimented with leaves, roots, flowers, and seeds, so over time they built up a precious compendium of knowledge that was passed from one generation to the next. As civilization progressed and nomadic tribes settled in one place, herbs and spices were not just collected from the wild but were deliberately sown near dwelling places. By the beginning of the agricultural period plants were collected from the wild and grown near dwellings for food, flavor, medicine, fuel, decoration, dyes, poison, and weapons and to alter early humans' sense of reality.

The earliest written records come from ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Indian cultures. The Ebers Papyrus that dates from 1550 b.c.e. describes some eight hundred different medicinal remedies and numerous medicinal procedures. Early Egyptians used spices and herbs in medicine, as cosmetics and perfumes, for embalming, in cooking, and to kill and repel pests.


The ancient trade in some spices was highly lucrative. Black pepper was the most lucrative of all, although cassia and cinnamon were essential ingredients in Egyptian embalmment. Taprobane (Sri Lanka) was well known to the Greeks and Romans, and trade with it is described in the Byzantine topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes. The earliest known Chinese records of the uses of plants date from 2700 b.c.e., from the herbal compiled by Emperor Chin Nong. In India the Vedic literature of about 15001200 b.c.e. describes many different plants used in religious ceremonies. When the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon in the tenth century b.c.e., she offered gifts of rare and sought-after spices and herbs, probably with the hope of increasing and expanding the existing trade in these commodities.

Evidence of trading and use of herbs and spices is in the writings, among others, of the Greek physician Dioscorides and the Roman civil servant Pliny the Elder in the first century c.e. The spread of the Roman Empire also spread herbs such as rosemary, savory, garlic, and thyme into northern Europe and Britain. Romans took with them precious supplies of spices like pepper and ginger. The fall of the Roman Empire accompanied a dramatic decrease in trade until the eighth century and the spread of the Muslim Empire, when once again spices and herbs were on the move and were widely used in medicine and cooking. After the Norman conquest of Britain, spices such as ginger, cloves, mace, and pepper were once again found on the tables of wealthy Britons.

Later the ongoing search for and trade in other valuable spices, which at different times have been worth as much as gold, led to some of the great voyages of discovery. Ginger, pepper, cloves, cinnamon, galangal, mace, and nutmeg were the reasons for battles fought, fortunes made and lost, and new worlds discovered. These spices launched Europe and Britain, attempting to satiate their desires for these exotic ingredients, into the age of exploration. Christopher Columbus discovered America while searching for a new sea route to the Spice Islands. In 1498 Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese navigator, rounded the Cape of Good Hope and established a new spice route to India and beyond. Magellan eventually found the western route to the Spice Islands in the 1520s. In the following centuries the Portuguese, Dutch, and British fought wars for control of these routes and the islands where many of the spices grew.

Modern methods of preservation led to a decrease in the use of spices in many Western countries, and at the same time, with modern methods of transportation, spices became ubiquitous and relatively cheap.

Growing Herbs and Spices

In the past herbs and spices were grown in gardens and harvested for use in the home, or they were collected from the wild, in what was known as wild crafting. As the demand for herbs and spices increased, they were also grown on a small scale as agricultural crops. The growth, harvest, and processing of herbs and spices was and in many cases has remained a labor-intensive enterprise. Consequently these crops often were grown in countries where labor was cheap. In the early twenty-first century Egypt grew and exported large quantities of anise, basil,

