Herbs & Spices

Wednesday, 12 September 2012 | Tags: , , , , , ,

From everyday bland-busters like black pepper, to exotic blends like garam masala and curry powder, herbs and spices can help an otherwise boring meal blow your mind and taste buds! Here's what we've learned so far about a variety of spices during our research for Anna & Kristina's Grocery Bag.

Single Spices

Black Pepper

  • Pepper is native to India and has been known to Indian cooking since at least 2000 BC.

  • Known as the “king of spices” because it is one of the oldest and most popular spices in the world.

  • Pepper was so valuable that in ancient Greece and Rome, it was used as currency.

  • Black pepper is high in antioxidants and is effective in protecting against tumors and certain cancers.

  • Always buy and store black pepper and peppercorn spice in whole form. Grind or powder them into your dish just before eating for optimal freshness and flavour. (Check out our pepper grinder test.)

  • Peppercorns may be stored for 5 years in an airtight container.


  • Cardamom is related to ginger and turmeric, and are generally green in colour. The pods contain highly aromatic black seeds.

  • The pod is usually discarded while the seeds are highly aromatic and immensely popular in Indian and Scandinavian cuisine.

  • The cardamom pods are harvested just before they are ripe and are allowed to dry in the sun or by using drying machines.

  • Cardamom pods purchased from the supermarket are usually green in colour, but can also be found in a bleached white form.

  • Avoid any pods that are black in colour. The greener the pod, the better the taste and fresher the pod.

  • You can also buy cardamom in a ground form, however the quality is not as good as using seeds from a whole pod and grinding them yourself.

  • Once the pods are opened, the flavour and aroma of the cardamom is lost very quickly due to the rapid loss of the essential oils.

Cayenne Pepper

  • Cayenne pepper is high in vitamin A. It also contains vitamin B6, vitamin E, vitamin C, riboflavin, potassium, and manganese.

  • Cayenne is used worldwide to treat a variety of health conditions, including poor circulation, weak digestion, heart disease, chronic pain, sore throats, headaches, and toothaches.

  • True cayenne powder is a deep, orange-red.

  • When purchasing cayenne powder, buy it at a good, quality whole food store.

  • You can also buy your own peppers and roast them in an oven at 150 degrees for about three hours. Then grind in a food processor and create your own powder. (Check out our food processor test.)


  • Cinnamon is available in either stick or powder form. While the sticks can be stored for longer, the ground powder has a stronger flavor.

  • Fresh cinnamon has a sweet aroma. If it is dull or musty, it is old.

  • Cinnamon may be labeled as either Ceylon cinnamon or Chinese cinnamon (or cassia).

  • Though not widely available, Ceylon cinnamon is sweeter with a more refined flavour. Shop for it in ethnic markets or specialty spice stores.

  • Choose organically-grown cinnamon to ensure it has not been irradiated, a process whereby food is exposed to ionizing radiation soto destroy microorganisms, bacteria, viruses, or insects that might be present. The irradiation of cinnamon may cause a significant decrease in its vitamin C and carotenoid properties.

  • Cinnamon should be kept in a tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dark and dry place.

  • Ground cinnamon keeps for about six months. Extend its shelf life by storing it in the refrigerator.


  • Purchase whole cloves rather than the powdered form since the powdered version loses its flavor more quickly.

  • You can tell a clove is fresh if it releases a bit of oil when squeezed with your fingernail.

  • You can also place cloves in a cup of water to determine their freshness: those that are still good will float vertically while those that are stale will either sink or float horizontally.

  • As with other dried spices, try to select organically-grown cloves since this usually assures the herb hasn’t been irradiated.

  • Keep cloves in a tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dark, dry place.

  • Ground cloves keep for about six months, while whole cloves stay fresh for about a year (or longer if kept in the refrigerator).

Cumin Seeds

  • Cumin seeds are beneficial to the digestive system and may also have anti-carcinogenic properties.

  • Whenever possible, buy whole cumin seeds instead of cumin powder since the latter loses its flavor more quickly – the seeds can be easily ground with a mortar and pestle.

  • To bring out the fullness of their aroma and flavour, lightly roast whole cumin seeds before using them in a recipe.

Ginger (dried, ground)

  • Like all dried spices, ground ginger’s flavour diminishes in intensity over time. Buy in small quantities from a merchant with high turnover, and use it up or discard within six months.

  • You can also buy dried ginger in pieces and grate with a rasp-style grater as you need it. The texture will be coarser than ground, but it will have a more potent flavour.

  • To tell how fresh it is, smell ground ginger. It should have an assertive, spicy, ginger aroma. If it smells faint or musty, it is probably old.

Ginger (fresh)

  • Fresh ginger (or ginger root) is superior over dried ginger in flavor and anti-inflammatory properties.

  • When shopping for fresh ginger root, make sure it is firm, smooth and free of mold.

