How To

Herbs and spices: How to cook and flavour your food like a pro

Do you know the difference between your bouquet garni and your za'atar? Find the answers to some common questions about cooking with herbs and spices.

Can I use dried herbs instead of fresh?

As a rough guide, dried (not ground) herbs can be used in the proportion of one to four, i.e., use 1 teaspoon dried herbs instead of 4 teaspoons (1 tablespoon) chopped fresh herbs, however, this depends on the actual recipe and the pungency and freshness of both dried and fresh herbs.

How can I preserve my fresh herbs?

Wash and dry herbs thoroughly then blend or process them with a little olive oil. Freeze small amounts, flattened, in plastic bags or ice-cube trays. When solid, pop out the cubes and store them in a plastic freezer bag or airtight container.

What’s the difference between sea salt and rock salt?

Rock salt is the lowest grade salt you can buy – you would use it as a cooling agent only (salt lowers the freezing point of ice, so it absorbs heat from anything around it, keeping things cooler for longer). It is the sort of salt you see your oysters served on. It is very strong in flavour and completely unrefined.

Sea salt flakes are harvested from salt plains (evaporated sea water) and have a much more subtle flavour. Sea salt includes very small amounts of other minerals, so you can’t really use it for preserving as the minerals will discolour the food. It is the best salt to use on the dinner table as a last-minute seasoning for food. It is also good to cook with.

What’s the difference between sweet, smoked, and hot paprika?

Hungary produces six paprika types: fiery hot, hot, medium sharp, semi-sweet, sweet and exquisite delicate. Meanwhile, Spain grows pimentóns that can be sun-dried or smoked before being ground into dulce (sweet), agridulce (semi-sweet) and picante (spicy hot) paprika.

The sweeter or more delicately flavoured paprikas are used mainly for colouring with just a hint of flavour while the heat of a spicy paprika is for the cook who likes this flavourful seasoning to dominate the dish.

Is allspice and mixed spice the same thing?

No, allspice, also known as pimento or Jamaican pepper, is a berry, so-named because it tastes like a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin and cloves – all spices. It can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes and is available ground or whole. Ground allspice should not be confused with mixed spice, which is much milder and sweeter in flavour.

Mixed spice is a classic mixture containing cumin, caraway, allspice, coriander, nutmeg and ginger, although cinnamon and other spices can be added. It is used in sweet dishes such as fruit cakes, fruit pies, biscuits and a lot of sweet, baked items.

How do you use a vanilla bean pod?

Cut the bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds and pulp; add this, along with the pod, to the liquid in your recipe and let stand. The pods can later be removed before cooking. Some recipes call for whole pods, in this case the pods can be washed in cool water after use, dried thoroughly and used again.

If you want, you can recycle the used pods to make vanilla sugar. Wash them in cool water, dry them thoroughly, then add them to your sugar container (usually caster sugar).

How do you use fresh ginger?

Much of the flavour of ginger is just under the skin, so try to avoid peeling it if possible. To lightly peel ginger, scrape at the skin with a teaspoon rather than using a vegetable peeler. Grate, or cut into matchstick-size pieces.

Ground ginger, also known as powdered ginger, is used as a flavouring in cakes, pies and puddings but cannot be substituted for fresh ginger.

Can I use ground coriander instead of fresh?

Coriander is also available ground or as seeds; these should not be substituted for fresh coriander as the tastes are completely different.

When fresh, coriander is also known as pak chee, cilantro or Chinese parsley. To use, wash the stems and roots well then scrape the roots with a small flat knife to remove some of the outer fibrous skin. Finely or coarsely chop the roots and stems.

How much of the lemongrass plant can be eaten?

In Australia we seldom use the green blade-like tops of lemongrass plants, we usually just slice the bulb section thinly to use in Asian recipes. There’s no reason why you can’t use the whole blade as a flavouring when cooking, just as you do kaffir lime or bay leaves, removing them before serving the dish. The blade adds a sharp, citrusy flavour and works well with chilli and coconut.

What is star anise?

Star anise is the dried, star-shaped seed pod of a small evergreen tree grown from Indochina to Japan. Both the pod and seeds have a slight licorice taste, more spicily pungent than anise, with overtones of clove and cinnamon. It’s used to flavour teas, broths, rich stews, tangy dressings and sweet syrups. Use star anise sparingly, as it’s very aromatic. It keeps well, if stored whole, in an airtight container.

What is sumac?

Sumac is a purple-red, astringent spice ground from berries growing on shrubs that flourish wild around the Mediterranean. It adds a tart, lemony flavour to dips and dressings, and goes well with barbecued meat. Sumac can be found in Middle-Eastern food stores and some supermarkets.

Try adding some sumac to your oven-roasted tomatoes on toast for maximum zing!

toast with avocado, tahini and sumac tomatoes

What is mace?

British recipes often call for mace. It’s the fine, bright red membrane that covers the nutmeg seed. It is very similar in flavour, though is slightly more pungent. Ground nutmeg can be substituted for ground mace.

What is za’atar?

Za’atar is a blend of roasted dried spices and usually includes wild marjoram, thyme, sumac and sesame seeds. It’s available from Middle-Eastern food shops, delicatessens and some supermarkets. Za’atar is sprinkled over many Middle-Eastern dishes including meat, vegetables and pitta bread.

You can make your own za’atar by combining 1 tablespoon sumac, 1 tablespoon roasted sesame seeds, 1 teaspoon dried marjoram and 2 teaspoons dried thyme. Keep what you don’t use, stored in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, in the fridge for up to three months.

What is a bouquet garni?

Bouquet garni is a bunch of aromatic herbs used to flavour sauces, stews, soups, casseroles and stocks. It generally consists of parsley, thyme and bay leaves, which are tied together using unwaxed kitchen string, or enclosed in a small muslin bag. The herbs are removed from the dish before serving.

You can make your own bouquet garni by tying together 2-3 sprigs fresh parsley, 1 sprig fresh thyme and 1-2 fresh or dried bay leaves.

*For more ways to use herbs and spices in your meals, try spiced lamb roast with walnut and basil pesto or roast lamb with mustard and herbs.

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