Common culinary herbs
Name* Description Climate, place of origin Part used Uses
Basil Ocimum species Lamiaceae Annual, small shrub Tropical to warm temperate, Asia and Africa Fresh leaves, young stems Tomato dishes, salad, stuffings, sauces, soups
Bay leaves Laurus nobilis Lauraceae Perennial, medium tree Temperate, Mediterranean Fresh or dried leaves Soups, stews, stir-fries, sauces, meats, desserts
Bergamot Monarda didyma Lamiaceae Herbaceous perennial, medium Temperate, North America Fresh or dried leaves and flowers Salads, pork, chicken, seafood, eggs, drinks, teas
Chervil Anthriscus cerefolium Apiaceae Annual, small shrub Temperate, Europe and Western Asia Fresh leaves Salads, stir-fries, sauces, cheese, garnishes
Chives Allium shoeoprasum Alliaceae Herbaceous perennial, small clumps Cold temperate, Yugoslavia, Siberia, Asia Minor Fresh and dried leaves and flowers Salads, stir-fries, sauces, cheese, breads, garnishes
Cilantro Coriandrum sativum Apiaceae Annual, small shrub Temperate, Europe Fresh leaves, flowers, roots, dried seeds Salads, stir-fries, soups, chicken, fish, eggs, garnishes
Curry leaf Murraya koenigii Rutaceae Perennial, small tree Tropical and subtropical, Asia Fresh and dried leaves Curries, pickles, chutneys, fish, vegetables, rice
Dill Anethum graveolens Apiaceae Annual, tall shrub Temperate, Southwest Asia Fresh and dried leaves, dried seeds Salads, stir-fries, chicken, seafood, sauces, garnishes
Fennel Foeniculum vulgare Apiaceae Herbaceous perennial, tall shrub Temperate, Mediterranean seeds Fresh and dried leaves, fresh stem base, dried seeds Salads, stir-fries, eggs, seafood, sauces, soups, vegetables
Garlic chives Allum tuberosum Alliaceae Herbaceous perennial, small clump Temperate, Southwest Asia Fresh leaves flowers, buds, flower stems Salads, stir-fries, sauces, soups, cheese, garnishes
Gotu kola Centella asiatica Apiaceae Perennial, low spreading groundcover Tropical to warm temperate, Asia and Australasia Fresh leaves Salads, soups, rice, garnishes
Lemongrass Cymbopogon citratus Poaceae Perennial, clumping grass Tropical to warm temperate India and Ceylon Fresh and dried leaves and stems Soups, stir-fries, beef, chicken, seafood, sauces, teas
Marjoram and oregano Origanum species Lamiaceae Herbaceous perennial, spreading clumps Temperate Mediterranean to East Asia Fresh and dried leaves Soups, stews, sauces, cheese, breads, eggs, vegetables
Mint Mentha species Lamiaceae Herbaceous perennial, spreading clumps Temperate, Europe, Asia, Africa Fresh and dried leaves Salads, sauces, lamb, chicken, seafood, garnishes, drinks, teas
Parsley Petroselinum crispum Apiaceae Biennial, low-growing clump Temperate, Europe Fresh and dried leaves Salads, sauces, cheese, garnishes on most foods
Rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis Lamiaceae Woody perennial, medium bush Temperate, Mediterranean Fresh and dried leaves Stews, sauces, soups, stuffings, breads, eggs, teas
Sage Salvia officinalis Lamiaceae Woody perennial, medium bush Temperate, Mediterranean and North Africa Fresh and dried leaves Stews, sauces, soups, stuffings, breads, eggs, teas
Tarragon Artemisia dracunculus Asteraceae Herbaceous perennial, spreading clump Temperate, Central and Eastern Europe, Southern Russia Fresh and dried leaves Salads, soups, stews, chicken, seafood, eggs, vegetables
Thyme Thymus species Lamiaceae Perennial, low bush or spreading clump Temperate, Europe and Asia Fresh and dried leaves Stews, sauces, soups, stuffings, breads, eggs, teas
Watercress Nasturtium officinale Brassicaceae Perennial, spreading clump Temperate, Europe and Southwest Asia Fresh leaves Salads, soups, sauces, eggs, garnishes
*Garlic is not included here as it is discussed in the text.

caraway, dill, and fennel; China produced fennel, garlic, ginger, and cumin; India grew celery seed, fennel, and turmeric; and Croatia produced sage, savory, and rosemary, to name a few. At that time the herb and spice industry could be divided into three main categories, essential oils, medicinal crops, and culinary herbs and spices (fresh and dried).