  • Mature ginger is more widely available in supermarkets and has a tough skin that requires peeling.

  • Young ginger is usually only available in Asian markets and does not need to be peeled.

  • Fresh ginger can be stored in the refrigerator for up to three weeks if it is left unpeeled. Stored unpeeled ginger in the freezer where it will keep for up to six months.

Mustard Seed

  • There are three main kinds of mustard:

    • white, which is relatively mild though still pungent, and is used mostly for prepared mustard and pickling spices

    • black, which is pungent and an important ingredient in Indian cooking

    • brown, which is easier to cultivate and less pungent, and is widely used in Europe for prepared mustard.

  • Buy whole mustard seeds to ensure that you get mustard that has not been mixed with any other spice.

  • It’s best to buy organic mustard seeds to ensure that they haven’t been exposed to radiation, which decreases the level of vitamin C present in the spice.

  • Store mustard seeds in a tightly sealed container, in a cool, dark, and dry cupboard.


  • Nutmeg is not a nut, but the kernel of an apricot-like fruit called mace. 

  • It’s one of the oldest spices, and along with pepper and cloves, has been cultivated for over 1,000 years. (It is one of the natural flavors in Coca Cola!)

  • Nutmeg can be purchased whole or ground. 

  • For the optimum flavour, whole nutmeg is the best choice. It keeps indefinitely, and grinding or grating the seeds will bring out the spicy, nutty flavour as you need it.

  • To find out how fresh whole nutmeg is, insert a sewing needle about a centimetre into the centre. If a small drop of oil seeps out, the nut is fresh.

  • One whole nutmeg equals about 2-3 teaspoons of ground nutmeg.

  • Pre-ground nutmeg loses its flavour quickly, so you may need to use more than your recipe calls for if your nutmeg is pre-ground and not very fresh.

  • Store nutmeg in any format in a dry, airtight container, away from light.

  • Add freshly-ground nutmeg to your dish at the end of cooking, since heat diminishes the flavour.

  • Wrap unused, fresh nutmeg tightly so that the oils are not lost. Store in a tightly-sealed container in a cool, dark place.

  • Nutmeg can be poisonous to humans in large quantities, and to pets in normal culinary quantities, so be careful about feeding them any nutmeg-filled people food like egg nog or baked goods.


  • By weight, paprika contains more vitamin C than lemon juice. It also acts as an antibacterial agent and stimulant, and can help stabilize blood pressure, improve circulation, and aid digestion.

  • Paprika ranges from hot to mild. The redder the spice, the milder the heat. Yellow paprika is the hot variety and is very spicy.

  • If the paprika is brown, it means it’s old. Avoid.


  • Saffron is grown commercially primarily in India, Spain and Iran. Kashmir saffron is considered the best, the most potent, and the most expensive in the world.

  • Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice because it is hand-harvested. It is made up of tiny, bright red threads (stigmas from the crocus sativus flower). About 13,125 threads weigh one ounce.

  • Saffron has an intense flavour so thankfully is only required in minute amounts. E.g. half a teaspoon of good saffron (about 1/5 gram) is enough for one litre of saffron custard.

  • The redder the saffron, the higher the quality. The tips of the threads should be a slightly lighter orange-red color. (Cheap saffron may be tinted red to look expensive, but it won’t have this natural colour grade.)

  • Choose whole saffron threads over powdered saffron. The threads have a better flavor and the curative qualities are higher. Whole saffron must be prepared before use, sometimes soaked, sometimes toasted and ground.

  • Fresh, good quality saffron has a nice, pungent aroma. If the aroma is weak, it is not fresh.”Baby saffron” is saffron that is less than one year old. The best quality saffron comes from the current crop year.

  • Unless you use saffron frequently, purchase it in small amounts, like 1/2 to 1 gram at a time. If you use saffron frequently then you may want to invest in a one ounce tin.

  • Purchase saffron from a reliable shop and be particularly careful when buying powdered saffron as it can be “cut” or diluted with turmeric or other additives.

  • Be aware that safflower is frequently confused with (and sometimes passed off as) saffron.

  • When cooking, the most important rule is “don’t use too much”. A very little bit of saffron goes a long way. If it is overused, it can be overpowering and leave a “medicinal” flavor.

  • Properly stored, you can keep saffron for up to three years. It doesn’t go bad, but the flavor diminishes as it ages.

Spice Blends

Curry Powder

  • Turmeric, cumin, coriander and red pepper are commonly used in curry powder.

  • Garlic, mustard, anise, celery seed, cinnamon, nutmeg and paprika are also common ingredients.

  • When purchasing curry powder, choose the “Madras” variety for a stronger kick.

  • It’s also easy to make your own if you have the right tools (e.g. a mortar and pestle, and a variety of dried, whole spices). Many chefs grind their own curry powder blend right before using it in a recipe for the ultimate freshness.

