Without spices, dal is more or less a bowl of lentils, aloo gobi is a pile of potatoes and cauliflower, and pasta sauce is nothing more than squashed-up tomatoes and onion. Herbs and spices can transform simple foods into culinary miracles. Even for a novice, it takes only a good selection, some basic knowledge, and a little practice and intuition.
A well-stocked spice rack will include a variety of both herbs and spices-a fine distinction, in many cases. Generally, though, herbs include the leaves and flowers of a plant, while spices come from the seeds, bark, roots, and fruit-for example, coriander comes from cilantro seeds, and cinnamon is a type of bark from a variety of evergreen. And then we have salt, which is in a category of its own, since it doesn't come from plants at all (see below).
The varieties of herbs and spices number in the thousands, and encompass enough different flavors to ensure culinary diversity until the end of time. The sheer volume is enough to intimidate any novice chef into sticking to salt and pepper-or takeout. However, with a handful of essentials, you can create enough culinary magic to satisfy most palates, and even wow a few.
We've compiled a list of the essential 14 to start with. Experiment by adding them one at a time to dishes to see how you like their flavor. Once you're comfortable with these, start experimenting with combinations of two or three different herbs and spices per dish. Then you can begin to expand your repertoire to include more exotic varieties and combinations.
This delicate herb is native to warm, tropical climates, and figures prominently in many cuisines. Sweet basil is key to Italian cooking, and goes well with dishes containing eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, or chicken. Thai or holy basil is used in Thai, Vietnamese, and Laotian dishes.
Aromatic leaves from a species of laurel; essential for cooking beans, lentils, risottos, soups, stews, tomato sauces, and braised meats. Add one or two whole leaves to the pot, and fish them out before serving. Or tie them in a piece of cheesecloth and let them "steep" into the food during cooking, then remove and discard the bag before serving.
Comes from ground red, hot chile peppers, closely related to red bell peppers. It has a fiery, slightly smoky bite that peps up the flavor of many dishes, especially those with tomato or cream bases. Or try whole or red pepper flakes over sautéed greens, eggs, or pasta dishes for a burst of color and spice.
Resembling stout blades of grass, chives are a member of the onion family and have a light onion flavor and bright green hue. They're especially tasty in potato, egg, fish, and shellfish dishes, or sprinkled on cream soups just before serving.
Comes from the bark of a tropical evergreen tree, and has a warm, mildly sweet flavor. It's usually used in sweet and baked goods, but is also a delicious counterpart to many spices, especially cumin, cayenne, and curry. Use it in apple and pear dishes and custards, or with chicken, lamb, or rice dishes.
The tiny fruits of a plant that's related to parsley; these have a warm, earthy flavor and pungent aroma, and are sold whole or ground. Cumin is essential to Mexican and Middle Eastern cuisine, and is one of the key ingredients in curry powder. Try it in dishes containing cilantro or curry powder, or with beans, lentils, lamb, rice, couscous, or potatoes.
A blend of herbs and spices that usually contains cumin, cinnamon, chili powder, cardamom, fennel, mace, nutmeg, pepper, sesame seeds, fenugreek, and turmeric, which gives curry its brilliant golden color. You'll find curry in many varieties, including madras, which is especially spicy. Use curry in Indian cuisine and in egg, bean, and lentil dishes.
A member of the mint family, marjoram has a light, sweet flavor that's similar to oregano; it's especially prominent in Italian cooking. Add it near the end of cooking; heat can harm its delicate flavor. Try it in tomato soups or sauces, and with squash, peas, carrots, zucchini, or white fish.
Similar in flavor to marjoram, but more pronounced and less sweet. The two most common varieties of oregano are Mediterranean and Mexican, which is the more pungent of the two. Use oregano in Italian or tomato-based dishes, or with beans, fish, pasta, peppers, onions, eggplant, zucchini, or mushrooms.
The berry of the pepper plant, a vine native to India and Indonesia. It's appropriate in any dish to add extra zing. White pepper comes from the same plant, but is processed differently; it's best suited for white or cream-based sauces, soups, and casseroles.
Another cherished Mediterranean herb. The fragrant, needle-like leaves of this woody herb are stripped from their stems and used to flavor all manner of cuisines. Rosemary is especially good with lamb and seafood, and in any dish with beans, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, or cauliflower.
Comes from the leaves of a Mediterranean herb and has a strong, mildly bitter flavor and aroma. It's especially good in rich or creamy dishes; or use it in stuffings, tomato-based dishes, beans, polenta, tuna, or turkey.
From a plant related to wormwood, it has a distinctively sweet and aromatic flavor reminiscent of licorice. It's especially delicious in egg dishes; or use it with chicken, seafood, carrots, tomatoes, corn, white fish, or salmon.
A member of the mint family, thyme's tiny leaves are commonly used in Mediterranean and southern European cuisine. Lemon thyme has a pronounced lemon flavor and aroma. Use either variety with carrots, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and beef, or in any lemon-scented dish.
Five essential salts for the well-stocked kitchen
In a pinch, a shake of salt can round out and emphasize the flavors of any meal, even without spices. Artisan and pure sea salts with appealing colors and textures add better flavor and aesthetic appeal. Some to try:
Sel gris: Also known as grey sea salt or Celtic grey, this natural sea salt has a softer texture and fuller flavor than white salt. Use the coarse grinds in place of kosher salt in cooking, and choose finer grinds for a finishing salt on any dish.
Cyprus black: With its ebony hue (from natural charcoal) and pyramid-shaped flakes, this Mediterranean sea salt is a beautiful finishing salt; sprinkle it on after cooking, on pasta, avocado cubes, mango slices, or any dish with a light or vibrant color.
Red alaea: This Hawaiian sea salt gets its rich terra-cotta color from red volcanic clay, which also gives it a subtle, earthy flavor. Use the coarse grinds as a finishing salt for crunch and color on eggs, white fish, cream soups, or pasta.
Fumée de sel: Derived from the famed Guérande salt marshes in France, this sea salt is smoked in oak barrels used to age Chardonnay wine, giving it a smoky flavor and tan color. Try it as a finishing salt on roasted vegetables, salads, or sautéed greens.
Fleur de sel: Also from the Guérande salt marshes, this delicate salt is hand-harvested from the top layer of salt that forms on the surface of the water. It has a fragile texture, crystalline sparkle, and a subtle, violet-like flavor. Try it as a finishing salt on melon slices, salads, and other cold dishes.