Essential Oils

Essential oils are usually found in specialized oil cells or ducts in plants. Oils from aromatic plants are generally volatile, so they are extracted by water or steam distillation. Some volatile and most nonvolatile essential oils are obtained by solvent extraction. The aromatic, resinous product obtained from nonvolatile oils is known as an oleoresin. Oleoresins are concentrated and are widely used in the food industry. For example, pepper oleoresins are used in processed food, while turmeric oleoresin is a common natural coloring agent in food and pharmaceuticals. Essential oils are produced and processed all over the world, and France, Brazil, China, Spain, and Mexico are among the largest producers. These oils are often the by-products of another industry, and citrus oils, extracted from the skins of oranges, lemons, and limes, account for a large proportion of the essential oil industry. Pine and cedarwood oils are by-products of the timber industry. Of the herbs and spices planted specifically for oil production, anise, bergamot, citronella, lemongrass, lavender, mints, and rosemary are probably the most widely grown. Mints represent the largest essential-oil crop in the United States. Dill is also an important oil crop, used mostly in the manufacture of pickles.

Medicinal Herbs and Spices

It is particularly important that medicinal herbs and spices are grown in ideal rather than marginal conditions so the proportion of medicinal constituents is maximized. Usually the constituents of medicinal value to humans are secondary metabolites produced by plants for purposes other than growth. Advocates for organic gardening insist that conditions most closely approximating wild conditions are best for growing herbs, especially medicinal herbs, because the use of pesticides and herbicides can alter the plants' constituents, thereby altering their flavors and medicinal attributes.

Wild Herbs and Spices

Wild crafting of herbs and spices occurs all over the world. Some herbs, such as echinacea and goldenseal, have become rare in the wild because of overharvesting. Although all herbs can be cultivated, one school of thought says the best medicinal herbs are taken from the wild, so pressure on wild herb populations in all parts of the world continues. Conversely, some cultivated herbs have escaped into the wild, where they have become problem weeds. Harvesting these from the wild helps keep them under control while providing plenty of raw material for processing.

Culinary Herbs

In the past culinary herbs and spices were collected from the wild or grown in gardens among vegetables and flowers. By the twenty-first century, although the traditions of collecting flavorings from the wild and growing a few herbs in gardens continued, more people in Western countries demanded interesting and exotic flavors with their foods. This trend produced a proliferation of fresh, processed, frozen, and dried herbs and spices on supermarket shelves and a burgeoning industry to support these demands. In these Western countries the processed herb market is mostly supplied by companies that dry, process, package, and transport the produce to market. These companies are usually supplied by contract growers, often from other countries. Many herbs are dried for use as herb teas as well as for flavorings. A smaller but increasing market exists for biodynamically and organically grown herbs, both dried and fresh.

Culinary Spices

Most commercially grown herbs are produced in temperate regions, as are the seed spices, such as coriander, dill, cumin, caraway, and fennel. Most spices, however, are indigenous to and are grown commercially in subtropical and tropical regions. Each spice is usually grown in just a handful of countries and then exported all over the world. For example, the best cinnamon still comes from its native Sri Lanka; cassia come from China, Indonesia, and Vietnam; cloves come from the Moluccas, Zanzibar, and Madagascar; pepper comes from India, Indonesia, and Malaysia; and ginger comes from Jamaica, Nigeria, and India. The spice saffron is native to more temperate regions, and most of it is grown in and exported from Spain, Kashmir, Greece, and Iran.

Drying Spices

Spices are usually dried straight after harvest, either in the sun or in drying rooms. The drying ensures that essential oils and oleoresins are largely preserved intact. As some spices dry, enzymes and chemicals in the spice react to create a different flavor. For example, when peppercorns are dried in the sun, the volatile oil piperine is formed, thus giving dried peppercorns their unique flavor. Vanilla beans also only develop their flavor after months of careful, slow drying. Once dry, spices are best stored in airtight containers to preserve their volatile oils. These oils are released by the application of heat (frying, roasting, boiling) and are absorbed by the food, which takes on a new flavor. Many spices are ground after drying. But once they are ground they lose their flavor much more quickly, so it is best to use freshly ground spices when possible. Whole spices can be stored away from direct light for up to three years, ground spices only for about one year.

