If you’ve never cooked much with herbs and spices, they can be bewildering. You know what flavors you like, but what herbs do they come from? Which herbs go with which other ingredients, and just as importantly, which don’t go with which? Ingredient lists on packaged foods don’t help — they just say “herbs and spices” without saying which ones or how much of each. Well, you can’t expect them to give away their recipes . . . You could always buy one of everything in the spice section and taste a little bit of each. But before you do that, read through these quick descriptions of a few of the most popular spices.
Oregano: What makes tomato sauce taste like pizza. It’s sold mostly as dried, crumbled leaves, or fresh in bunches. Rule of thumb for all herbs: Dried = four times the same quantity fresh.
Basil: Like oregano, only not so strong, and faintly like licorice. Also sold as dried leaves, or fresh bunches.
Fennel: Looks almost like celery, except for the feathery leaves at the top, and tastes like licorice. That’s the fresh form; the seeds, which have the same taste, are sold dried. Try either in tomato sauce.
Dill: Pickle taste, minus the vinegar. Either fresh or dried, it looks like feathery leaves, similar to the ones on fresh fennel, but the tastes are nothing alike. If you can’t imagine pickles without vinegar, pick up some dill and try it with fish.
Thyme: The classic taste of stuffing. Good with chicken. Comes in fresh bunches, dried leaves, and sometimes ground.
Rosemary: Slightly sweet; also good with chicken. Fresh or dried, it’s sold as tiny, spiky leaves.
Savory: Mild taste — it’s better known for making vegetables like beans and cabbage less gassy. Comes as a powder.
Cumin: Part two of that Mexican flavor. (Chili is part one, very important, but it can’t do it all on its own.) Usually the ground form of cumin is used, though you can also get cumin seeds.
Parsley: Best when it’s fresh and sprinkled on food just before serving. It gives a little garden fresh taste and color to dishes that have cooked a long time, like stew. Green onions are good for this also.
Cloves: These have a taste somewhat like wintergreen Lifesavers. They’re used in both sweet and savory dishes — sparingly. A pot roast recipe I often use calls for a quarter teaspoon of cloves to season three pounds of beef. Ground cloves are the handiest form. Whole cloves resemble tiny black nails with spiky heads and are best left for sticking into hams.
Well, I’ve given it my best shot, but taste is a hard thing to convey in words — if you want to experience any of these firsthand, hit the spice aisle.