Adding herbs to a recipe is a bit like blending paint colors. Toss in every color, and you end up with a brown, drab, lifeless shade. Yet, carefully blend several colors and a dramatic hue emerges. The same is true for herbs. A tomato based sauce, seasoned with celery salt will dramatically change when basil replaces the celery. Sometimes pairing an herb with an unlikely dish will bring startling flavor results.
Spices vs. Herbs
Before flavoring food with herbs, the cook needs to know if the seasoning is an herb. Spices and herbs both season food, and while the terms are used interchangeably, they are not the same things. Herbs come from the leafy portion of herbaceous plants. Spices come from a plant's bark, flowers, fruits, roots or seeds. Common herbs include basil, chives, marjoram, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage and thyme, while common spices include cinnamon, cloves, cumin, ginger, nutmeg, saffron and vanilla. Salt, a common seasoning is a mineral, and not an herb or spice.
Some novice cooks may assume it is mandatory to dry herbs prior to seasoning foods. After all, the little jars of herbs sold in the supermarket all contain dried herbs. Drying is simply a way to preserve herbs for future use. Store the dry herbs in a cool location. Before seasoning with dry herbs, check the color and fragrance of the herb. If the color is no longer bright or it lacks a fragrant scent, throw it away. Dry herbs become stale, therefore purchase herbs in small quantities. Some herbs, such as marjoram, lose their flavor quickly, while others, like oregano, become more potent when dried.
When seasoning food with herbs, they should enhance the flavor rather than overpower the dish. Fresh herbs are typically preferred over dry herbs. Purchase fresh herbs in the produce department of the grocery store, or harvest your own from the home garden. Normally, it will take twice as many fresh herbs to season a dish, when compared to seasoning with dried herbs. When using fresh herbs, they double as a garnish. Garnish a shrimp cocktail with a sprig of parsley or a glass of iced tea with a sprig of mint.