When you talk about seasoning your food, there’s the “spice rack” or the “herb garden,” but never the other way around. Yet, many herbs are found on the spice rack, and many spices can be grown in your garden. And often, the words “herb” or “spice” are just used interchangeably. So, is there a difference between herbs and spices? And if so, what is it?
The Key Difference Between Herbs and Spices
If you want to get right down to the key technical difference between herbs and spices, it’s this:1
Spices come from the bark, berries, flowers, roots, or seeds of plants. Herbs are usually from the leaves of plants.
This makes sense if you think about oregano, basil, or sage. You pick all of those off the plant as leaves (herbs). Cumin, on the other hand, is a seed (a spice).
In most households, you’ll tend to find that spices are predominantly found dried, in bottles, on a spice rack, rather than fresh. This could be attributed to two reasons:
1. Many Western supermarkets don’t sell a great wealth of fresh spices, but they do sell many fresh herbs (Asian specialty grocers tend to have an amazing selection of fresh spices, however.)
2. Spices aren’t as popular in gardens as herbs. It’s definitely easier to just pick a few herbal leaves from a plant than to dry the seeds, or harvest the roots, of a spice. And, spices tend to originate, and grow far better, in tropical or warmer climates.2
But in terms of health benefits, both herbs and spices are equally wonderful choices!
Examples of Herbs and Spices
Here are some popular examples of herbs and spices, and the categories they fall under.
The types of herbs used in the kitchen are generally known as culinary herbs, so they can be differentiated from medicinal herbs. They are all leaves from plants. Some of the most popular include:
Spices are found heavily in warmer climates, which is why they are popularly used in dishes from the Caribbean, Africa, and many Southeast Asian nations. Here are some that you may be familiar with, and the part of the plant they come from:
- Clove – an aromatic flower bud
- Cumin – seeds
- Turmeric – an underground stem (known as a rhizome)
- Cinnamon – inner bark
- Peppercorn – a dried fruit
- Paprika – dried red bell peppers
- Nutmeg – seeds
- Fennel seed – seeds from fennel plants (the leaves are also picked as a herb)
- All-Spice – a dried, unripe fruit
So, Is Garlic an Herb or a Spice?
This is an excellent question. As a humble little bulb, garlic seems to defy definition. The main traits of garlic are:
1. It’s most often used in small quantities to “flavor” a dish (a herb or spice trait).
2. It’s a bulb (a vegetable trait, like onion).
Though hard to classify, garlic is known as an allium vegetable, which is a family of vegetables that also encompasses onions, leeks, shallots, and chives.3 So, it is commonly classified as a vegetable, even though it’s not eaten in the same way as other vegetables.
How to Store Herbs and Spices Properly
Now that you know the difference between herbs and spices, it’s time to understand how to best store them.
If you’ve just picked some herbs from the garden, or brought them home from the store, cut about ½ an inch off the stem, and pop them in a small jar of water (just like freshly cut flowers in a vase). Then cover the tops of the herbs loosely with a plastic bag and put them in the fridge. Change the water every two days.
Note: Basil does not like the fridge. Follow the same directions as above, but then leave it out at room temperature instead.
You can revive wilted herbs by soaking them in a bowl of ice water for a few minutes. They should look fresh and float to the surface when they’re good to go.
When bought fresh, spices have a bright color and aroma. Try to buy them in smaller quantities, so that you’ll always have great tasting spices on hand. They won’t go bad, but they will lose their flavor and color.
Keep spices in airtight containers, and store them in a cool, dry place. Always use dry measuring spoons to avoid any moisture. You can store light-sensitive red spices, like paprika and red pepper, in the fridge to keep their color and flavor longer.
Note: Whole spices will last twice as long as ground spices.
The Best Herbs and Spices For Beginners To Grow
If you’re just starting out with growing your own herbs and spices, here are a few that won’t cause too much hassle – even if you live in an apartment.
Basil plants love full sun and grow very well in pots.
Mint likes a little shade but can tolerate full sun. It will spread according to whatever sized area you give it.
Rosemary is a very hardy herb that loves hot, dry and sunny conditions. But it can still be grown inside during cooler months.
Cumin is one of the few spices that’s fine with cooler temperatures; it can be grown in the garden or in a pot.
Ginger plants can easily be grown indoors or outdoors, and they thrive in pots.
Herbs and Spices: What’s On The Menu Tonight?
No matter the difference between herbs and spices, they are both fantastic ingredients when you’re trying to live a healthier lifestyle. There’s barely a calorie in sight, and the flavors are so bright that you won’t need to add butter, salt, or sugar to your meals.
And don’t underestimate their power in sweet recipes: Try some basil in a fruit salad, add rosemary to ice cream, serve diced mangoes with clove, or whip up some delicious lemon balm and ginger popsicles!
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