Oregano, basil, chives, coriander, tarragon, parsley, sage, mint, dill, fennel: they all look pretty much the same, right? And then you’ve got cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and allspice, which also look very similar to each other.
If you usually rely on pre-prepared fajita spice kits, curry sauces or packet cake mixes, you’re unlikely to have found yourself having to learn which herbs and which spices go best with which ingredients.
As much as they might all look the same, all herbs have very different flavours and what goes well with one dish won’t necessarily work with another.
Don’t let this put you off experimenting though – jars of dried herbs and spices can be very cheap and are widely available in all supermarkets, so stock up your spice rack and learn what goes with what.
And remember, you don’t necessarily need to have the exact blend of herbs each time – once you’re a little more confident, you’ll soon be able to work out when you can make a swap.
Which herbs go best with fish?
When you’re cooking white fish like cod and haddock, they’ll easily take to any herbs and spices, so you can be pretty creative with your flavourings, or keep things as simple as you like.
An age-old favourite with fish though is parsley sauce, which really brings out its flavour. Try out this recipe for the classic dish from A Glug of Oil, and serve with plenty of mash to soak up that beautiful creamy sauce, plus some fresh greens on the side.
Or you could experiment a little and try out basil or chives or oregano or tarragon or a mix of a few of dried green herbs in a recipe like this one for lemon, garlic and herb prawns from Hungry Healthy Happy, which is lovely served with rice, pasta or a big, fresh salad. Use it to find out which herbs you like best, safe in the knowledge there’s plenty of lemon and garlic in there in case you don’t take to one quite as much.
What about chicken?
Chicken will also technically take to pretty much any herb or spice, but some naturally create a better end result than others, which is why they crop up on menus and in recipe inspo again and again.
Take tarragon, for example. Lovely with chicken in a creamy sauce, like in this recipe from Cooking Weekends. This dish is great with roast potatoes and plenty of seasonal veg as part of a Sunday dinner.
But then you can combine chicken with a totally different herb like coriander (see recipe suggestion from The Happy Foodie), which gives it a fresher, more summery flavour and would be lovely with salad or fragrant rice or as a healthier alternative to a curry.
Alternatively, coat a roast chicken in a herb like oregano, like Lemon and Olives suggests, to bring a really different taste to your Sunday roast. Use a contrasting herb like rosemary or thyme on your accompanying potatoes for a wealth of flavours on your plate.
And veggie dishes?
Vegetables are probably the most versatile ingredient you can add herbs and spices to, so this is where you can really go to town. If you’re venturing into vegetarian cooking for the first time, powerful herbs and spices can really help to disguise the absence of meat.
For example, this recipe for tikka paneer and veg skewers from Supper in the Suburbs uses chilli powder, garam masala and turmeric. You might think that sounds like a lot of flavours, but the veg and paneer are plain enough that they won’t interfere with the taste.
You can put any herbs and spices you like in a simple vegetable soup too. Herbs like oregano and basil will bring more of an Italian flavour, while the likes of chilli flakes and paprika will add a smokier, spicier taste.
Which spices should go in a homemade curry?
The answer to this question depends entirely on which type of curry you want to make – a korma tastes very different to a vindaloo, after all.
What about baking with spices?
The spices that you’d typically bake with are very different to the spices you’d use in a savoury dish, on the whole. Sweeter spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger tend to feature in treats like cookies, cakes and brownies more.
A whole load of icing or buttercream is a great way to get used to the taste of a new spice too, so try something like this iced cinnamon sponge cake from A Dash of Ginger to get started.
However, herbs and spices that you once would have only seen in savoury cooking are creeping into sweet baking more and more, such as in this chocolate and chilli loaf cake from I’d Much Rather Bake Than, which brings an interesting kick to an otherwise classic bake.
Or try something totally different like a lemon and thyme cake, which Thinly Spread has a fantastic recipe for. Try to get past the idea that thyme is only for Sunday roasts – paired with lemon, it creates a gorgeous bake with a unique sharpness that’s oh so moreish.
Substitutes you need to know about
When you’re looking up new recipes, you won’t always have every single herb and spice listed – some of them do tend to go a little overboard, so it’s useful to know when you can make a quick substitute.
Here’s our guide to herb and spice swaps:
- Swap basil for oregano
- Rosemary and thyme are pretty much interchangeable
- Dill and tarragon are good substitutes for one another
- Use chilli powder instead of paprika and vice versa
- There’s only a subtle difference between cinnamon and nutmeg, so don’t worry if you don’t have the right one
- Fennel and aniseed have very similar flavours
- Out of garam masala? Use cumin or turmeric instead
- Coriander and tarragon will both bring a fresher herby flavour to a dish
- Cinnamon and nutmeg mixed together make a very good cardamom substitute
- Some recipes will call for cilantro, but we just know it as coriander in the UK
Using different flavours in your cooking is all about discovering what you like best, so keep experimenting! Taste your food as you go, and remember to only add a small amount at a time. You can always add more, but you can’t extract a load of chilli powder from a sauce. And that stuff can be right hot. You’ve been warned.