A sprinkle of herbs or a dash of spice is an extra step well worth taking when cooking just about any type of recipe.
The right herb or spice can take a dish from tasting fine to tasting fantastic, elevating the flavor without adding salt and at the cost of very few extra calories.
And, when compared to many fruits and veggies, some herbs and spices provide even more antioxidant activity per serving.
Read on for ways to make the most of whatever you have in your spice cabinet for the best flavor and the biggest health benefits—plus some good herbs and spices to start with!
Fresh vs. Dried – Which Is Better?
Fresh isn’t always better! Dried herbs and spices generally offer more concentrated flavor—and in some cases, antioxidant activity—than their fresh counterparts.
That said, fresh is often nice in uncooked or lightly cooked dishes like salads, dips and light pasta sauces.
If you find yourself needing to substitute dried for fresh or vice versa in a recipe, remember the ratio of 3:1 fresh to dried. So for example, 1 tablespoon fresh = 1 teaspoon dried.
Enhancing the Flavor of Herbs and Spices
Using a shake or two of herbs or spices straight from the bottle is fine, of course, but if you want to enhance the flavors to their full potential, try one of these methods:
- To “bloom” spices, heat for one or two minutes in a small amount of oil. This method is especially good for freshening up the flavor of old ground spices.
- Toast spices, dry, in a skillet over low-medium heat for a few minutes (they’re done when you can smell a fresh aroma). This works especially well with whole spices.
- Grind fresh herbs with a mortar and pestle to release more flavor.
Keep in mind that extended cooking can reduce the flavor, and in some cases the health benefits, of fresh herbs.
Basil is a good source of antioxidants, and has been associated with stress relief and improved digestion—three good reasons to use it in soups, salads, dressings, pasta dishes and on the grill.
Think beyond baked goods and try sprinkling cinnamon in savory recipes like chilis, soups and meat marinades for a pleasant kick. Some studies have suggested that cinnamon may have a beneficial effect on blood sugar and cholesterol.
Freshly grated ginger has been shown to help ease nausea. Try it the next time your stomach is feeling out of sorts (simply pour boiling water over 1 teaspoon of fresh grated ginger to prepare a soothing tea; you can also freeze grated ginger to have on hand). Ginger also gives an energizing zing to smoothies, stir fries and salad dressings.
If you think of oregano as just a basic pizza topping, think again—one tablespoon of fresh oregano (or 1/3 teaspoon dried) has more antioxidant activity than an apple or a cup of broccoli! This herb is most commonly used in Mediterranean and Latin American recipes including marinades, vinaigrettes and tomato- or oil-based sauces.
Parsley may be best known as a garnish, but it can also add flavor when cooked with meat or vegetables. It’s a good source of antioxidants and is a proven diuretic.
Rosemary has a long history of use for improving memory in traditional medicine, and it turns out that studies have linked substances in rosemary with benefits for brain health. Try it with eggs, beans, potatoes and grilled meats.
Turmeric has proven anti-inflammatory effects at the amount of 2½ teaspoons per day. That's more than most Americans consume, but you can up your intake of this colorful spice by using it in marinades, seafood dishes, roasted vegetables and even beverages.
Angela Charlton, R.D.-N., leads our Community Health and Outreach nutrition team and is a regular contributor to Carilion Living.