Fresh Herbs

The fresh herb market in Western countries saw enormous growth in the last decade of the twentieth century with an increase in the variety of herbs available for purchase. As the size of this market increased, some herbs moved from a niche product to one fully integrated with fresh market vegetables, so they are grown, harvested, packaged, transported, and marketed in the same way as vegetables. Even so, fresh herbs tend to be grown on smaller farms and are often sold in smaller specialty grocers, farmers' markets, and roadside stalls. In the supermarkets fresh herbs, often hydroponically grown in greenhouses, are sold in bunches or increasingly in pots. At the beginning of the twenty-first century the fresh herbs available for sale at the Los Angeles wholesale fruit and vegetable market included anise, arugula (rocket), basil, chives, cilantro, dill, epasote, lemongrass, marjoram, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, sorrel, tarragon, thyme, and watercress. The variety of herbs available is increasing with demands from immigrants for herbs from their native countries and a general wish for a greater variety in herb flavors.

Everyday Ingredients

Most people eat or use herbs and spices in some form every day, in vanilla ice cream, chili and Worcestershire sauces, alcoholic drinks such as gin, in cinnamon buns and in seed breads. Herbs flavor toothpaste and cough medicines, and they are drunk as teas and added to vinegars, oils, and sauces. The scents and flavors of herbs and spices originate from the essential oils in the plant material. These oils are a complex combination of organic compounds such as alcohols, esters, and aldehydes. So the growth, harvest, and drying of herbs and spices aims to maximize the preservation of these oils and thereby the scents and flavors. This is also true of the preparation and cooking of herbs and spices. For maximum flavor herbs should be harvested at the last possible moment and chopped just before use. If this is not possible, purchased herbs should look as fresh as possible (no wilting or bruised or brown leaves) and should be stored in plastic bags in the refrigerator until needed, preferably not more than a few days. Again they should be chopped just before use.

Dried Herbs

Dried herbs should be green (not brown) and should retain a lot of flavor when crushed. They should be purchased in small amounts and used before the use-by date. Drying an herb or spice reduces the water content, and if done properly it concentrates the flavor. For this reason using only a quarter to a third of what one would use if the herb were fresh will produce the same flavor. Some herbs retain more flavor than others when dried. Basil, chives, parsley, chervil, and coriander leaves all lose some flavor components when dried, while rosemary, sage, and oregano stay much the same, just more concentrated.

Using Herbs

Many fresh herbs should only be added near the end of cooking, otherwise their flavors are lost. Herbs such as cilantro, parsley, chervil, dill, and basil should all be added in the last few minutes of cooking or should be sprinkled over a dish just before serving. Dried herbs and some of the more strongly flavored fresh herbs like rosemary, sage, and bay can be cooked for much longer. In parts of the Mediterranean and in some Asian countries, it is usual to serve a bowl of assorted fresh herbs or a salad made predominantly of herbs with the meal. This serves the twofold purpose of stimulating and revitalizing the palate and aiding digestion.

Green sauces are also popular in many cultures and can be used to add piquancy to an otherwise bland meal. These sauces are made by pounding fresh green herbs with a pestle in a mortar or a food processor. They can be as simple as a single abundant herb, a clove of garlic, and drizzle of olive oil all pounded together. They can be as complex as Italian pesto (pine nuts and basil), North African chermoula (coriander, mint, and parsley leaves), French sauce verte (parsley, tarragon, chervil, and chives leaves), and Yemeni zhoug (coriander and parsley leaves), all of which also require a range of spices and other ingredients. These sauces are spread on bread, spooned into pasta or rice, added to soup, used as a marinade, spread over cooked meat, or used as a dip.

Much Southeast Asian cooking, especially in Vietnam and Thailand, demands fresh rather than dried herbs to obtain their distinctive flavors. Cilantro leaves and roots, lemongrass, garlic, ginger, turmeric, and chili are used fresh in traditional dishes from these countries. In contrast, Middle Eastern dishes use mainly dried and ground ginger and turmeric.

Using Spices

Spices are an essential component of cuisines from all over the world. Spicy food is not necessarily hot. The heat in spicy food usually comes from pepper or chili. If these are not added to a spice mix, the dish will not have any heat. Nearly all spices are dried before use. They are best purchased whole and ground just before needed. If this is not possible, then one can buy ground individual spices or mixtures a little at a time and use them within twelve months. Many spices, whether used whole or ground, need to be lightly cooked before use. This enhances and in some cases changes the flavor of the spice. Whole spices can be spread over a tray and dry roasted for a few minutes in a hot oven. They can then be ground or left whole and added straight to a dish. Ground spices are best gently fried, without oil, in a frying pan for up to sixty seconds.


