Without herbs or spices, food would be pretty boring. The addition of sage to our Thanksgiving dinner or the inclusion of basil in a curry dish takes plain food to a whole new level.
This comprehensive list of herbs and spices will explain what they taste like and what food they should be paired with so you can start elevating your own cooking.
What are herbs?
Really, herbs are just edible plants. They have different scents, tastes, textures, and shapes, but all herbs can be used in cooking and add an extra layer of flavor to them.
What are spices?
Similar to herbs, spices are merely a dried form of a plant. They have a unique flavor and instead of using the whole plant, part of it is used in smaller amounts to add to food.
Uses of herbs and spices
Cooking without the addition of herbs and spices is really quite boring. While you shouldn’t just add whatever spices or herbs you want, knowing which pair with what types of food will help you become a more robust home chef.
Since humans discovered herbs and spices, both have been used in various medicinal capabilities. Certain plants can help heal wounds, soothe burns, and even possibly help prevent cancers from forming.
Different Types of Herbs
With a sweet, lemon taste to it, marjoram is not the most common herb but should be used more once you understand its taste and usage. Marjoram is often paired with other French herbs, such as thyme and basil.
As well as being used in French cuisine, marjoram is also used in Mexican dishes. It is usually found in tomato sauces, paired with fish, and used in marinades.
A versatile plant, there are many uses for both the leaves, seeds, and roots. Chicory leaves can be eaten as a vegetable, similar to celery, while the roots are often used ground down as a spice or an addition to coffee.
The major health benefit of chicory is that it is a natural laxative. It can be used to prevent constipation.
Interestingly, while you may be used to eating wasabi with your sushi, that is more of a condiment and not usually true wasabi. Instead, wasabi comes from the plant stem, similar to a root, of the wasabia japonica plant.
Wasabi has a very intense flavor with a burst of heat that seems to enter right into your nasal passage. However, if you get the true form of wasabi, it is less intense and pairs really well with raw fish.
This is one of those plants that tells you exactly what it is based on its name. Long and tall, like grass, with a delightful scent to it, lemongrass can be used both as a garden plant and in cuisine.
Lemongrass is usually used to flavor Asian cuisine, including stews and curries. For medicinal purposes, lemongrass is used to help with both indigestion and sore throats.
While some herbs or spices can be found in any grocery store, or even grown in your backyard, saffron is hard to cultivate and has the distinction of being the most expensive spice.
Saffron has a floral scent to it and a honey taste to it, making any dish it is added to extremely aromatic. It is an intense spice and really elevates a dish.
A large, white root, horseradish has a distinct, powerful taste to it. While it can be grated and used on its own, its more commonly found as a condiment with the addition of vinegar, sugar, and salt.
Horseradish is a common accompaniment to roast beef but can also be paired with sausage and potato salad.
Another pantry staple, garlic is versatile. When eaten raw it is quite pungent but when cooked it takes on a sweeter flavor.
The one important aspect to remember about garlic is that you should remove the inside part, called the scape, before eating it. This part is very bitter and produces that lingering aftertaste that most people aren’t fond of.
While once an afterthought to simply garnish a plate, parsley has a lot of flavor and can be used in many dishes. It is often used in turkey stuffing as well as Italian and French dishes, including soups and stews.
Parsley comes in many varieties, and each has its own taste. If you have parsley that curls at the edges, expect a more subtle flavor whereas flat parsley will leave a peppery taste in your mouth.
While it is similar to the star anise spice, anise actually comes from a different plant. It has a distinct licorice flavor that makes it quite recognizable, although it does have a sweetness to it as well.
Anise is popularly used in different teas as it can help reduce inflammation and ease sore throats.
A plant that can still be found often in the wild, rosemary has a lovely pine-like smell to it, quickly infusing any dish with its bold flavor. Rosemary is native to the Mediterranean and is a staple in Italian cuisine.
When picked, you can use the needles and the stem for cooking. It pairs great with potatoes and most meat.
Most kids love licorice and while red is the preferable flavor, there are still people who love black licorice. This sweet treat may contain licorice root but is often flavored with the similar-tasting anise plant.
Licorice root is full of antioxidants and it commonly used to help with indigestion. While you can certainly use licorice root in a tea, it is quite powerful and should not be consumed daily.
No spaghetti sauce is truly complete without the addition of oregano. Subtle hints of spiciness, along with a surprisingly sweet taste, make oregano a real star.
There are different types of oregano, with different intensity levels. If you want a subtle flavor, go with Greek oregano, whereas if you want more pungency, try Mexican oregano.
