Spices and herbs have been used since the dawn of time and are used to enhance the flavor, change a meal into a cultural delicacy, or preserve food for future use. In ancient times, salt was so valued, it was used as a form of currency! In 1000 BC, the Queen of Sheba brought spices to King Solomon as a gift when she visited. The Chinese wrote about the spice cassia, similar to cinnamon, in 2700 BC.
The history and use of herbs and spices fascinate me, especially when I know my knowledge is so limited. In my quest to learn more about how to heal the body, I’ve learned that spices and herbs can be helpful in reducing inflammation, increasing cardiovascular function, or aid in digestion.
Did you know there is a difference between a spice and an herb? A spice comes from the root, bark, or seed of a plant and herbs are the leaves. While some plants provide only one, such as cinnamon (spice) or rosemary (herb), some plants have both. Cilantro is an herb, but the seeds are called coriander.
Not everyone uses spices when cooking, and this baffles me. I was visiting a friend once and she had two items in her kitchen – salt and pepper. Why would you do that to yourself? Life is too short to not enjoy the flavor of food!
Unfortunately for Clifford, I love to use and try different seasonings and am always experimenting. He’s a plain cooking kind of guy. Add some Cajun seasoning, salt, pepper and he’s good.
I was cleaning out my spice cabinet (yes, I have an entire cabinet of spices!) and realized there were some seasonings I use all of the time.
My Four Go-To Spices
Salt – This seasoning comes from either the sea or dug out of the earth. Make sure you use a good quality salt! I primarily use Pink Himalayan Salt since it includes trace elements of potassium, magnesium, and calcium. I also use Celtic sea salt in some dishes, but it has larger granules, so it’s better for soup. Salt is also a great meat tenderizer, so I add it to roasts & steaks before cooking.
Garlic Powder – Garlic is full nutrients such as iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and Vitamin C. It’s also used as an antibiotic and anti-fungal ingredient and it’s believed to help reduce cholesterol.
Onion Powder – Onions have high levels of Vitamin C and B Vitamins, which help regulate metabolism and support immune health.
Black Pepper – This seasoning is one of the most commonly used spice. It has a mild, spicy flavor that can be too hot for some people, so it’s good to use sparingly. A little bit goes a long way! Studies have found black pepper to be high in antioxidants as well having anti-inflammatory properties.
Sometimes I add additional seasoning. It all depends on the dish, type of meat, or if I’m trying to add an ethnic flair.
Great Seasonings to Add Variety
Oregano – This herb packs a powerful punch with flavor and nutrition! It is high in Vitamin K and antioxidants. I usually add this to chicken or anything I want to have an Italian flavor.
Basil – A flavorful herb used in all types of cooking, from all nationalities. Regular basil can be used to make pesto for Italian food and Thai basil is great in soups to give a depth of flavor. I’ve also played around with citrus or lemon basil, usually when cooking with fish.
Cumin – I use cumin mainly when making fajitas, taco meat, chili, or Indian food. Cumin has a spicy flavor and adds an earthy, warmth to food. Medically, Cumin is used to help digestion and increases bile from the liver. It’s also a one of the best sources of Iron.
Rosemary: There are so many uses for this herb, which is used around the world as a cooking, aromatic, or even medicinal plant. It’s thought to strengthen your memory and smelling it has shown to reduce cortisol (or stress). While it’s mainly used in Italian or Mediterranean food, the leaves can be used with all types of meat or vegetables. The stalks make great meat skewers, as it flavors the meat while cooking.
Cajun Seasoning – If you’re from the south, especially Louisiana or South Texas, this spice blend is a staple in your house. I’ve learned you can put it on just about everything (except ice cream, I haven’t tried that yet!) Cajun seasoning is a spicy combination of garlic, onion, salt, chili flakes, paprika, black pepper, cayenne pepper, oregano, and thyme. There are several different brands available. Our favorites are Slap Ya Mama or Tony Chachere’s.
Seasonings Seldom Used, but Handy to Have
When I was going through my cabinet, I realized I have several seasonings that don’t get used often, but I always make sure to have them in stock!
Tarragon: This herb comes from the sunflower family and has a distinct flavor. I really enjoy using it with chicken, especially chicken salad. This might be because my favorite sandwich while living in Seattle was a Chicken Tarragon with grapes. Yum!
Dill: This herb is very flavorful and is used for all sorts of things. It is used to flavor pickles and is excellent on fish.
Marjoram: This herb is in the mint family and is similar to oregano. It’s been used to help with circulation, as well as help with runny noses or coughs. I use it when making meatloaf, or adding to Italian or Greek dishes.
Bay Leaves: This is the actual leaf of the laurel tree. While the leaves don’t really taste like anything, they help bring out the rich flavors of a soup or stew.
Mustard: While the entire mustard plant can be used and has health benefits, I use the ground mustard seed the most. It’s a critical ingredient for my homemade mayonnaise, but I also use it in a dry rub.
There are many more spices and herbs in my cabinet, but these are the ones that are used the most. Several of them, I have multiple varieties for different types of cooking. (I have 3 different kinds of Paprika: Smoked, Hot, Hungarian Sweet)
Experiment with Different Seasonings
The best way to learn is to experiment! Start small and don’t add a bunch all at one time. Many of these seasonings are potent, so a little goes A LONG WAY! If you’re not sure, use a seasoning combo such as ‘Italian Seasoning’, ‘Greek Seasoning’, or even ‘Everything but the Bagel’ (my favorite on eggs!).
How do I keep track of them all?
I created a handy printout that I put on the inside of my cabinet. This helps me know what I have in stock, as well as when they expire. While herbs and spices don’t spoil, they DO lose their potency. If I have spices not used in a while, I might add a bit more or crush the herb with a mortal & pestle or my hands to release the flavor. Download your own form here!
The ability to use herbs and spices not only for food, but for healing, is fascinating to me! I hope you are encouraged to branch out and use more spices in your cooking.
My challenge to you – buy one new seasoning and give it a try the next time you’re at the grocery store. Let me know which seasoning you use all the time or a new one you’re hoping to try in the comments!
If you’re interested in learning more, I mainly used this resource for health benefits.
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