Spice mixtures, which vary from country to country, are judicious combinations of spices that give a balance of flavors, often with surprising highlights. The various tastes of spices are usually categorized into five taste groups, sweet, pungent, tangy, hot, and amalgamating. Curry, for example, is a spice mixture that involves the selective use of pungent and aromatic spices. Some of these spices, like coriander, are added to almost every mixture; others, like star anise, are only rarely added to achieve a specific flavor.

Seed spices are an important component of many different breads, where they complement the carbohydrates and contain oils that aid digestion. Poppy and sesame seeds are used on bread rolls, nigella and black sesame seeds on Turkish breads, and caraway and dill seeds in and on many European breads. This use dates from antiquity, when different seed spices were used in cakes, biscuits, and breads to improve flavor and to help digestion.

Traditional Uses

Hundreds of herbs and spices have been used in cultures all over the world for thousands of years. During this time countless traditions, myths, and rituals have evolved. The following gives just a taste of some of these.

In times past foul or nasty odors were often associated with evil, while sweet, fragrant scents indicated goodness and purity. Herbs and spices with strong or unpleasant scents were avoided, while the sweetly scented ones masked bad odors and protected against evil. Spices in particular were in demand to improve preservation and to disguise the flavor of rotten or foul-tasting food. The Romans used ginger to counteract rancidity. Ginger is also associated with the rites and passages of life. It is given to new mothers all over Asia to restore strength and vigor, while the Chinese see ginger as a warming (yang) and stimulating food, believing it calms and purifies. Closely related turmeric is used in Indian ceremonies to anoint brides, while in Thailand it is used to anoint novice monks before ordination.

Dill is an herb and a seed spice with a long history. Romans fed it to their gladiators to confer vitality, and in medieval times it was added to love potions. Some Americans know it as "meeting house seed" because at one time dill seeds were chewed to dull the pangs of hunger during long religious services. Parsley grew wild on remote Grecian hillsides, but the ancient Greeks did not usually eat it. They used it in funerals and as a symbol of death; to be "in need of parsley" meant that one was seriously ill. In early medieval England the slow and patchy germination of parsley was explained by the suggestion that, once sown, parsley went nine times to the devil and back before sprouting. Those with worries about hair loss were advised to sprinkle their heads with parsley seeds three times a year. Rosemary is another herb with connections to funerary rights. In France rosemary was customarily placed in the hands of the deceased before burial, and in England sprigs of rosemary were thrown into the open grave. Rosemary was also believed to aid memory. Greek students twined rosemary in their hair, believing the scent would stimulate memory. Tradition has it that where rosemary flourishes the women are in charge, while according to an Arabic proverb a person whose sage grows well will live forever.

The statuesque herb angelica has been used in pagan and Christian festivals for centuries. It is indigenous to cold northern Europe, and its name is derived from a legend in which an angel appears to a monk in a dream and tells him this plant can cure the plague. It was also believed that angelica protected a person carrying it against witches and their spells. Other sweet herbs such as lavender and rosemary sweetened washing water to scent clothes and, strewed around rooms, repelled insects and masked unpleasant smells.

Herbs and Spices in the Twenty-first Century

Modern medicine led to a decrease in the use of herbal medicines in Western countries in the twentieth century. Nevertheless herbal remedies remain widely used in many poorer parts of the world, and herbal remedies have begun to regain popularity in the West. Many old uses

