Ever get cilantro confused with parsley? Or wonder if cumin is really essential to the flavor of a dish? Many times I have added an herb or spice to a recipe without really knowing how it will effect the outcome of the dish. Therefore, I have put together this quick reference guide to all of the most common herbs and spices. If I’ve missed any that you believe should be included, just let me know in the comments field below and I will add them.
Allspice is a fragrant dried, unripe berry from an evergreen tree in the myrtle family. After drying, the berries are small, dark brown balls. Allspice is used in soups, stews, and curries. It is also used in pickling spice, spiced tea mixes, cakes, cookies and pies.
The anise seed is a licorice smelling and tasting, gray-brown, oval seed from a plant in the parsley family. It is related to caraway, dill, cumin, and fennel. It is used in cakes, cookies, sweet breads, soups, stews and candies.
Arrowroot is a flavorless, white powder extracted from the root of a West Indian plant. It looks and feels like cornstarch. Arrowroot is used as a thickening agent for sauces, fruit pie fillings, glazes and puddings.
Basil, has a sweet, herbal bouquet, and is a bright green, leafy plant, found in the mint family. Basil is commonly used in Italian cuisine and Thai cooking. The herb goes well with meat, vegetables, cheese, and egg dishes.
Bay Leaves produce a sharp, pungent, bitter taste and derive from the sweet bay or laurel tree. Bay Leaves are commonly used in soups, stews, meat and vegetable dishes.
Caraway Seeds, with their strong smell and sweet and tangy taste, are the fruit of a biennial herb in the parsley family. Caraway Seed is a common flavoring for many kinds of rye bread, sauerkraut, sausages, cheese, cabbage, and soups.
Cardamom has a very strong, sweet flavor and is the ground seed of a tropical fruit in the ginger family. It is commonly used in curry blends, breads and as a flavoring for coffee.
Almost odorless but quite hot to taste, Cayenne Pepper (or Red Pepper) is made from the dried pods of pungent chili peppers. It is commonly used to add a hot spicy taste to Mexican and Italian dishes but can be found in recipes spanning the globe.
With a similar warm, slightly bitter taste to celery, celery seed is the dried fruit of a biennial in the parsley family. This seed can be used sparingly in pickles, soups, salads and meat dishes. It generally goes well with eggplant, eggs, fish, peas, potatoes, stuffing and tomatoes.
Chervil looks similar to parsley but has a more distinctive aromatic and sweet flavor with a hint of anise. It is a light green, lacey, fernlike leaf of a low growing member of the parsley family. Chervil is one of the classic components of the popular French herb blend, fines herbes.
Chives, with their mild, onion and garlic flavor, are the bright green, long, hollow, thin leaves of an onion-like member of the lily family. Chives are traditionally used as a garnish but are also one of the herbs used in fines herbes, a popular French herb blend.
Cilantro’s taste has an aromatic mix of citrus and parsley and is the leaf of the young coriander plant, an herb in the parsley family, similar to anise. Cilantro is commonly used in Middle Eastern, Mexican, and Asian cooking.
Cinnamon, with its sweet, woody fragrance, is the dried bark of various laurel trees in the cinnamon family. Ground cinnamon is one of the most widely used baking spices and can be found in cakes, cereals, cookies, and desserts. In the Middle East it is also used in savory lamb and chicken recipes.
Cloves are very pungent and sweet and are the rich, brown, dried, unopened flower buds of an evergreen tree in the myrtle family. They are commonly used in spice cookies and cakes.
Coriander is the seed of a plant in the parsley family and has a mild, distinctive taste similar to that of a blend of sage and lemon. Coriander is used in lentils, beans, onions, potatoes, hotdogs, chili, sausages, stews and pastries. It is also used in spice blends including curry powders, chili powders, garam masala and berbere.
Cumin is the pale green seed of a small herb in the parsley family and has a slightly bitter and warm taste. Cumin is a main component of curry powder and a number of hot spice mixtures including garam masala and baharat. It has lost its prominence in many recipes but is still a popular flavoring for certain Dutch and French cheeses and breads.
Curry powder is a blend of up to 20 different herbs and spices, including the commonly used: cardamom, chilies, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, mace, nutmeg, pepper, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, saffron, tamarind and turmeric. It is used to flavor soups and stews, sauces, marinades, meatloaf, hamburgers, chicken, tuna, pasta and potato salads.
Dill is a tall, feathery annual in the parsley family and has a pungent aroma similar to the caraway seed. Both Dill Seed and Weed (dried leaves) come from the same plant. Both are widely used in pickling as well as in German, Russian, and Scandinavian dishes.
Fennel Seed is the oval, green or yellowish brown dried fruit of a member of the parsley family. It has a similar flavor to anise but is much more aromatic and sweeter. Fennel complements fish and is widely used in Italian sausages and some curry powder mixes.
Garlic, with its distinctive flavor and odor, is the dried root of a member of the lily family. It is used in dishes throughout the world, especially in Chinese, Italian, and Mexican foods.
Ginger is a flavoring from a tuberous root, a plant in the Ginger family. It has a rich, warm, woody and sweet aroma. Ginger is used in gingerbread, ginger ale, gingersnaps, and many Asian recipes.
With their bittersweet aroma, Juniper Berries come from the juniper shrub, an evergreen that grows in the Northern Hemisphere. They are commonly used in marinades, roast pork, sauerkraut and are used to enhance meats, stews, sausages, stuffing and soups.
The nutmeg tree produces two separate spices, nutmeg and mace. Both have similar flavors and aromas with Mace being a little more pungent. Mace is popular in European foods where it is used in both sweet and savory recipes. It is generally used in small amounts and is especially good for rounding out white sauces and goes well with meats.
