When it comes to convenience and value, dried herbs and spices are hard to beat. You can use them to jazz up just about any meal, taking it from bland to mouth-watering with a single sprinkle. If you’re wondering which herbs and spices to keep to hand, ready for when you’re pepping up a pasta bowl, giving a rice dish a touch of razzle-dazzle, or sprucing up a stew, we’re here to help, with these commonly used products.
Oregano is a species of flowering plant (a woody perennial) in the mint family Lamiaceae, originally native to the Mediterranean region.
Widely considered, unlike other many other herbs, to be best in its dry form, it’s commonplace in Mexican and Italian cooking, particularly cheese and tomato dishes. It also goes well with lamb and aubergine, and is typically added right at the end of cooking so it stays pungent.
Benefits of this herb include its richness in antioxidants, its bacteria-blasting potential, possible anti-cancer and viral infection properties; plus it could help reduce inflammation. Finally, it’s very easy to add to your diet.
Thyme is a popular multi-purpose herb grown in Europe, particularly the Med, and belongs to the mint family. It’s highly scented, with grey-green, small leaves plus an earthy, sweet taste. The most common UK varieties are garden and lemon thyme. The other thing about this herb is it can withstand quite lengthy cooking times.
It’s ideal for soups, casseroles, chicken dishes – it also goes well in stuffings, marinades, omelettes and scrambled eggs. Equally, serve with fish and other meats or Mediterranean vegetables.
Thyme contains chemicals which could help fight bacterial and fungal infections. Additionally, it potentially helps relieve coughing and has antioxidant effects.
Parsley is one of the most widely used herbs in cooking in Britain, as well as across Europe and the Middle East. It has a fresh, grassy flavour and while traditionally the curly variety has been used in British cuisine, flat-leaf is the most commonly used in recipes today. It’s a flowering plant from the Apiaceae family native to the central and eastern parts of the Mediterranean.
This stuff works well in creamy sauces, salsas, pestos and garnishes. Try it in Middle Eastern salads, marinades or blend into soups and stews; make a herb sauce with watercress, parsley and walnuts, or serve with grilled tuna or crab linguine.
Parsley works as a powerful natural diuretic, so helps lessen bloating and high blood pressure. It’s also packed with vitamin K, which is linked to bone health.
Bay leaves come from various tree species, including the bay laurel, with the Californian bay being the most common source. These aromatic leaves can be used in dried or fresh forms, and are typically removed before the food is consumed.
A bay leaf or two will add a touch of mellow sweetness to stews, braises, stocks and soups. It also makes a refreshing change to add one to rice puddings or custards.
Bay leaves are a rich source of Vitamins A, C and iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium. They have also been used successfully to treat migraines, and contain enzymes which aid faster digestion.
Basil is an annual herb and part of the mint family, with a fragrant scent, large, delicate green leaves and a peppery taste. An essential part of Italian recipes, it’s also used more widely, including in various Asian cuisines. (Indeed, it originated in Africa and Asia.)
The main ingredient in conventional pesto, basil is also a popular seasoning in tomato-based pasta sauces. It also adds flavour to pizza and salads as well as other dishes.
Some studies show potential health benefits including reduced blood pressure, depression, memory loss and stress, improved mental alertness and prevention of cancers including those of the colon, breast and pancreas.
No kitchen should be without at least a basic line-up of spices. After all, they quickly add flavour to just about anything you’re making. They’re long-lasting, and you don’t need that many different ones to get your collection started. Here are a few essentials:
Black peppercorns, once a currency in south-east Asia, grow on a flowering vine in the family Piperaceae and start life being green. If you’re a regular home cook, you’ll find yourself using black pepper to add a kick to just about any savoury dish. Equally, if you have whole peppercorns, their oils break down less rapidly, preserving flavour for longer.
You can add black pepper to anything from avocado toast to scrambled eggs, rice dishes, soups, pasta, stir-fries and salad dressings, as well as vegetables, meat and fish.
Black peppercorns are high in antioxidants, have anti-inflammatory properties and may improve brain function, blood sugar control and cholesterol levels.
Cumin is an aromatic spice native to the eastern Mediterranean and Upper Egypt. It comes from the seed of the cumin plant and is a flavour-packed, warm yet somewhat bitter spice. Traditionally, it’s added to curries, Mexican and Moroccan dishes.
Cumin is an essential ingredient in many Indian chutneys and curries, but also goes well in stews, soups, pickles and chilli recipes. Use conservatively – otherwise its flavour can overwhelm a dish.
Health benefits include antioxidants and anti-cancer properties. Cumin also helps control blood sugar, fight bacteria and parasites, lower cholesterol and has an anti-inflammatory impact.
Turmeric is another versatile essential for any spice rack. It’s part of the ginger family, and has a bright, mild taste that’s also quite floral and earthy. It’s native to Asia and has been used in cooking for centuries, as well as traditional medicines.
Turmeric is a fragrant, bright-yellow root that should be used as a gentle background to a dish – and to add colour. So, again, don’t overuse.
It spices up vegetables, greens, rice salads and soups. Add a pinch to scrambled eggs or a frittata or tofu. You could even blend it into a smoothie, or make tea with it.
The active ingredient in turmeric is a natural compound or polyphenol called curcumin, which has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Cinnamon is a fragrant spice which comes from the inner bark of a tropical tree. It has a distinctive scent and flavour, and is used in sweet and savoury dishes (e.g. tagines). The ground version has a stronger scent than cinnamon sticks.
You can bake cinnamon in biscuits, cakes and puddings, or sprinkle over baked fruits and custards. Add it to casseroles, punch or mulled wine, or just beat into butter with a sprinkling of sugar and spread on toast. Finally, pop it into the water when you’re boiling rice. With the sticks, you can also make cinnamon tea.
This spice is packed with antioxidants, may have anti-inflammatory properties, and could protect against heart disease while helping to lower blood sugar levels. It could even have beneficial effects on neurodegenerative diseases.
Chilli powder is Indian in origin and is actually a blend of powdered spices which is red in colour and made by grinding dried chillis. Although it contains some cayenne pepper, giving this spice some heat, it also incorporates cumin, oregano, garlic powder and paprika. The usual ratio is one part cayenne to seven parts other spices. Some varieties will be hotter than others, but chilli powder is never as hot as pure ground chilli peppers. The darker varieties are smoky and highly sweet.
Use it, obviously, in chilli con carne and curries, but you can also use it to season egg, cheese and shellfish dishes and stews.
Red chillis are rich in potassium which helps to relax the blood vessels and regulate blood pressure. The spice is also known to help maintain weight, build immunity, keep the hair and skin healthy and improve cognitive ability while also having an anti-inflammatory effect.
Order an extensive range of herbs and spices from us at Ganesha Wholefoods. Alternatively, pop into one of our stores (we’re in Honiton, Axminster and Sidmouth). We are always happy to provide advice on these key ingredients which no kitchen should be without.