20 common culinary spices
Name* Description Place of origin, climate Part used Quality and taste Uses
Allspice Pimenta dioica Myrtaceae Perennial, tall evergreen tree Tropical, America and West Indies whole and ground Dried and cured unripe berries Pungent, clovelike Sweets and cakes, pickles, preserved meats, curries
Caraway Carum carvi Apiaceae Biennial, medium clump Temperate, Europe and West Asia Dried seeds, fresh leaves and roots mixes Pungent, earthy with anise and orange Breads, cheeses, pork, sausages, apples, cabbage, pastes, spice
Cardamom Elettaria cardamomum Zingiberaceae Perennial, medium clump Tropical, India Dried pods and seeds, fresh leaves Pungent, warm, camphorous Fruits, cakes, biscuits, custards, curries, rice
Cassia Cinnamomum aromaticum Lauraceae Perennial, tall evergreen tree Tropical, Burma Dried bark, whole and ground Sweet, strong, slightly bitter Pastries, cakes, biscuits, curries, spice blends
Chili Capsicum species Solanaceae Short-lived perennial, perennial, small bushes to small trees Tropical, America Fresh and dried fruits and seeds Hot, fruity Spice blends, curries, pastes, sauces, sambals, pickles, dips
Cinnamon Cinnamomum zeylanicum Lauraceae Perennial, medium evergreen tree Tropical, Southern India and Sri Lanka Dried bark, whole and ground Sweet, mild, warm, woody Stewed fruits, rice, curries, spice blends, sweet dishes, cakes, breads
Cloves Syzygium aromaticum Myrtaceae Perennial, medium everegreen tree Tropical, Moluccas Dried flower buds Pungent, camphorous, spicy, slightly peppery Curries, spice blends, spiced wines, stewed fruits, custards, pickles, meats
Coriander Coriandrum sativum Apiaceae Annual, small shrub Temperate, Europe Dried seeds, whole and ground Amalgamating, citrus and sage Cakes, pies, biscuits, fruits, curries, spice blends, pickles, sauces
Cumin Cuminum cyminum Apiaceae Annual, small shrub Temperate, Mediterranean Dried seeds, whole and ground Pungent, earthy sweet flavor Curries, spice blends, rice, fish, lamb, breads, pickles, vegetables
Fennel Foeniculum vulgare Apiaceae Herbaceous perennial, tall shrub Temperate, Mediterranean Dried seeds, whole and ground Amalgamating, sweet anise Salads, soups, spice blends, pastas, breads, sausages
Fenugreek Trigonella foenum-graecum Fabaceae Annual, small slender and Asia Temperate, Southern Europe Dried seeds, whole or dried leaves from seeds Pungent, spicy and bitter Vegetable and fish curries, spice blends, sprouts grown
Ginger Zingiber officinale Zingiberaceae Perennial, spreading clump Tropical, Asia Fresh and dried, whole and ground roots Pungent, spicy, sweet, warm to hot Biscuits, cakes, fish, meats, vegetables, curries
Juniper Juniperus communis Cupressaceae Perennial, shrubs to medium trees Temperate, Europe and Asia Dried berries Pungent, savory, spicy, pine Game meats, duck, pork, chicken, soups, stews
Nigella Nigella sativa Ranunculaceae Annual, medium, erect Temperate, Southwest Asia Seeds Pungent, black, bitter, slightly metallic tasting Breads, spice blends, potatoes, curries
Nutmeg and Mace Myristica fragrans Myristicaceae Perennial, evergreen medium tree Tropical, Indonesia Nutmeg-seeds, Mace-placental seed coverings, dried, whole or ground Nutmeg-sweet, warm, aromatic Mace-pungent, spicy, sweet Nutmeg-root vegetables, custards, cakes, biscuits Mace-seafood, meat sauces
Pepper Piper nigrum Piperaceae Perennial, climber Tropical, Southern India and Sri Lanka Dried or pickled fruits Hot, pungent, fragrant Most savory foods
Saffron Crocus sativus Iridaceae Perennial, small, bulbous Temperate, probably Greece Dried stigmas woody, fragrant Pungent, earthy, Rice, seafood, chicken, cakes
Star anise Illicium verum Illiaceae Perennial, evergreen, small tree Warm temperate to tropical China and Vietnam Dried fruits woody, aniseed Pungent, spicy, Vegetables, fruits, strong seafood, cured meats, sweet dishes
Turmeric Curcuma longa Zingiberaceae Perennial, leafy clump Tropical, India Fresh and dried, whole and ground roots Amalgamating, spicy, bitter Spice blends, curries, fish, stir-fries, rice
Vanilla Vanilla planifolia Orchidaceae Perennial, climbing orchid Tropical, Florida, West Indies, Central and South America Cured seed capsules Sweet, fragrant Desserts, cakes, biscuits, ice creams, sugar, chicken
*Mustard is not included here as it is discussed in the text.

of herbs have been confirmed by scientists, while new uses are being found. For example, Taxol is extracted from yew trees to treat some cancers.