Marjoram has a sweet, aromatic flavor with a slight bitterness. It is the gray green leaf of a low growing member of the mint family and is commonly mistaken for oregano. Use marjoram to spice red meats such as beef, veal and roasts. The sweet flavor combines well with the juices of the meat. Marjoram also goes well with bay, basil, garlic, thyme and onions.
Mint is widely known for its strong, sweet flavor with a cool aftertaste. It is the dried leaf of a perennial herb. There are two types, spearmint and peppermint. It is commonly used in chewing gums but also popular in mint jelly or in chocolate desserts.
Mustard Seed comes from two large shrubs native to Asia. Brown mustard is more pungent than white, however both have no smell when dry until mixed with water which releases a hot flavor. Mustard Seeds are commonly used to enhance meats, fish, fowl, sauces, and salad dressings.
Nutmeg, the sweeter and more pungent sister of mace, is the seed of an evergreen tree native to the Moluku Islands. Nutmeg is a mild baking spice and is used in meats, vegetables, soups, sausages and preserves and is commonly added to eggnog, puddings and fruit pies.
Mediterranean Oregano is the dried leaf of a perennial herb in the mint family. The stronger of the two, Mexican Oregano is the dried leaf of one of several plants of the Lippia genus. Both have a pungent odor and flavor. Oregano is well known as the “pizza herb”, and is widely used in Mexican and Italian cooking.
Paprika is a bright red powder that comes from red pepper and ranges from sweet and mild to hot. In Hungarian cooking it is used for Goulash and Chicken dishes. In North America, it is commonly used as a garnish on stuffed eggs, fish, cheese and vegetable casseroles. The Spanish use it to enhance shellfish, rice, and sausage dishes. Moroccans use it in tomato dishes and salads.
Parsley is the dried leaf of a biennial in the parsley family. Parsley, with its light, fresh scent and flavor, is most commonly used as a garnish and is an excellent breath freshener. Green parsley is often used as a garnish on potato dishes, rice dishes, fish, fried chicken, lamb or goose, steaks, meat or vegetable stews.
Pepper is the dried berry of a vine that can grow up to ten feet tall and is commonly grown in India and Asia. It is a universal table condiment used to flavor all types of dishes throughout the world. Black Pepper has a sharp, pungent aroma and flavor. White Pepper is hotter, less subtle and mildly fermented. Green Peppercorn is milder in flavor and has a fresh taste.
Poppy Seeds have a nutty aroma and taste and are tiny blue gray seeds inside capsules in an opium plant found in the Mediterranean. They are commonly used to flavor breads, cakes, rolls, and cookies and are often ground and used in desserts or to thicken sauces.
Red Pepper (or Cayenne Pepper) is a pungent, hot powder with a strong fiery taste and is made from the ground fruit of a plant in the Capsicum family. It is used to flavor Mexican, Creole, Cajun, Thai, Szechuan, and Indian cooking. It is also used in chili, Spanish rice, and barbecue sauce as well as meats, salads, and casseroles.
Rosemary has an aroma similar to tea and pine and is an herb from the mint family. It is used commonly in lamb, pork, chicken, and rabbit dishes and can also be used to flavor oils, vinegars, milk/cream, syrups, soups, sauces, salads and pasta.
Saffron has a strong, sharp odor and a spicy, pungent and bitter flavor. It comes from a flowering plant in the crocus family. Saffron is one of the world’s most expensive spices and is used in French bouillabaisse, Spanish paella, Milanese risotto, and many Middle Eastern dishes.
Sage, with its fragrant aroma and astringent, warm flavor, is an herb from an evergreen shrub in the mint family. It is commonly used in pork, lamb, meats, and sausage dishes or chopped to flavor salads, pickles, and cheeses.
With a nutty, mild flavor, sesame seed is the seed of an annual herb that grows well in hot climates. The yellowish, red, or black seeds are used in bread products, stir-fries, Jewish and Chinese confectionaries, and Middle Eastern dishes.
Savory has a pepper-like flavor and a piney fragrance. It is an annual herb belonging to the mint family. Savory works well with almost any savory recipe. It is commonly used in soups, stews, bean dishes, cabbage and sauerkraut.
Tarragon is a small, shrubby herb from the sunflower family and has a smell similar to anise but with a bittersweet flavor. It is used as a flavoring for vinegar, pickles, relishes, prepared mustards and sauces. Tarragon also goes well with fish, meat, soups and stews, and is often used in tomato and egg dishes.
Thyme has a subtle, dry aroma and a slightly minty flavor. It is the leaf of a low-growing shrub in the mint family and the leaves are dried then chopped, or ground. Thyme is often included in seasoning blends for poultry and stuffing and also used in fish sauces, chowders, and soups. It goes well with lamb, tomatoes, veal, eggs, custards, and croquettes.
Turmeric comes from the root of a leafy plant in the ginger family. It is mildly aromatic with scents of orange or ginger and has a pungent, bitter flavor. It is used extensively in Indian dishes, including lentil and meat dishes, and in Southeast Asian cooking. It is often added to mustard blends and relishes and may be used in place of saffron to provide color and flavor.
Vanilla Beans have a sweet, perfumed smell with a smoky or woody flavor and are the long, greenish-yellow seedpods of a tropical orchid plant. It is one of the most popular flavorings in the world and is used to flavor many desserts, including ice cream, custard, cake, candy, and pudding. Vanilla is also used to enhance the flavor of sauces and beverages.