Spice Cabinet 101: Getting the Most Out of Your Dried Herbs

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Spice Cabinet 101: Getting the Most Out of Your Dried Herbs
Spice Cabinet 101: Getting the Most Out of Your Dried Herbs

Herbs and spices are our lives here at Spices, Inc. We eat them, make drinks with them, and we absolutely smell like them. We are nose blind to it, but it's not difficult to gauge that people can smell us coming when we go out in public and people comment out loud, "oh you smell like spices- I'm so hungry!" or "what smells so good? Yum!" Herbs and spices are important when it comes to seasoning food, and the proper storage and usage makes all the difference in terms of flavor and scent.

Herbs are often neglected or cast aside for the more intense spices, but that's often because herbs are not as easily understood or easy to work with. Like a new puppy, herbs require a lot of care and attention to behave the way we want them to.

What are Herbs?

In order to truly understand how to use herbs, you must first know what exactly herbs are. What's the difference between herbs and spices? Dictionary definitions may be too broad to be perfectly understandable.

Herb (n.) - a plant or a part of a plant that is used as medicine or to give flavor to food; a seed-producing annual, biennial, or perennial that does not develop persistent woody tissue but dies down at the end of a growing season.

This is specifically referring to the soft stems and leaves of a plant that are used for flavoring food. They can be either fresh or dried, whole or ground.

Spice (n.) - a substance (such as pepper or nutmeg) that is used in cooking to add flavor to food and that comes from a dried plant and is usually a powder or seed.

Spices are more specifically the seeds, roots, and bark of a plant either in whole or ground form.

This difference isn't hugely pronounced, but it is enough to make a classification between what part of a plant we call a spice and what part of a plant we call an herb. There are some plants that produce both an herb and a spice, like Coriandrum sativum that produces both the spice coriander and the herb cilantro, while other plants only produce either, not both.

Some of the most popular herbs to cook with include basil, parsley, marjoram, oregano, thyme, bay leaves, and rosemary. They are either used by themselves or with other herbs that are complementary to their flavor- creating herb pairings or groups that perfectly flavor a dish. Some of the most popular herb-based blends are Italian Seasoning and Herbs de Provence.

How Do I Store Herbs Properly?

Dried herbs should be stored in a cool, dry place that is away from all sources of light. Moisture, heat, and direct light can ruin the integrity and flavor of the spices by evaporating the essential oils off the spices. Store the spices somewhere that they won't accidentally encounter heat as well. Many well-meaning home cooks store their herbs and spices right above their stove- forgetting that heat rises, and their spices are directly in the path of danger! Store your spices on the opposite side of the kitchen if possible and remember to deposit the amount of herbs you want to use into your palm and drop them into the pot. Don't shake the herbs out directly over the hot stove. The same principle applies; heat will rise and harm the herbs. even in those few seconds that they are suspended above the stove.

What is the Shelf Life of my Dried Herbs?

Technically, herbs don't really "expire" in the way that milk would. However, they will lose flavor over time. When stored properly, dried herbs can last for a year. However, you should always look for discoloration and smell for a strong scent. A lack of color and a lack of an aroma are both signs that your herbs have already lived their best lives and may not be able to be revived. You can also pinch your herbs. If they are exceptionally brittle, they have probably lost their oils entirely, or what would give them flavor.

If you think the herbs have some life in them still, crush them between your hands- rubbing vigorously as if you were trying to warm your hands up, and smell the herbs. If there is a renewed fragrance, you can use the herbs in your cooking with some flavor added. If there's nothing, your herbs are best off in the garbage, unfortunately. Buy your herbs in small quantities based on how much and how frequently you use herbs in your cooking and keep an eye on them, checking on their quality frequently.

Cooking with Dried Herbs

Using dried herbs in your cooking will give you very similar results to using fresh herbs if you are careful to pay attention to how much you are adding. Use one half the amount of dried herbs that the recipe calls for in fresh. So, if it requires a tablespoon of fresh rosemary, use half a tablespoon of dried rosemary. Add more as needed, or until you've reached the desired level of herby flavor. The trick mentioned before where you crush the herbs in your palms can be used on fresher herbs, too! You can, and should, easily crush the herbs in your hands to release more flavor before they are added to your dish.

Should You Rehydrate Your Dried Herbs?

It depends on what you are going to be using the dried herbs for. Since dried herbs are essentially just herbs with the water removed, rehydrating them will give them a little more mass. So, if you are planning on adding the herbs to a dish after it has been plated, you may want to rehydrate them first. How exactly do you rehydrate herbs? Put the amount you want to use in a small dish, cover them with water, wait about ten minutes, and finally drain the excess water. What's left behind are rehydrated herbs. If you are adding the herbs to a soup, stew, or sauce, you can generally leave out the steps needed for the herbs to be rehydrated.

Dried herbs in general tend to work better in dishes where they must be incorporated into the recipe instead of being rehydrated outside of the recipe. Herbs with a strong flavor such as thyme, rosemary, mint, parsley and oregano can be added at the beginning of cooking a dish, as they will take some time for the flavors to fully develop. Lighter, more delicate herbs such as basil and marjoram should be added closer to the end of cooking. Their sweet, light flavors may turn sour if cooked for too long or end up burning. Worse still, they may lose all their flavor entirely. There are even a few herbs, including marjoram and oregano that work better in dishes if they are dried, as opposed to fresh, because their essential oils are released more readily in their dried form than in their fresh form. However when cooking in a crock pot, add your herbs toward the end! No herb will survive an 8-hour low and slow cook in a crock pot without losing all its flavor.

When Should I Add Dried Herbs?

It depends on the recipe you are making! In general, you should add the herbs towards the middle or closer to the end of the cooking process. Herbs lose flavor quickly, so if they are left in the heat of the cooking process for too long their flavor will be completely cooked away, meaning you will have to add more later! In dishes that take a long time to cook, like chili, you will want to add your herbs very close to the end so they have time to incorporate but don't have the time to lose all their flavor. This is essential for a flavorful, herbaceous dish. This is not to say you should add dried herbs after the cooking process is finished! If you do that, you won't have any herb flavor at all and they will be more likely to remain dry. The herbs do need time to cook to release their flavor and get a little softer, but it is all about practice and understanding your herbs. Remember that if your herbs have no scent or color, they probably won't add anything to your dish anyway. Use fragrant dried herbs, add them early enough that they can impart their flavor into the dish, and taste as you cook.

Dried herbs are extremely convenient and should be a staple in your spice cabinet. Fresh herbs are nice to use when they are available, but don't underestimate the flavors of your dried herbs, especially in dishes that will take a while to cook.

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