See also Ethnobotany; Myth and Legend, Food in; Sensation and the Senses .


Boxer, Arabella, Jocasta Innes, Charlotte Parry-Crooke, and Lewis Esson. The Encyclopedia of Herbs, Spices, and Flavourings. London: Octopus Books, 1984.

Chapman, Pat. Pat Chapman's Curry Bible. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1997.

Garland, Sarah. The Herb and Spice Book. Lane Cove, New South Wales, Australia: Hodder and Stoughton, 1979.

Hemphill, Ian. Spice Notes: A Cook's Compendium of Herbs and Spices. Sydney: Pan Macmillan Australia, 2000.

Huxley, Anthony, ed. The New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening. London: Macmillan Reference, 1999.

Manfield, Christine. Spice. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin Books Australia, 1999.

Ortiz, Elisabeth Lambert, ed. The Encyclopedia of Herbs, Spices, and Flavorings. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1992.

Simon, James E. "Essential Oils and Culinary Herbs." In Advances in New Crops, edited by Jules Janick and James E. Simon. Portland, Ore.: Timber Press, 1990.

Woodward, Penny. Penny Woodward's Australian Herbal. South Melbourne: Hyland House, 1996.

Penny Woodward

Classic Herb Combinations

Bouquet Garni

This name is given to any small bunch of fresh herbs tied together and added to sauces, stock, soups, stews, and casseroles. The herbs are removed before serving. The basic combination is one bay leaf, a sprig of parsley, and a sprig of thyme. Other herbs used in bouquet garni are lemon balm, tarragon, fennel, rosemary, sage, and oregano.

Fines Herbes

A classic French combination of equal amounts of finely chopped chervil, chives, parsley, and tarragon. This mixture is used with soups, sauces, eggs, grilled meats, and fish. Lovage and fennel are sometimes added.

Herbes de Provence

A mixture of herbs that thrive in southern France during the summer: marjoram, oregano, rosemary, savory, and thyme. Use fresh or dried on any Mediterranean-style dish, pizza, stew, kebabs, and tomato dishes.

Classic Spice Combinations

Panch Phora

1 tsp. brown mustard

1 tsp. cumin

1 tsp. fennel

1 tsp. fenugreek

1 tsp. nigella

Whole seed mixture; fry or roast to release full flavor. Add to vegetables, seafood, breads, and pulses.

Pickling Spices

3 tsp. black pepper

3 tsp. yellow mustard seed

4 dried bird's eye chilis

3 tsp. allspice berries

3 tsp. dill seed

1 tsp. mace blades

1 crumbled cinnamon stick

2 crumbled bay leaves

2 tsp. cloves

4 tsp. ground ginger

Whole seed mixture, used to make pickles, chutneys, and spiced vinegar. Can be wrapped in muslin and removed before bottling.

Garam Masala

2 tsp. black peppercorns

1 cinnamon stick

1 tsp. cloves

2 tsp. cardamom seeds

2 tsp. cumin seeds

Grind the spices. Many different forms of this recipe exist, but they generally revolve around the same spices. Optional extras include bay leaves, coriander seeds, mace, and nutmeg. Use with fish, poultry, other meats, most vegetables, rice, pulses, and eggs.

Mixed Spices

1 cinnamon stick

1 tsp. allspice berries

1 tsp. whole cloves

2 tsp. grated nutmeg

2 tsp. ground ginger

Grind the whole spices. A traditional English mixture. Use in desserts, pies, cakes, and biscuits.

