If the thought of herbs and spices gets you into a muddle and tarragon and oregano sound like American states, here’s a wonderful reference guide which includes all of the most common and some uncommon herbs and spices.
I’ve detailed thirty-seven of my favourite herbs and spices to zest and flavour your meals and give them a whole new lease on life.
Herbs & Spices
Asafoetida (Asafetida): Native to the deserts of Iran and mountains of Afghanistan, asafoetida is a standard component of South Indian and Maharashtrian cuisine. Known for its strong odour that resembles a leek-like scent, this pungent spice is a tasty addition to your next curry or lentil dish. The medicinal spice is used as a digestive aid, for reducing the growth of indigenous microflora in the gut – helping to reduce flatulence – and acting as an antiviral to fight off the flu.
Allspice: Receiving its name in the 17th century for resembling the flavour combination of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, allspice is indispensable in Middle Eastern and Caribbean cuisines. Traditionally used in savoury dishes to flavour meats, curries and stews, the versatile spice has become increasingly popular in western societies to spice up desserts. Use allspice to add a touch of excitement to your next muffin recipe.
Basil: Highly aromatic with a robust liquorice flavour, basil is commonly used fresh in recipes as cooking can quickly destroy the flavour. Superb in a pesto or as a finishing touch on pasta dishes, my favourite is sprinkling fresh basil leaves over a caprese salad for a refreshing Italian-inspired dish.
Bay Leaf: Used in cooking for its distinct woodsy flavour and fragrance, bay leaves are commonly used in soups, stews and sauces. A fixture in many European cuisines for its herbal, slightly floral scent, bay leaves are most often used whole and removed before serving (they can be abrasive in the digestive tract). Not just for cooking, you can scatter your bay leaves across your pantry to repel meal moths, flies and roaches!
Caraway Seed: These pungent, anise-tasting seeds are essential for your next home-made bread, sauerkraut or potato salad. Caraway is also used in desserts, liquors, casseroles and Indian cuisine rice dishes. Superstitions hold that caraway has the power to prevent the theft of any object that contains the seed and can even keep lovers from losing interest in one another. Or for a less dramatic usage, you can use caraway to ease digestive problems like heartburn, bloating and gas.
Cardamom: Made from the seeds of several plants native to India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bhutan, cardamom (sometimes called cardamon) provides a warm, aromatic flavour that is widely used in Indian cuisine. Found in black or green seed varieties, cardamom is commonly used in baked goods, delivering a delightful flavour when used in combination with spices like clove and cinnamon.
Cayenne Pepper: Made from dried and ground red chili peppers, this sweet hot spice is commonly used to flavour soups, braises and as a key ingredient in hot sauces. Cayenne pepper can boost metabolism due to its high amounts of capsaicin, which in turn can aid weight loss. Increasing blood circulation to all major organs in the body, capsaicin may support a healthy energy balance while suppressing appetite.
Cinnamon: a versatile spice found in almost every world cuisine and used in both sweet and savoury dishes, cinnamon is known for helping balance blood sugar and cholesterol levels. A great spice to jazz up your morning porridge, sprinkle over your fruit salad or even to liven up your tea. Cinnamon has been found to stimulate digestion and appetite, sooth an upset stomach, relieve digestion and improve circulation. Delivering a large dose of antioxidants, cinnamon is a regular star on my kitchen shelf.
Cloves: The aromatic flower buds of a tree native to Indonesia, cloves are a sweet and warming spice often used in baking and to lend flavour to meats, curries and marinades. Cloves have been used for much of history as a painkiller and to aid digestive disturbances.
Coriander: Also known as cilantro or Chinese parsley, coriander has a pungent, herbaceous flavour used across numerous world cuisines including Caribbean, Middle Eastern, Latin American, and Asian cooking.
Coriander Seed: The dry fruits of the coriander plant are known as coriander seeds. These are commonly referred to as dhania in Indian cuisine and are known for their earthy and refreshing lemon-like flavour.