  • Some of the health benefits of curry powder have been reported to include increased metabolism, heightened brain activity in the elderly, arthritis relief, and prevention of some cancers and the build-up of plaques contributing to Alzheimer’s disease.


  • Contrary to popular belief, allspice is not a blend of “all spices”. It is the unripened fruit of a small evergreen tree called Pimenta Dioica, similar in flavour to a blend of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and hot pepper.

  • Allspice is a digestive aid, beneficial in the treatment of arthritis, and is also known to settle the nervous system.

  • Allspice is available as both whole berries and a ground powder, but whole berries have a longer shelf-life than the powdered product and produce more flavorful results if you ground them fresh right before using.

  • Some markets also carry allspice leaves, which must be used while they’re fresh. Like bay leaves, they’re used to infuse flavor into a dish and are removed before serving.

  • Store allspice in an air-tight container in a cool, dark place.

  • Ground allspice stays fresh for up to six months while whole berries last up to a year.


Basil (fresh)

  • Look for bunches of basil with whole, smooth leaves that are bright green and fragrant.

  • If the basil comes with the roots attached, place the bunch in a glass filled with a few inches of water and leave at room temperature. Avoid sunny spots.

  • Otherwise, wrap the stems in a damp paper towel and refrigerate in a plastic or mesh bag.

  • With either method, it should last up to 4 days.

Bay Leaves

  • Dried bay leaves may be purchased whole, as pieces, or as powder.

  • Whether buying fresh or dry, choose whole leaves with the brightest green colour and strongest aroma you can find.

  • For best flavour, bay leaves should be used within 1 year of harvest.

  • Be aware: Both fresh and dried bay leaves (Mediterranean and Californian) have sharp edges that can damage the esophagus and stomach, so be sure not to eat them. California bay leaves also contain umbellulone, which can cause convulsive sneezing, headaches, and sinus irritation when inhaled deeply.

  • Remove bay leaves before serving.

Cilantro (fresh)

  • Originating in the Mediterranean, cilantro is one of the oldest herbs known to man.

  • Although normally just the leaves of fresh cilantro are used, the stems and roots are edible as well.

  • Fresh cilantro is usually sold in bunches alongside fresh parsley. Choose cilantro with bright, evenly-colored green leaves, showing no sign of yellowing or wilting.

  • As soon as you get home, place the stems of fresh cilantro in a glass of water, keeping the roots intact if attached. Cover the top loosely with a plastic bag, then refrigerate, changing the water every 2 to 3 days. Fresh cilantro keeps this way for about a week.

  • Don’t wash cilantro until you are ready to use it since excess moisture will turn the leaves slimy during storage.

  • Cilantro freezes well – simply place in a single layer on a cookie sheet and place in a freezer-safe bag when frozen.

  • Don’t worry if you are completely turned off by the flavour of cilantro. You’re not alone!

Dill (fresh)

  • When buying fresh dill, make sure that the leaves are green in colour and feathery in texture.

  • Don’t worry if the leaves are slightly wilted, since after picking, they tend to droop quickly.

  • Wrap fresh dill in a damp paper towel and store in the refrigerator, or place in the fridge with its stem in a bowl of water. It will only stay fresh for two days.

  • You can also freeze dill by keeping it in an airtight container, either in whole or chopped form.

Fennel Seeds

  • Fennel seeds are available at most grocery stores, either pre-packaged or in bulk.

  • When buying fennel seeds, choose those that are bright green in colour.

  • If buying seeds in bulk, get them from a store that has high turnover so you can be sure you’re getting the freshest and most fragrant seeds possible.

  • Dried fennel seeds should be kept in a sealed container in a cool, dry location, though they will keep fresher longer if stored in an airtight container in the fridge.


  • Fresh lemongrass is usually found in the produce section of most Asian or Mexican grocery stores, often sold in bundles of 2 or 3 stalks.

  • Look for stalks that are fragrant, tightly formed, and have nice colour. Lemongrass stalks should be a lemony-green colour near the bulb, deepening to a true green at the other end of the stalk.

  • Avoid purchasing stalks that are coming apart, or are brittle, browning, or crusty as these are old and will be less fragrant and nutritious.

  • If you can’t find lemongrass amongst the fresh produce, check the freezer section of the store. Lemongrass freezes well and is often sold in frozen packets of about 6-8 stalks.

  • The softer, fleshier part of the lemongrass is what you want to use in your recipe. It’s located under the tough outer leaves of the stalk. Be sure to peel these layers away with your fingers and discard.

  • Store fresh lemongrass in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed plastic bag for up to 3 weeks. You can also freeze it for about 6 months without losing any flavour.


  • A cousin of oregano, marjoram is less potent so is often called for in larger quantities without overpowering or spoiling a dish.

