The Science of Herbs and Spices?
July 13, 2006 11:01 AM   Subscribe

Cookingfilter: How do you decide which and how many herbs and spices to use?

I'm learning to cook, and one thing I've noticed is that most cookbooks that I've seen don't explain why you use the particular herbs and spices that are listed in the recipes.

Is it just a matter of putting adding herbs and spices to taste or is there some kind of science to it? For example, why do all Italian dishes have Oregano, Rosemary and Thyme? Is there something particular about that combination of herbs or is that a only a result of their being readily available in Italy?

Any references or recommendations for books or websites on the subject would be appreciated.
posted by empath to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Check out the first section of La Varenne Pratique. It covers herbs and spices in great detail. And then, it covers everything else. Absolutely the best resource to have in the kitchen. My copy has flour in the baking section, blood on the butcher pages, chocolate all over the deserts, etc... I can't say enough good things about it.
posted by jon_kill at 11:05 AM on July 13, 2006

I open jars randomly, and smell them. If it smells like it belongs in what I'm cooking, in it goes. Later, I taste, and adjust.

As one of my older co-workers, of the ethnic grandmother persuasion pointed out, this also tells me how strong the herb or spice is, and gives me an idea of how much to put in.

It does make it a bit difficult to buy stuff, since I tend not to be good on the names of things. I also use some combinations that other people find a bit startling.

You might want to start with things like bean stews that can be spiced a lot of different ways, and that are not time sensitive.
posted by QIbHom at 12:01 PM on July 13, 2006

Best answer: This page on Whole Foods website may be a good place to start experimenting and getting familiar with what herbs go with what food.
posted by like_neon at 12:10 PM on July 13, 2006

Some of it is simply what's native to that area, but there's also some science. Some herbs and spices are used because they chemically complement other things in the food. For instance, parsley is a traditional and common herb to use with carrots because it's in the same plant family. It actually makes the carrots taste more carrot-like.
posted by raf at 12:45 PM on July 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

A lot of learning how to use herbs and spices comes from first following recipes and getting a sense of what the herb/spice tastes like in different situations. The more cooking you do, the more of a sense you'll get on your own about how to use different seasonings. Pay attention to what the herb/spice is paired with, and pay a little attention to what the packaging on the herb itself reccomends for its most basic uses (if it says it goes well with fish or with poultry). That's how I've gained my own fledgling familiarity with seasoning combinations, and it's worked well for me.
posted by monochromaticgirl at 12:51 PM on July 13, 2006

I've been learning more about it as I've been cooking more. It might be interesting to do experiments adding seasonings to otherwise uncomplicated dishes. I.e. sauteed zucchini with cumin tastes a lot different from sauteed zucchini with basil and oregano.

I've been learning more and more, incidentally, about the benefit of cayenne pepper. It can be the difference between a bland dish and a tasty one.
posted by clairezulkey at 12:53 PM on July 13, 2006

Generally, it's just about the taste. Some things go well together, others don't. This applies not just to herbs and spices but to all of the components of a dish.

On the advanced side of the spectrum, I'd recommend the book Culinary Artistry which devotes much of the book to flavor pairing charts. These roughly look like:
-Black Pepper
.... (lists tend to be 20-40 items long)

Of course this doesn't tell you how much of each to use or how to cook anything, but it is very helpful when building a dish or a meal.
posted by rorycberger at 12:53 PM on July 13, 2006

Also, in regards to your question about Italian foods, I'm reminded of something I once read by Paul Kirk, a famous BBQ chef and cookbook author. He talked about what he called "flavorprints" that were associated with certain cuisines. When you add Oregano, Thyme, Basil, etc. to a dish, it tends to taste Italian. If you add Paprika, Tomato, Vinegar, Pepper and Sugar it tastes like BBQ, etc.
posted by rorycberger at 12:56 PM on July 13, 2006

Best answer: Is there something particular about that combination of herbs or is that a only a result of their being readily available in Italy?