Curry Leaves: These leaves from the curry tree are native to India and Sri Lanka, imparting a pungent flavour similar to that of curry powder. Curry leaves are used in Indian, Malaysian, Sri Lankan, Singaporean, and Pakistani cuisine to flavour curries, soups, stews, and chutneys.
Cumin: Native to East Mediterranean and India regions, cumin is a smoky and earthy spice used in a lot of Mexican, North African, Middle Eastern and Indian cuisines. This medicinal spice is known to aid digestion problems including diarrhoea, colic and gas.
Chives: Imparting a delicate onion flavour, chives are commonly used as an ingredient for fish, potatoes, soups and other dishes. I enjoy adding chives to an egg scramble or omelette, as it provides a mild yet garlic-like herbal flavour. Chives are also known for their insect-repelling properties that can be used in gardens to control pests.
Dill: A must-have sprinkled on your next grilled salmon dinner, this light and feathery herb is ideal for pickling, with fish or over potatoes. One of the most popular herbs in Russia, Ukraine and Poland, dill is used across European, Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines to flavour soups, meats or to make traditional dill butter.
Fenugreek: Although this herb has a maple syrup scent while cooking, fenugreek has a rather bitter, burnt sugar flavour. Found across Indian and Middle Eastern dishes, fenugreek is also known for its vast range of medicinal purposes including to relieve inflammation, reduce phlegm, relieve bronchitis and to balance blood sugar in diabetics.
Fennel Seed: With its sweet and liquorice-like flavour, fennel seed has been revered as a sacred herb for its conventional health benefits. Popular in Mediterranean, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines, fennel seed is a tasty addition to meat dishes and casseroles, or even chewed on its own as a breath freshener or digestion aid.
Ginger: Ground ginger spice is made from dehydrated fresh ginger and produces a hot, fragrant and zesty bite. Doubling up as a savoury and sweet spice, ginger provides a variety of health-promoting elements, being used in Asian, Arabic and Indian cultures as a herbal medicine since ancient times. Effective in treating nausea and morning sickness, research also shows ginger is an effective anti-inflammatory and treatment for your cold or flu.
Kaffir Lime Leaves: Sold fresh, dry or frozen, kaffir lime leaves deliver a powerful sensory experience, with both the scent and taste delivering a powerful and rich aroma. Kaffir lime leaves are most commonly used to flavour curries and used alongside lemongrass to produce classic Thai flavours.
Lemon Thyme: Delivering a sweet lemon aroma and a refreshing herbal flavour, lemon thyme is a unique herb that is exceptional when added to poultry dishes and used in vinaigrettes.
Marjoram: With its floral and woodsy scent, marjoram is most commonly used for seasonings, sauces, vinaigrettes and marinades. Marjoram lends its oregano-like flavour to dishes such as soups, stews and fish.
Mint: Surprisingly versatile for such an intensely flavoured herb, the leaves have a warm, fresh, aromatic, sweet flavour with a cool aftertaste. Used in both sweet and savoury dishes, try mint paired with lamb, peas and potatoes. Or use it in a mint sauce, in teas and beverages, or with ice cream or chocolate. There are so many ways you can have fun with this sweet little herb.
Nutmeg: With its slightly sweet and pungent aroma, nutmeg is delightful when used in baking alongside cinnamon. Commonly used in a traditional Christmas cake, I enjoy adding nutmeg to my muffin and tea cake recipes to add a splash of warmth and comfort. It also adds a warm note to savoury dishes, often used in Middle Eastern cooking to spice up meat and vegetable dishes.
Nutritional Yeast: Very different from bread yeast, this product is deactivated yeast, available in supermarkets or your local health food store. It can be sprinkled onto or into sauces, pastas and other dishes to add a nutty, cheesy, savoury flavour. I adore using nutritional yeast to add a dairy-free cheesy-ness to my shepherd’s pie, scattered over a vegetable bake or sprinkled over a tray of kale chips. A nutritious and comforting way to eat food.
