Back to Basics: Herbs, Spices, and Seasonings

Anyone who has ever cooked or baked a recipe (let’s hope that’s everyone who is reading this blog) has used an herb, spice or seasoning in its construction. These additions add aroma, colour, flavour, and sometimes even texture to a meal, and can elevate the ho-hum to something divine.

In this Back to Basics post, I’m going to…well…go back to the basics when it comes to understanding the differences and similarities between herbs, spices, and seasonings. These words are often used interchangeably (i.e. the term “spice cupboard”), and in fact can be used as both verbs and nouns (i.e. “spicing up” your food, or “seasoning” your cast iron) which can lead to some confusion as to what exactly is a spice compared to an herb, and why are (or aren’t) seasonings their own category? You may be surprised, as I was, that some of the knowledge we’ve commonly held may actually be incorrect; for example, chili powder is often mentioned as a “top ten spice” in your pantry, but that’s a bit of a cheat as chili powder is in fact a mixture of many different spices and herbs and is in fact a seasoning. In the same vein, “Italian Seasoning”, while spoken of colloquially as its own herb, is a mixture of several different herbs, and so is (correctly) labeled as a seasoning.

As humans, our millions of taste bud receptors are incredibly unique to each person, so what may taste delicious to me may be awful to someone else, and vice versa (hello to all you fellow cilantro haters!). However, there are some, let’s call them “universal” herbs, spices, and seasonings that appeal to the highest percentage of people, and as such tend to be utilized in the largest number of recipes. As we know, herbs, spices, and seasonings can be used together and interchangeably in variations too numerous to list. We can also see certain combinations have more appeal than others, which can be tracked to geography, culture, availability, history, and even religious aspects.

So, while most of us can figure out the difference between most herbs and spices, where do seasonings fit in?

There’s a huge body of knowledge, a mere fraction of which I linked above, on the what, where, how, when, and why we like certain flavour combinations of our herbs, spices, and seasonings, which is well beyond the scope of this article. What I do want to provide below is to help us understand similarities and differences, and maybe inspire you to think of new (to you) flavour combinations worth trying. My personal goal on cooking and baking is similar to Kaizen, the Japanese philosophy of continuous, incremental improvement, always striving towards perfection. Trying new things, especially in cooking and baking, should absolutely be part of this process, as we never know what may end up being our new favourite.

Herbs

“There are no incurable diseases — only the lack of will. There are no worthless herbs — only the lack of knowledge.”

— Avicenna

By definition, culinary herbs are any plant with leaves or flowers with savoury or aromatic properties used in small amounts to provide flavour rather than substance to food. Herbs can be perennials such as thyme, sage or lavender, biennials such as parsley, or annuals like basil. Perennial herbs can be shrubs such as rosemary, or trees such as bay laurel; this contrasts with botanical herbs, which by definition cannot be woody plants. Some plants are used as both herbs and spices, such as dill weed and dill seed or cilantro leaves and coriander seeds. (source: Wikipedia)

Given that this list will be somewhat affected by regional cuisine and availability, I’m going to say in my researched opinion that the major culinary herbs for a standard North American pantry are usually basil, rosemary, parsley, cilantro, mint, thyme, sage, chives, dill, bay leaves, savory, and oregano. However, depending on region and season, you may have borage, celery leaves, chervil, lavender, lemongrass, marjoram, peppermint, or tarragon in your cupboards (Europe), or maybe some bishops weed, curry leaves, or saffron (India), or perhaps Vietnamese mint, Thai basil, garlic chives, or kaffir lime leaves (Asia).

Spices

Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour.”

— William Cowper

By definition, a spice is a seed, fruit, root, bark, or other plant substance primarily used for flavoring or coloring food. Even today, spices can be expensive, rare, and exotic commodities (see: saffron), and their conspicuous consumption has often been a symbol of wealth and social class. (source: Wikipedia)

Spices have a varied and fascinating history which our ancestors paid for in blood and gold; going into this extensive history is beyond the scope of this article, but I highly recommend you read books such as “Spice: The History of a Temptation” by Jack Turner, “The Spice Route: A History“, by John Keay, or “Spices: A Global History” by Fred Czarra for more information.