It's both though I'd say the latter drives the former. You won't find lemongrass in traditional Italian cuisine for the same reason you don't see rosemary in traditional Chinese cuisine. Lemongrass doesn't grow in Italy and thus could never be incorporated into the cuisine of the region. But lemongrass tastes great in combination with certain Italian flavors so in some modern fusion-Italian preparations (largely driven by Mario Batali), you'll see lemongrass. For example, a light Italian stew may substitute lemongrass in place of lemon juice to provide tartness but also add some herb-y quality.

Is it just a matter of putting adding herbs and spices to taste or is there some kind of science to it?

It's not science and it's not guesswork but rather experimentation with familiar and available flavors. Oregano, rosemary, and thyme show up a lot in traditional Italian cuisine because they're native to Italy, provide an earthy, herbal, aromatic flavor, and are good contrast to the vegetables and meats used in Italian cooking. There's no scientific formula that dictates what combination and how much work for each dish. But as you work with each ingredient, over time you become very familiar with what the herb adds to the final product. You taste, cook, experiment, learn, and cook some more.

Any references or recommendations for books or websites

- Get a subscription to Cook's Illustrated. It's a bimonthly magazine that breaks down a few recipes each issue with generous illustrations and great explanations of the "why's."
- Cooking for Engineers: website with recipes broken down with pictures step-by-step
- The Culinary Institute of America's New Professional Chef is the textbook of the premier cooking school in America. It's a great reference for everything for techniques: sharpening knives, knife cuts (chop, mince, dice, julienne), and general cooking techniques (braise, stew, fry).
- Dornenburg and Page's Culinary Artistry has been a great reference for me (thanks AskMefites for the rec) but I wouldn't recommend it to someone who's just starting to cook. About half the book is devoted to a comprehensive listing of what ingredients go well with what in near-phonebook listing form.
posted by junesix at 1:02 PM on July 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

Can't help you with the science of flavor perception and preference, but the combinations of seasonings that define certain cuisines are undoubtedly based on what was available locally. (There was a huge flux of ingredients during the Age of Exploration, but the ones that became "traditional" are mostly the ones that would grow locally before long-range transport became fast and cheap. Thus, Italian tomato sauce, Szechuan chili paste etc.)

As far as learning which herbs and spices to use in your own cooking, just figure out what you like. You probably already have a pretty good idea from eating other peoples' cooking, so you can focus on recipes that sound appealing. Like hot 'n' spicy? Try Thai, Indian, Mexican etc. Like creamy and rich? Try French, Russian, Hungarian, etc. Once you get a little experience with the broad outlines of a region's cooking, you can figure out what exactly appeals to you about it, and look for those characteristics in other recipes. You'll come to recognize your own favorite combos and you can try adding them into other dishes.

One thing I have found is that I really get to like certain cookbook authors, and I tend to stick to their recipes rather than trying stuff randomly from magazines, websites, etc. I love to cook and I improvise constantly, but I usually riff of my faves' recipes. Even though I change things, it really works better if the fundamental basis is a tried-and-true author's recipe. In fact, once I get to know an author's style, I automatically apply a correction factor: this guy doesn't use enough garlic, this gal uses too much liquid, etc. It's quite consistent!

Or, on preview, what everyone else said.
posted by Quietgal at 1:18 PM on July 13, 2006

Lately, when throwing together a dish ad hoc, like a pasta sauce or a burrito filling, I'm following this rule: no more than three main ingredients and no more than two main seasonings. I don't count background things like onions, garlic, olive oil, salt or pepper. What I'm ending up with has a lot more taste. I'd suggest making a basic pasta sauce- celery, tomatoes, a sausage. And then just add oregano. See how you like it. Later try it with rosemary. Then basil, etc.
posted by bendybendy at 1:32 PM on July 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

There are two kinds of cooks: The ones that go by recipes, and the ones that go by instinct. I'm pretty much a recipe cook. My mother is an instinct cook. Figure out which one you are (not necessarily which one you want to be, unfortunately) and move on from there. The only way to tell what combinations taste good to ~you~ is to experiment.