Basic Curry

10 tsp. coriander seed

5 tsp. cumin seed

1 tsp. brown mustard seed

5 whole bird's-eye chili

1 tsp. fenugreek seed

1 tsp. whole peppercorns

2 tsp. ground turmeric

Roast the whole spices, grind and mix all the spices together. Hundreds of different curries exist with varying combinations of the above spices. Other spices that can be used in curry mixes are fennel, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, ginger, and curry leaves.

Mexican Chili Powder

5 tsp. chili powder

3 tsp. ground cumin seed

2 tsp. sweet paprika

Use to flavor chili con carne and other bean and minced beef recipes.

Quatre Épices

5 tsp. ground black pepper

2 tsp. ground cloves

2 tsp. ground ginger

2 tsp. ground nutmeg

A French spice mixture. Use in preserved meats like salami, with game meats, and with slow-cooked beef and chicken dishes.

Chinese Five-Spice Powder

1 tsp. black peppercorns

1 tsp. ground cassia

1 tsp. cloves

3 tsp. fennel seed

5 whole star anise

Grind the whole spices. Use with stir-fried vegetables and as a marinade for seafood, chicken, pork, and duck.

Herbs and Spices

views updated May 14 2018

Herbs and Spices

The terms herb and spice are popular terms for plants or plant products that are used as flavorings or scents (e.g., spices and culinary herbs), drugs (e.g., medicinal herbs), and less frequently as perfumes, dyes, and stimulants.

Many herbs and spices are edible but may be distinguished from fruits and vegetables by their lack of food value, as measured in calories. Unlike fruits and vegetables, their usefulness has less to do with their primary metabolites (e.g., sugars and proteins) than with their secondary metabolites (compounds commonly produced to discourage pathogens and predators). The distinct flavors and smells of spices and culinary herbs are usually due to essential oils, while the active components of medicinal herbs also include many kinds of steroids, alkaloids, and glycosides. Most plants referred to as herbs or spices contain many different secondary compounds.


Spices are pungent, aromatic plant products used for flavoring or scent. The derivation of the word spice from the Latin species, meaning articles of commerce, suggests that these were plants that early Europeans could not grow, but instead had to trade for via Asia or Africa. Consistent with this, people tend to limit the word spice to durable products such as seeds, bark, and resinous exudations , especially those from subtropical and tropical climates, and use the word herb when the useful part is the perishable leaf. Commercially important spices include black pepper, the fruit of Piper nigrum, and cinnamon, the inner bark of two closely related tree species from the laurel family.

Culinary Herbs

The word herb is popularly used to refer to a plant product that has culinary value as a flavoring, while scientifically an herb is a plant that lacks permanent woody stems. Most of our well-known culinary herbs are obtained from the leaves or seeds of herbaceous plants, many of which originated in the Mediterranean region of Europe. Many of the best known belong to the mint family, such as peppermint (Mentha x piperita ), or the carrot family, such as coriander (Coriandrum sativum ).

Herbal Medicines

Medicinal herbs were once the mainstays of all medicine and include plants that range from edible to extremely toxic. Every culture has developed its own herbal pharmacopeia , with herbs taken as teas or tinctures, smoked, or applied to the body as poultices or powders. While much of the world still depends on herbal-based medicine, western medical practitioners rely mainly on synthetic drugs. Some of these are synthetic copies of the active compounds found in older herbal remedies, while others are more effective chemicals modeled on these naturally occurring compounds. At least thirty herbal drugs still remain important in western medicine. Some are obtained directly from plants, such as digitoxin from the woolly foxglove (Digitalis lanata ), which is used to treat congestive heart failure, while others are the result of refinement and manipulation of plant products, including oral contraceptives from yams (Dioscorea species). Recent years have seen some resurgence in the use of traditional herbal medicines in many western cultures.

see also Alkaloids; Cultivar; Dioscorea; Economic Importance of Plants; Flavor and Fragrance Chemist; Herbals and Herbalists; Medicinal Plants; Oils, Plant-Derived; Tea.

Robert Newgarden

Mark Tebbitt


Brown, Deni. Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses. New York: Dorling Kindersley Publishing Inc., 1995.

Tyler, Varro E. The Honest Herbal: A Sensible Guide to the Use of Herbs and Related Remedies. New York: Pharmaceutical Products Press, 1993.