There’s an old saying that if you forget to put a bay leaf in your spaghetti sauce, you will quickly taste the lack of flavor. Bay leaves are aromatic and combine the scents of cloves and mint, along with a spicy flavor.
Often used to flavor sauces and stews, it really only takes one bay leaf to provide the flavor you’re looking for. They are often used in many different European dishes.
With a bright lemon scent and light green leaves, lemon balm is lovely to look at and use for cooking. Its leaves have a coarse texture so it is usually used to flavor soups and stews.
Lemon balm is often used in Asian and Mediterranean cooking and because it has a sweeter taste to it, can also be used to make tea or ice cream.
Part of the pepper family, paprika will give a real kick to any dish. It is often used in South America, Spanish, and even Hungarian cuisine.
With a smoky flavor, paprika is often used in soups and stews. There are some potato dishes in the United States that use paprika as a garnish thanks to its intense red color.
Elsewhere on our list you’ll find cilantro, which in some cultures is known as coriander. However, the plant also produces seeds, which are known simply as coriander. A little confusing, right?
Coriander has a citrus flavor to it that can brighten up dishes. It is commonly paired with chicken and is often found in curries.
The mint family is quite large and one of the most popular variations is peppermint. While other varieties, such as spearmint, are on the sweeter spectrum, peppermint is more pungent.
If you use peppermint, expect a bold, lingering taste, as well as a cooling sensation in your mouth. It is very refreshing and used to temper the heat in spicy dishes.
Found in Europe and Northern Asia, and now the United States, burdock root is quite long and narrow. It is commonly used in stir-fries and soups, although what really makes it unique is that it can be sliced and eaten raw, usually in a salad.
Burdock is known for its health benefits as it is full of antioxidants. It helps remove toxins from the blood and can even be used topically for skin issues.
There are many so-called ‘super foods’ and turmeric has emerged as one of them. With a bright orange color, turmeric has long been used in Indian cooking and has a spicy, somewhat bitter flavor to it.
Turmeric is often used in curries and stews but is now cooked with many dishes, including baking, to try to capitalize on its antioxidant properties.
Heavily used across Asia, Africa, and Europe, cumin has an earthy, nutty taste with a slight spiciness to it. Cumin is usually found in its whole seed form, which is then ground into a powder.
Typically, cumin is found in curries although it can be used in other dishes where the flavor is warranted. It is also commonly used to help with weight loss.
We probably all have a bottle of yellow mustard in our fridge, but true mustard comes in the form of seeds. Yellow, black, and red in color, mustard seeds have a smoky, nutty flavor and are best used crushed so that their flavor can escape.
Mustard seeds are usually used in stews and curries, or can be used whole for pickling purposes. There has been a culinary trend lately to use mustard seeds as a garnish for high-end pub food.
Some spices are quite versatile, and cardamom fits the bill. It can be used in both sweet and savory dishes, thanks to its bold flavor with undertones of mint and lemon.
Cardamom is very common in Indian dishes, and a key ingredient to most curries and stews. It has also been used to help with indigestion and to act as an anti-inflammatory.
While not always a familiar herb, borage does have a lot of flavorful properties that makes it a good option. The borage plant has both edible leaves and flowers which have a slight cucumber flavor to them.
The leaves are often used fresh and consumed raw, although if you have an older plant, you can also use them in cooking. Borage can be eaten as a vegetable or even added to a green smoothie.
Another pantry staple, cinnamon is a sweet spice that adds a lovely kick to any dish. It is often used in sweeter foods, such as cookies or even hot chocolate, but there are times when it can be added to savory foods.
Cinnamon pairs really well with apples and most people have grown up with knowing the powerful scent of this delightful dessert.
If you’re at a restaurant, there will always be pepper available. This spice, along with salt, is a true staple in food; it can be added during the cooking process or afterward, according to individual preference.
Pepper starts in the form of peppercorns, which are then milled to a finer powder. All cultures use pepper and the spiciness of it means that a little can go a very long way.
If you’re at a restaurant with friends and a dish is served with cilantro, chances are a great debate about this herb will ensue. Cilantro is loved by many and hated by others but if you are willing to give it a chance, it just might surprise you.
Cilantro is often mistaken for parsley, and is even called Mexican parsley, whereas if you are in the parts of Europe, it is referred to as coriander. This herb has a deep citrus and peppery taste to it and is often used to enhance Mexican and Indian cuisine.
Sometimes nature really outdoes itself, and star anise is proof. A delightful star shape, this spice is often confused with simple anise, and while it is similar in its licorice flavor, it does come from a different plant.
Star anise is often used in Vietnamese cuisine and is a key ingredient in mulled wine. Furthermore, because of its shape, star anise is commonly used in potpourri.