As with herbs, while this is somewhat affected by regional cuisine and availability, in my (researched) opinion the major culinary spices for a North American diet are black pepper, garlic powder, cinnamon, cayenne, cumin, paprika, chili flakes, ginger, and nutmeg*. However, depending on region, cassia bark may be your go-to substitute for cinnamon and your Indian cuisine couldn’t live without turmeric, fenugreek, mustard seed, coriander or asafoetida. Or maybe your European kitchen relies heavily on caraway, poppy, and celery seeds, saffron, dill seeds, horseradish root, and juniper berries. Asian cooking also relies heavily on star anise, galangal root, nigella and sesame seeds.

*As a note, despite their universal popularity, I’ve not included curry powder, garam masala, five-spice or seven-spice to this essential list as they are spice mixes and can be created from most of the essential spices above.

When it comes to baking spices (i.e. spices used primarily, though not necessarily exclusively) in baking, we see multi-tasking ginger, nutmeg, sesame and poppy seeds, and cinnamon make a reappearance from the previous list, but they are accompanied by those more baking-oriented spices such as anise seed, allspice, mace, cardamom (one of my absolute favourites!), cloves, and the ever-popular vanilla bean.

Seasonings

It is a fine seasoning for joy to think of those we love.”

Molière

In simple terms, the term “seasoning” encompasses almost every substance you add to a meal to enhance its flavor and aroma. As mentioned earlier, many familiar herb and spice concoctions we already have in our cupboards are considered a seasoning, as they are a mixture of several flavoring components. Thus, a spice or herb can thought of as a subset of a seasoning.

Having said this, there is one extremely common stand-alone seasoning that is known across virtually every cuisine, geographic and cultural region: SALT. Culinary salts live in the same category of individual seasonings as vinegars, sugars, and oils.

However, from this point onwards, things can get tricky: if lemon juice isn’t an herb or a spice, then that makes it a seasoning, but where does it fit? Are sauces a seasoning? What about mayonnaise? Or barbeque sauce, or soy sauce, or any other sauce you add to your food, for that matter? And why should you care?

If you’re ever unsure of what category or subset your item falls under, simply think of its major flavour profile in the terms of salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami: for example, how would you classify soy sauce? Yes, it’s a seasoning, as it’s neither a spice nor an herb, but working through further, as soy sauce is salty, it would be classified under salts, as would be Worcestershire sauce. Mayonnaise is unctuous, creamy and fatty, but also slightly sweet, so classified under sugars, and so on. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it works for me.

Now let me explain why you should care.

Do you want to be a better cook or baker? Do you want to elevate your food from “ok” or “good” to “great” and “excellent”? Other than the usual admonishments such as don’t overcook or undercook your product and use the freshest ingredients, one of the best ways to improve your output is by improving the flavour profile of your food. This primer is to help you understand the difference between an herb, a spice, and a seasoning, so you can then use that knowledge to intelligently combine and more importantly balance new flavours so you don’t end up with a product that is too sour, or too sweet, or overly bitter, etcetera.

Let’s say you make a nice vanilla cupcake. That’s great. But what if you improved its flavour profile by tinkering with the spices and seasonings, and even herbs, until you come up with something that’s both uniquely yours and a delight to the senses? This is where you might end up creating a vanilla lemon sweet basil cupcake (sweet/sour), or maybe a salted caramel vanilla cupcake (salty/sweet). The same thing happens with cooking a steak, or making mashed potatoes; or a salad; whatever you want to make. Think of its existing flavour profile, and then, using the 5 taste senses chart above and your new knowledge of what a herb is compared to a spice or seasoning, fill in the blanks. See my future post (working on it now; I will link here soon!) where I go into more detail on the flavour profile of all the herbs, spices, and seasonings I can think of, and how they may be best used in culinary applications.

As you may have noticed if you’ve read any of my articles and posts, I am an unapologetic tinkerer when it comes to my recipe development; it’s not enough for me to make the best classic chocolate chip cookie; I want to know how to mix things up, to try to elevate the flavours to something else altogether. Some of the best, most flavourful meals at high-end restaurants created by professional chefs are where those experts well-trained in their craft have thought long and hard about this very thing, and experimented until they achieved their version of perfection.

So think about this, and let me know in the comments if you have already started on the personal road to improving your meals; I’d love to hear from you!

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