BTW, my mom's family is Italian (as in Grandpa was born on the boat), and they wouldn't dream of adding rosemary or thyme to their sauce. Basil, oregano, garlic. And Italian sausage, of course. The 'is it because that seasoning is local' explanation would make sense to me. It's the only real excuse I can see for sauce being made so very differently in different regions of Italy.
posted by Meep! Eek! at 1:50 PM on July 13, 2006

I found out a lot about spices and how they effect different meats and vegetables by experimentation. Basically, know how a spice tastes (is it hot, spicy, tangy, etc?) and know how the 'base' tastes (is it starchy, crunchy, bland, juicy, etc?), and picture the two together.

Try something, then try it again the next week.

Repeat until you have your own little recipe book. Also, watching Food Network a lot helps.
posted by triolus at 2:59 PM on July 13, 2006

Yes, I definitely recommend Good Eats. Most of the stuff Alton makes is generally pretty healthy, and the show is filled with great advice and cooking theory.

Also, try taking a recipe for something 'traditional' and hard to screw up... I'd recommend spaghetti. Modify the recipe, and add different amounts of the various spices, and try some different ones. Add them a bit at a time, and stir it in, and come back and taste it after a couple of minutes and see what happened to the flavor. Rinse and repeat. =)
posted by triolus at 3:41 PM on July 13, 2006

I find myself getting the hang of a new "secret ingredient" every year or so. Last year it was cinnamon in everything — Cinnamon in the spaghetti sauce! (Works well.) Cinnamon on the ribs! (Works in moderation.) Cinnamon on the fish! (Ew.) By the end of the year, I damn well knew how to use cinnamon — and, even better, when not to use it.

Find a flavor that intrigues you and play with that flavor until you get it. Then move on to the next one.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:06 PM on July 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

Here's some references for you:

The Culinary Herb FAQ
Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages
The Herb Society of America Library

That should get you started.
posted by scalefree at 4:56 PM on July 13, 2006

One great way to learn about herbs and spices is to grow a little herb garden, and try them fresh, or dry them yourself. And if you're going to buy good cookbooks, as jon_kill and others have recommended upthread, do yourself a favor, and get a cookbook protector.
posted by paulsc at 7:02 PM on July 13, 2006

Best answer: Read cookbooks. Really. Curl up on the couch with a different cookbook every day, and pay attention to what flavorings are put with what main ingredients. Also the cooking section of your newspaper each week, if there is one. Notice unexpected things especially: Cantaloupe with a dusting of black pepper sounds weird, but once you try it you'll have a new appreciation for the fruity notes in pepper. Then, armed with your knowledge that pepper is covertly a 'sweet spice' as well as more usually a savory one, you can make sense of the Pakistani recipe that puts cardamom (nominally a sweet spice, at least to the European palate) with cumin on lamb (a savory setting, albeit a mild one).

I guess what I've just exemplified there is a mesh of affinities and appropriate contrasts. Stir-fry may combine ginger with beef, the brightness and bite of it being an appealing counterweight to the heaviness and darkness, and the covert bitter notes, of beef. Meanwhile, a fruit salad might combine ginger with oranges and coriander on the basis of their similarity—citrusy brightness and aromaticity. That, in turn, suggests coriander with meats; but coriander is not strong, so use it with a milder-flavored meat or even a fish; and if the meat is greasy you'll need an acid to cut it, either a vinegar or a fruit juice. See what I mean? Each recipe lends support to several possible contrasts (the key to balance) and to several possible affinities (the key to originality and fusion). After a while you get a sense for what you can substitute and what kinds of combinations appeal to the people you're cooking for.

bendybendy's spice-counting rule is one I might have to try on for size. It's a bit too restrictive for me, but I'll, um, bend the rules by allowing myself known-harmonious pre-mixes (five-spice powder, garam masala, flavored vinegars). Also, nebulawindphone has outlined my recent cooking history in a few deft strokes. (Coriander was my latest obsession. Geez louise, but it's a good spice.)
posted by eritain at 12:07 AM on July 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

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