Within the mint family is spearmint, which has a sweeter taste to it than other varieties. Spearmint is a nice addition to mint tea, especially if you want the subtle taste of mint but in a sweeter form.
Spearmint grows great in gardens and can easily be planted in a container on a balcony.
While most people are familiar with avocados, and consume them on a regular basis, you can actually also use avocado leaf. With an oval shape to them, avocado leaves grow between 10 and 30 centimeters in length and have a bitter taste to them with undertones of licorice and hazelnut.
Avocado leaves can help those with asthma as they will help open the bronchial tubes. Furthermore, they can help lower blood pressure and even decrease your heart rate.
Whether you want a fresh-tasting mojito or a bold glass of mint tea, mint is a herb that is quite versatile. It smells and tastes exactly how you would think it does, making it a favorite for backyard gardeners.
Mint is used in cuisine around the world, in particular Thai dishes and Middle Eastern dishes. It is used generously in dishes like tabbouleh and pairs exceptionally well with lamb.
Mainly found in the Mediterranean region, fennel is very aromatic. However, you might not recognize it at first because it looks quite similar to carrot tops, which is unsurprising given that it belongs to the carrot family.
Fennel is often used in soups and salads, and pairs well with meat dishes. Like other herbs, fennel has a long history of being used for medicinal purposes.
Found in Central Asia, cloves have a sweet and spicy flavor that most people associate with the beginning of fall. Whether you want to spice up your pumpkin pie or make an aromatic potpourri, cloves are essential.
Cloves have long been used to mask the odors of bad breath and because of their sweetness can be used in both sweet and savory dishes.
There are many herbs that are quite aromatic and dill is one of them. Walk by a dill plant and you just might be transported back to your grandmother’s kitchen as she prepares dill pickles.
Dill is tangy and earthy and is often used in Greek dishes, such as tzatziki sauce, and Russian dishes, such as borscht.
For those wanting a subtler flavor than pungent onions, chives are a real win. Chives are versatile, very hardy, and a perennial herb; if you plant them in your herb garden, they’ll continue to pop up every year.
The thin stems of chives lend themselves well to being finely chopped, meaning they can be added to a marinade, a soup, or a dip. Chives pair well with blue cheese and potatoes.
If you had to choose just one type of herb for your garden, basil should be it. While it can be a bit temperamental to grow, as it loves the sun, it can be used in many different dishes.
Basil has a sweeter taste to it and is perfect both in cooked dishes and as an end note after a dish has been cooked. It is popular around the world, including with Thai curries and Italian pasta.
A root, ginger needs to be peeled and grated for most culinary uses. Ginger is quite strong but when cooked properly, becomes delicious thanks to its bold combination of pepper and lemon notes.
Ginger is often used to season soups and stews; however, it can also be used for sweet dishes, such as delicious gingerbread cookies.
At first glance you may think this spice refers to all spices, but in fact it is its own plant. However, it does have the taste of many other spices, including cinnamon, pepper, cloves, and nutmeg.
Allspice is a popular addition to warm, comforting foods, such as pumpkin pie, Jamaican jerk chicken, and hearty stews.
Often confused with cinnamon because it is similar in color, nutmeg is grown in Indonesia and the West Indies. It is often paired with cinnamon and cloves for a traditional fall spice mix.
Nutmeg can also be paired with lamb dishes and hearty stews as it has an earthy taste to it.
At first glance you just might miss this herb as its leaves are quite tiny; however, it becomes a real show-stopper when paired with other Italian and French herbs, such as basil and sage.
Thyme is often used in soups and stews and is found in French, Italian, and Middle Eastern cuisine. It pairs well with beef and poultry.
While celery is a common enough vegetable, not many people make use of the plant’s seeds. However, celery seed has a very salty taste and is usually combined with traditional table salt.
If you use celery seed, expect to infuse your dish with the taste of celery.
If you ever have the chance to run your fingers over wild sage, you’ll be delighted at the smell they leave behind. Sage is earthy and slightly peppery and while its flavor can be overwhelming, when paired with the right food, it really elevates a dish.
Sage is often used in turkey stuffing or paired with red meat or sausage. It is also often used in cream sauces.
Yes, most of us loathe the proliferate weed as it always seems to grow in our grass. However, dandelion has a lot of benefits and is a major player in the natural medicine world.
Dandelion can actually help with the treatment of eczema, acne, heartburn, and diabetes. It is usually used in a tea.
There are so many herbs and spices that it can be hard to know what to use them for. However, whether you are cooking a sweet or a savory dish, the inclusion of one of these flavorful ingredients will greatly enhance the outcome.
The trick with herbs and spices is to dive in and try them out; just remember to start with a small amount