Guide to herbs and spices

Herbs and spices can make a meal sing by boosting or blending flavors to create a taste experience.

Spices are generally considered plant materials that are whole, broken or ground and used for flavor, not nutrition. Herbs are most often leaves of plants. These leaves can be used fresh or dried, while spices are almost always dried.

Whether they are herbs or spices, these leaves, seeds, fruits, buds, stems or bark of plants and trees often have a long history of use to boost flavor. Herbs and spices also can help lessen the need for salt and fat in many recipes.

Here are a few common examples and ways you might use them in your next meal.


Basil leaves have a slightly sweet aroma. This herb can be used fresh or dried, and several varieties of basil are available. Each has its own flavor profile. For example, lemon basil is slightly sour. Thai basil has a hint of licorice.

Basil is used across a range of cuisines, from Asian to Mediterranean. It boosts the flavor of a wide range of dishes, including eggs, curries and even fruits such as watermelon.

Basil pairs well with garlic, tomatoes and olives. As a main attraction, basil is the basis for pesto. This blend of basil, garlic and olive oil, among other ingredients, works equally well whether spooned over pasta or stuffed in a mushroom. Basil also adds freshness to soups, salads and other dishes.

In combination with other herbs and spices, basil can add flavor to a dish as a marinade or rub.

Fresh basil


Dill leaves are used in a range of cooked and cold foods. Dill seeds are dried and used as a spice.

One of the first foods that may come to mind when thinking about dill is pickled cucumbers. It's right there in the name: dill pickles. To get the most dill flavor, pickling recipes use both the leaves and the seeds. But dill spices up more than just cucumbers.

Dill leaves and seeds can complement eggs, beans, fish, creamy dishes, salads and vegetables.

Blended with chives and curry powder, dill leaves can make potatoes bloom with savory flavor and a fresh taste of the garden.

Fresh dill


The leaves of oregano can be used in a wide range of dishes. Fresh leaves may be used in salads while the dried leaves are often used in soups or on meat, poultry or vegetables. Oregano varieties may be mild or strong, so use this herb sparingly at first.

Fans of pizza may be familiar with oregano as an ingredient in pizza sauce. This herb pairs well with tomatoes and basil. Oregano also is a good fit with olive oil and lemon in Mediterranean dishes. Also, it's a popular seasoning for fish, beef, poultry and a variety of vegetables. To release its flavor, crush dried oregano either by hand or with a mortar and pestle.

Fresh oregano


Cumin seeds are available whole or ground. Cumin has a sharp and almost nutty flavor. Toasting cumin seeds in a dry skillet enhances their flavor.

Familiar to many as a spice in taco seasonings, cumin is a key ingredient in many other spice blends and pairs well with chickpeas, rice and vegetables. It also can be used as a rub for grilled meats, poultry and seafood.

Dried cumin seeds


Paprika is made from ground sweet red peppers. Paprika's flavor may be mild, hot or smoky, depending on the variety. It's traditionally used in goulash but also works with eggs, potatoes, chicken and fish.

Combining different types of paprika can add levels of flavor to a dish. Paprika is a strong flavor, so some experts suggest adding it at the start of cooking to give it time to meld with other flavors.



Saffron is derived from a flower and sold as threads or powder. Saffron lends a golden color to foods, such as paella, a traditional Spanish dish. Saffron is a strong flavor, so add a little bit at a time.

Saffron pairs well with seafood and poultry. It also can be added to baked goods, such as breads, rolls and cookies. Add it toward the end of your dish's cooking time.

Saffron threads


Turmeric is made from an underground stem called a rhizome. It has a warm, earthy flavor. Turmeric is common in cuisines worldwide but might be most well known as the spice that gives curry its distinctive yellow color. It works well with chicken, fish, vegetables, lentils and rice.

Turmeric root can be used fresh or as a powder, depending on the recipe.



Rosemary has a strong woody flavor, and no wonder: In some climates it grows as a shrub. The oily needles can be used fresh or dried. It's often paired with grilled or roasted poultry, meat and vegetables.

Rosemary can make a surprise appearance in desserts too. It works well with fruit, such as apples and citrus. It also can be paired with honey.

Fresh rosemary

Cooking with herbs and spices

Some recipes use fresh herbs while others use powdered or dried herbs. In some recipes, you can substitute fresh herbs for dried if needed. One tablespoon of fresh herbs is equal to 1 teaspoon of dried herbs. One teaspoon of dried herbs is equal to 1/4 teaspoon of herb powder. But make sure the substitution makes sense based on the dish.

If you've never used a spice before, start by slowly adding it to a dish. Not everyone tastes food the same way. Red pepper flakes can bring a spicy heat to your chili, but if you think ketchup is spicy, don't add the red pepper flakes. Instead consider spices such as paprika, cinnamon and cumin.

March 14, 2024 See more In-depth