Choosing herbs and spices for cooking can be confusing if you are just getting started using them. They can be used singly as well as in seemingly endless combinations.
For beginners or even seasoned cooks, an easy method for taste testing new herbs, spices or combinations is to mix them into small portions of cream cheese or mild cheese. Let that sit for an hour or so and then sample.
Herbs and spices added to your cooking should combine to enhance and compliment the flavors that are already present. Some herbs form flavor families and can often be purchased commercially as a blend. These include sweet herbs like cloves, nutmeg, anise, and allspice or spicy herbs such as star anise, cinnamon and ginger. It's also best to use one flavor family at a time when seasoning foods so as to avoid unpleasant or unpalatable flavors. Some common flavor families include:
Hot - chili peppers, garlic, onion, cilantro, cumin,
Spicy - star anise, cinnamon, ginger, pepper,
Sweet - anise, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice,
Bouquet garnis - parsley, basil, bay, oregano, rosemary, tarragon.
Need some ideas of which herbs to use with which foods? Here are some suggestions:
For beef: basil, bay, chili pepper, cilantro, garlic, cumin, mustard, oregano, parsley, rosemary, pepper, sage, tarragon, thyme.
For chicken: basil, curry, dill, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, paprika, saffron, sage, tarragon, savory.
For lamb: basil, cinnamon, cumin, curry, dill, garlic, parsley, rosemary, thyme.
For fish: basil, bay, chives, curry, fennel, garlic, ginger, mustard, parsley, tarragon.
Beans: cayenne, chili flakes, onion, parsley, ground pepper, sage, thyme.
Bread: anise, caraway, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, dill, garlic, onion, oregano, poppy seeds, rosemary, saffron, sage, sesame seeds, thyme.
Fruit: allspice, anise, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mint, nutmeg.
Just as you use salt to taste, the same applies to herbs and spices. There is no absolute and correct rule for the amount and combinations to use when seasoning your food. The pungency of each herb and spice differs as well as the effects on different foods to which they are added. When using dried herbs, age will also affect the flavor. Dried herbs will seldom be as strong as fresh herbs. Recipes offer guidelines, but seasoning to taste is the general rule. Start with a small amount, sample and add more, if desired. Remember, you can always add but you can't take out what's already been added. Once you get used to using various herbs and spices, you'll feel more comfortable about the kinds and amounts you want to add to dishes. A successfully seasoned dish is the perfect reward for your efforts. It's the sweet, or perhaps spicy, taste of success.