Oregano: An important culinary herb that can often be more flavourful when dried than fresh, oregano has a robust, warm and slightly bitter taste. Coined the “pizza herb” when World War II soldiers brought the flavour back with them to the US, its most prominent use is as a staple in Italian cuisine. Oregano is delicious with roasted or grilled vegetables, meats and fish, and charming in a salad or sprinkled over ripe sliced tomatoes with sea salt and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. My mouth is watering already!
Parsley: Native to the central Mediterranean region and available in flat-leaf (Italian) or curly varieties, this herb makes a very popular garnish in modern cooking. Parsley has a light and grassy flavour that lends well to almost all types of savoury dishes and across most world cuisines. This herb is a good source of antioxidants and is known for its detoxification benefits.
Paprika: Made from air-dried fruits of chilli peppers, paprika adds a sweet note and a bright red colour. Used as an ingredient in a broad variety of dishes throughout the world, paprika makes for a colourful and spicy chicken marinade or to enhance the aromas of a casserole or stew.
Rosemary: Strong and piney in flavour, rosemary adds an enchanting element to potatoes, eggs, beans or grilled meats. I adore cooking with rosemary for its ability to enhance a dish and take it to another level with its powerful yet pleasant woody flavour.
Saffron: Bright in colour and subtle yet distinct in its floral flavour, saffron is described by connoisseurs as reminiscent of metallic honey with grassy or hay-like notes. Saffron is widely used in Persian, Indian, European, Arab, and Turkish cuisines. I enjoy adding saffron to a risotto or a meat dish, lending an enchanting bright colour that brings the dish to life.
Sage: For generations, sage has been used in Britain as an essential herb, along with parsley, rosemary and thyme. With its pine-like flavour, sage is often found in northern Italian cooking such as the classic Saltimbocca dish and is delicious in breads, vegetable bakes and to flavour meats. Sage has been known to enhance memory and benefit Alzheimer’s sufferers. It also reduces inflammation and has a potent antioxidant protection. This health-promoting herb can help lower cholesterol and has been traditionally used by menopausal women to ease hot flushes. Quite an all-rounder. If you’ve never tried sage, you may find the aroma quite distinct so start with small portions and add to your liking.
Smoked Paprika: Similar to paprika but with a sweet smokiness, this ingredient adds an intense richness along with its fiery red colour to chicken and meat dishes.
Star Anise: Whole star anise can be used to add a sweet anise-like flavour to sauces, soups and to enhance the flavour of meat. Common in Indian and Chinese cuisines, star anise has also been used for generations as a traditional remedy for rheumatism and to aid digestion.
Sumac: This spice is commonly used in Middle Eastern cuisine to add a lemony taste to salads and meats, and to create marinades and spice rubs.
Turmeric: the root stalk of a tropical plant in the ginger family, this bright golden spice is perfect for curries, soups, pilafs, rice and lentil dishes. Sometimes used more for its bright colour than its flavour, turmeric has a mild, pungent and woodsy aroma. I adore adding this spice to my chicken casseroles and curries. It’s one of my favourite spices thanks to its powerful anti-inflammatory properties.
Tarragon: Common in French cooking, tarragon has a strong anise-like flavour. This spice can be eaten raw in salads or used to flavour tomato dishes, chicken, seafood, or eggs.
Thai Basil: The spicy, edgier cousin of sweet Italian basil, Thai basil is widely used in the cuisines of Southeast Asia, including Thai, Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian cuisines. Thai basil leaves make a frequent appearance in Thai stir-fries, green and red curries, Vietnamese pho, spring rolls, and other Southern Asian dishes.
Thyme: Fragrant and easy to add to a variety of dishes and sauces, thyme is a must have during warm-weather seasons. Sold both fresh and dried, thyme adds a pungent, woodsy flavour and is handy as an all-purpose seasoning.