In this guide you will find hints and tips on how to buy, use and store good herbs and spices.
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What are herbs and spices?
Before going to buy herbs and spices, it helps to know exactly what herbs and spices are and what the difference is.
The terms herbs and spices are often used interchangeably, or you may hear them both together even when only herbs or only spices are being talked about. The distinctions are not that important.
Both herbs and spices are important for good seasoning. Combinations of herbs and spices can expand your culinary palette and make all of your food taste better.
Herbs are the fragrant leaves and flowers of a plant used for seasoning, such as basil, oregano, thyme and parsley. Even the tiny filaments of saffron are referred to as a spice. Saffron is the stigma which is hand plucked from a small mauve crocus native to Kashmir, hence its expense.
Spices are the buds, bark, roots, berries and aromatic seeds that are harvested for use in flavouring cooking.
Typical examples of spices are cloves from the buds, cinnamon from the bark, turmeric from the root, peppercorns from the berries, vanilla from the bean of an Orchid Vine and cumin, coriander, dill and fennel are all seeds
Salt is in a category of its own as it does not come from a plant but it is often blended with organic herbs and spices to produce fantastic seasoning - Try our Spicy Salt or luxurious yellow Margarita Salt
Where do spices come from?
Most spices are grown in the tropical regions of the world, with some thriving in the cool misty highlands. Many of the seed spices come from more temperate areas, such as coriander seed, which is grown in Northern India, Africa and the wheat producing areas of Australia.
How are spices harvested?
The majority of spices are still harvested in the way they have been for centuries, by hand. Most of the developments in the spice industry have been with respect to growing and post-harvest treatment such as grading and cleaning.
What gives spices their flavour?
Through spices, nature provides an incredible variety of colours, textures, aromas and flavours that add interest and depth to food. The many and varied flavours in spices are held in the oils that naturally occur in spices. Some of these flavours are apparent in the fresh spice, for example in ginger. Other spices either change or only develop their true flavour on drying. One dramatic example is vanilla, a green tasteless bean that grows on a tropical climbing orchid. It is only after drying and curing that the enzyme reactions which take place actually form the vanilla flavour. In a similar manner, when peppercorns are picked green, the enzyme reaction that occurs upon drying turns them black and creates the pepper flavour we all know so well.
The best way to store spices
Because the flavours in spices and culinary herbs are held in the volatile oils, it is essential that they are stored in the correct way so that the flavours do not escape. Firstly, they must be packaged in good quality materials. This applies to all herbs and spices whether whole or ground, however the quality of the package is most critical for ground spices as the grinding process has begun the release of flavour - that is why ground spices are often more convenient to use.
Herbs and spices packaged in thin plastic bags, cellophane packs or cardboard canisters are all allowing the volatile oils and therefore the flavour to escape.
Herbs have a milder flavour than spices. Some herbs like bay, lavender, marjoram and rosemary are better when dried.
When your herbs arrive, store them in airtight containers, out of the light and away from heat. Once you have received your herbal material we recommend an optimal shelf life of 18 months. If the age of your material exceeds this, we recommend re-purchasing.
All the Steenbergs products we sell have been packed in an attractive glass jar which features a top quality metal cap to keep the flavour in or a metal container.; Metal containers are only suitable for certain types of herbs and spices
Ground spices lose their flavour quicker than whole spices
Herbs and spices will fade in bright light, especially sunlight. If you want to display your collections in a spice rack, mount it in an area which is away from direct heat or sunlight. Delicate herbs such as chives are particularly sensitive, and should be kept in a cupboard for the best colour retention.
The Steenbergs spices we sell have been dehydrated. So never use a wet spoon to measure the spice from the pack. If you do, the moisture will affect the product it touches, and cause hard clumps to form. If the weather is extra hot and humid, it might even cause mould. The herbs and spices you add to your cooking are a tiny proportion of the total cost, so it is worth always using the best quality available.
Conclusion - Buy the best herbs and spices you can and buy little and often. The vast majority of the Herbs and Spices we sell are Organic and whilst this doesnt make them the cheapest you will be amazed by the smell and flavour of the products and can rely on the fact they come from a traceable source.
The Spice Cellar March 2008