How to Select Herbs and Spices

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Herbs are fragrant and tender leaves of plants that don't have woody stems, such as chives, basil and parsley. Spices come from the bark, seeds, fruit, roots or stems of various plants and trees--for example, from cinnamon bark, saffron strands or cayenne pepper. Used well, both herbs and spices enhance flavor, but they can easily overpower a dish in too-large amounts.

  • Grow your own herbs, or buy fresh herbs only as you need them. (Mint and basil should almost always be bought fresh--there's really no substitute.) Submerge stems in a small glass of water (as you would a bouquet of flowers) to keep them fresh for up to 10 days.

  • Choose fresh herbs that have a clean fragrance and a bright color without any browning or wilting.

  • Stock up on dried herbs to have on hand for impromptu cooking: oregano, thyme and tarragon (see How to Stock Your Kitchen with Staples).

  • Look at the color of dried herbs. They should retain some of their original color and not be too brown.

  • Smell spices before buying them. They should be aromatic and pungent.

  • Buy dried herbs and spices from a busy market with a high turnaround so you know they haven't been sitting on the shelves for six months.

  • Browse farmers' markets for fresh seasonal herbs. You can also find vendors selling bunches of dried herbs, sometimes with more exotic offerings than the grocery store carries. See How to Buy Ethnic Ingredients and How to Buy and Sell at Farmers' Markets.

Tips & Warnings

  • The more airtight your storage container, the longer your spices will last. Date spices when you buy them and don't keep them for more than six months, after which their flavor fades.
  • Grind whole spices, like cumin and mustard, at home in a clean coffee grinder.
  • Mix it up with barbecue spice blends and rubs, curry spice blends, and herbes de Provenc,e, made from a variety of ingredients.

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