Student Cooking with Herbs and Spices

Herbs and spices can be used to enhance and balance the flavour of your dishes, and make something taste more delicious that would otherwise be quite plain.

However, it’s important to achieve the correct amount of seasoning so that your meal is not completely overpowered.

If they are fresh, herbs should generally be added to food toward the end of its cooking time, or sprinkled on top of the finished dish, so the flavours don’t end up being cooked out and become tasteless.

Dried herbs should be added earlier on in the process.

Dried herbs will keep for a long time if you keep them out of direct light and away from any heat sources, and keep them in a cool place below room temperature.

If your accommodation has a garden or you have a large windowsill that gets lots of light, you can grow your own herbs, though they don’t last as long as dried herbs, and are not as strong in flavour.

This is why you will always need larger quantities if you cook with fresh herbs rather than dried herbs.

Sometimes your recipe will state to use fresh herbs and you will only have dried ones in stock.

The general rule here is to use only a third as much of a dried herb than the amount of fresh herb it says in the recipe.

If you decide to buy fresh herbs or grow your own, they should be stored by wrapping them loosely in damp paper.

You can also help retain their freshness by then placing them in plastic bags.

Using herbs and spices

To give you an idea of what herbs and spices are available to you in cooking, we’ve put together the following list of some of the more common ones and the foods they can be used to enhance.

Basil  ~  Italian dishes, especially tomatoes and tomato sauces; pasta; chicken; fish; shellfish; soup.

Bay leaf  ~  stews; tomato dishes; soup; sauces.

Chili pepper  ~  soup; rice; sauces; meatloaf; bean or meat stews.

Caraway seed  ~  cooked vegetables, e.g. potatoes, turnips, cabbage and carrots.

Chervil  ~  fish; shellfish; chicken; turkey; mixed salad greens; French dishes; vegetable dishes.

Chives  ~  omelet; pasta; beef; turkey; chicken; soup; sauces; mixed green salads; seafood.

Cilantro  ~  salads; chicken; turkey; rice; beans; shellfish; fish; Asian dishes.

Curry powder  ~ chicken; turkey; ham; pasta; rice; meat-based soups; Indian cuisine.

Dill  ~  chicken; lamb; salmon; vegetables; sauces; dressings.

Fennel  ~  fish; curry; soup; beef; chicken; pasta; vegetable dishes.

Garlic  ~  chicken; sauces; shellfish; vegetable dishes; fish; soup; bread.

Ginger (dried)  ~  fruit; chicken; turkey; ham; rice; marinades.

Mace  ~  vegetables; stewed beef and poultry; baked food; fruit dishes.

Marjoram  ~  tomato dishes; soup; stews; eggs; beef; chicken; turkey; fish; beans.

Nutmeg  ~  fruit dishes; stewed beef and poultry; custard; eggnog; baked foods and sweet breads.

Oregano  ~  beef; lamb; fish; pasta; sauces; soup; stews; Italian and Greek dishes.

Paprika  ~  baked fish; goulash; soup; stew; beans and legumes.

Parsley  ~  meat; poultry; fish; vegetables; stuffing; omelets; bread.

Rosemary  ~  pasta; stuffing; vegetables; grilled beef and chicken; casserole; fish; salads.

Sage  ~  soup; vegetable dishes; stuffing; rice; chicken; duck; pork.

Savory  ~ beans; soup; grilled chicken.

Tarragon  ~  fish; poultry; sauces; green vegetables; veal; shellfish; dressings.

Thyme  ~  beans and legumes; vegetable dishes; stews; soups; tomato dishes; chicken; turkey; fish.

There are a lot of guidelines around to which seasonings go best with certain foods, but it’s also down to the individual what tastes good, so don’t be afraid to try different herbs and spices with a particular dish.

Experimenting is all part of the learning process, and eventually you will discover which seasonings you prefer the most with your meals.

It’s best not to go to the supermarket and buy as many as you can, as you’ll likely end up only a bit of each one and your money will be wasted.

It’s best to just buy 2 or 3 or herbs and spices you know you like and will use most.

Once you’re happy cooking with a few and you’ve used them up, you can go back to the shops and choose several different ones and try cooking dishes with those instead.

Herb combinations

Whilst most herbs may taste ok together, there are some combinations that are usually worth avoiding!

To help you get started with knowing which herbs make a good blend, here are a few classic herb combinations often used in cooking that you can make yourself or buy ready from the shops.

Fines Herbs – this is a traditional French mixture of 4 fresh or dried herbs including parsley, chervil, chives and tarragon. This tastes good in fresh salads and egg dishes.

Herbs de Provence – this is a mixture of Mediterranean herbs, combining thyme, oregano, rosemary and savory. This can be added to pizza, stews, grilled dishes and baked vegetables for an aromatic touch.

Bouquet Garni – this is a classic combination of several herbs simmered in dishes as they cook. It combines rosemary, thyme, parsley and bay leaves for a mixture that can be used in cooking fish, beef, lamb and pork.

Other complimentary herb combinations include:

  • Sweet Marjoram, Thyme, Oregano
  • Basil, Thyme, Oregano
  • Dill, Chives, Parsley
  • Cilantro, Sweet Marjoram, Thyme
  • Tarragon, Parsley
  • Fennel, Oregano, Basil
  • Parsley, Basil, Chives
  • Sage, Winter Savory

For each dish you should ideally use no more than one assertive herb, which you can then mix with one or more mild flavoured herbs.

Remember, if you’re not sure how much of a particular herb you should add to a dish, add it sparingly until it tastes right, otherwise you can easily put too much in and end up with a culinary disaster!