  • An excellent source of calcium, phosphorous, potassium, and magnesium, marjoram also contains high levels of Vitamins A and C.

  • It was traditionally used for centuries as a treatment for indigestion, an antiseptic, and a pain reliever.

  • Find marjoram year round at grocery stores or fresh markets.

  • It dries exceptionally well, so in a pinch you can opt for the dried version knowing that much of the original flavour is retained.

  • When choosing fresh marjoram, look for sprigs that appear light green with a greyish tint. Too green or too grey indicates that the herb is either past its prime or is too dry and will lack flavour.

  • Fresh marjoram should be stored in the lower part of the refrigerator, wrapped in damp paper towels and placed in a plastic bag. It will keep this way for several days.

Mint (fresh)

  • The leaves of fresh mint should be a vibrant, rich, even, green colour. Avoid leaves that are yellowing or with brown spots.

  • They should have a rigid texture. Avoid any that are wilting.

  • Store fresh mint leaves by carefully wrapping them in a damp paper towel and placing them inside a loosely closed plastic back or container in the fridge. It should keep for several days like this.

Oregano (fresh)

  • Like any fresh herb, fresh oregano branches should be rich green in color and not the least bit limp.

  • Store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

  • Extend its shelf life by up to a week by storing whole stems with leaves in a glass of water with a plastic bag loosely tented over the glass.

  • Fresh oregano can also be frozen. Wash and dry oregano sprigs, strip leaves from stems, and place loosely in a plastic bag without crushing. Remove all air. Freeze and keep in a location where it will not be crushed. No need to thaw before using.

  • To dry fresh oregano, tie sprigs into a bunch and hang in a cool, dark place with good ventilation. Once dried, seal tightly and store away from sunlight.

  • As with all dried herbs, dried oregano should be kept in a cool, dark place in a tightly-sealed container and used within 6 months.

  • Herbs generally won’t spoil if kept longer, but their potency greatly deteriorates over time.


  • Whenever possible, choose fresh parsley over dried since fresh is superior in flavour.

  • Choose fresh parsley that is a deep green colour, fresh-looking and crisp. Avoid bunches that are wilting or yellowing since these are either old or damaged.

  • Choose dried parsley flakes that are organic since this means they will not have been irradiated.

  • Fresh parsley should be kept in the fridge in a plastic bag with a couple of drops of water to keep it form wilting. 

  • If you have excess flat-leaf parsley, dry it on a cloth in a single layer, then keep in a tightly sealed container in a cool dark place.

  • If you have excess curly-leaf parsley, it is best preserved by freezing. It will retain most of its flavour and doesn’t need to be thawed to use it. It will stay crisp if used frozen.


Parsley (Italian, Flat Leaf)

  • Italian parsley, also known as Petroselinum crispum, is a plain, flat-leafed parsley having darker green leaves than curly-leafed parsley.

  • Extremely nutritious and rich in vitamins, it has a stronger flavour and is less bitter than curly-leafed parsley.

  • For the best flavour, add Italian parsley during the last few moments of cooking. It can also be sprinkled right on salads, soups, fish, or meat.


  • Fresh sage leaves are aromatic with no soft spots or dry edges. Wrap in a slightly damp paper towel and store in a plastic bag in the fridge for up to 4-5 days.

  • You can freeze sage leaves by removing them from the stem and packing them loosely in freezer bags. They should last up to one year. Freezing may intensify the flavour, so you may have to adjust your quantities.

  • You can also store fresh leaves longer by covering them in olive oil and putting them in the fridge. They should last up to 3 weeks, and then you can also use the sage-infused olive oil for cooking.

  • Store dried sage in a closed container in a cool, dry place, away from sunlight. Use within 6 months for best flavour.


  • The shiso herb is an invasive species when grown in North American, but in Asia, this relative to the mint plant is grown everywhere.

  • The leaves of this aromatic plant have been known to have a medicinal taste with hints of cinnamon, cumin, and mint.

  • Shisho leaves can be purple or green in colour, and have a beautiful shine and complex shape.

  • In Japanese cooking, the shisho leaf can be battered and served as tempura, used in pickles, or wrapped around sushi, and its flower buds can be used as a garnish or fried and eaten.


  • When using fresh-picked or stem-dried thyme, strip the leaves from the woody stems before adding them to your dish.

  • Be sure to crush the leaves in your hand or using a knife to help release their flavour.

  • If you grow your own thyme, the leaves are sweetest if picked just as the flowers appear.

  • To store fresh thyme, put the sprigs in a plastic bag in the crisper of your fridge, or stand sprigs in a glass of water on the fridge shelf.

  • To dry thyme, pick small bundles and hang them upside-down in a warm, dry, airy location for about ten days.

  • One fresh sprig of thyme equals about a half-teaspoon of dried thyme.

  • Store dried thyme in a cool, dark place in an airtight container. It should last up to 6 months.


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