Health Matters: Cooking with herbs and spices
By Kiersten Ahlm
Using herbs and spices in your cooking is a great way to add some flavor and switch things up a bit. They are also packed with antioxidants, are anti-inflammatory and have been shown to lower bad cholesterol and blood sugar. I think a lot of people get a little overwhelmed (I’m speaking from experience) at the thought of adding both to their culinary repertoire, so I’ve put together some basic guidelines for you for cooking and storing both.
All about herbs
I use fresh herbs and dried herbs, depending on what type of recipe I am making. Fresh herbs are my preference for salads and other cold dishes, while dried herbs go great in soups and stews. In the summertime, I grow my own — this reduces waste and is also super convenient. Here are some tips for adding herbs to your kitchen.
Wash all fresh herbs and allow them to completely dry. Getting bacteria and debris off will help prolong their life.
Fresh herbs are best stored in the fridge, in a glass jar or quart container with about an inch of water at the bottom. This keeps them fresh for several weeks, which is great because sometimes it’s hard to use them all in a week’s time.
Hardy herbs like rosemary and thyme are easy to freeze. You can portion them out, wrap each portion in a paper towel, stick in a freezer bag and label. Rosemary is even a little easier to chop when frozen.
Dried herbs are best stored in tins or glass containers, in a cool, dry location, out of direct sunlight. Never store above your stove — the heat will make them lose their flavor more quickly.
It’s best to add most dried herbs at the beginning of cooking, unless you are using more delicate herbs like dill, parsley and basil — they do best when added towards the end.
Add fresh herbs right at the end of cooking.
Need to substitute dried herbs for fresh or vice versa? A good rule of thumb is one tablespoon of fresh herbs equals one teaspoon of dried herbs.
You can easily remove the leaves from herbs with woody stems, such as those of thyme and rosemary, by running your fingers along the sprig in the opposite direction of the leaves.
Invest in a pair of herb scissors — they make cutting them so much easier and they also prevent the bruising that using a knife can cause.
Spice it up
I feel like cooking with spices is underrated. They are such a great way to add flavor and are a great alternative to using too much salt. I love looking to international cuisines for flavor combinations. I especially enjoy the warming spices like cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg that are used in a lot of Northern African, Indian and Middle Eastern dishes.
Storing spices is simple. Just like dried herbs, they should be kept in a cool, dry area, away from sunlight.
Whole spices retain their flavor longer. Think cardamom pods, cumin seeds and mustard seeds. I have a spice grinder I use for whole spices, but mortar and pestles are great, as are coffee grinders (you’ll need one that’s dedicated to spices).
I save empty spice bottles to store batches of spice blends that I use in a few of my go-to weeknight recipes. You can also use them if you buy your spices from the bulk section — which can be a money saver.
Blooming — or toasting — your whole or ground spices in a teeny bit of oil brings out their flavor. I do this when I make curries — it makes a huge difference! When using whole spices, make sure you let them cool a little before you grind them.
Simple ways to add herbs and spices to your cooking
We all have different taste preferences, so rather than listing some must-have herbs and spices, I thought I would give you guidelines on how you can incorporate them both so that you can choose your own adventures.
Dry rubs. I rely heavily on dry rubs for easy weeknight meals, and as I mentioned above, I will make big batches of rubs to have on hand so I can skip that step. But you can use both dried herbs and spices in your dry rubs.
Pestos. Pesto doesn’t necessarily have to be made with basil — switch it up with other tender herbs like chives, parsley or dill.
Salads. Using fresh herbs in a salad is so refreshing and it makes me feel fancy!
Salad dressings. My favorite herbs to use are chives and dill, but basil and parsley are also winners.
Dips. Hummus, bean dips, yogurt dips — all go great with herbs and spices. I love a white bean dip with rosemary or adding parsley to my hummus. Yogurt dips are so great because yogurt is kind of a blank canvas —- you could go the fresh herb route or the curry route — both are delicious. If you are avoiding dairy, there are some great plant-based yogurts on the market.
Incorporating herbs and spices to your cooking can really add new life to it. When you also consider their health benefits, I can’t really think of any reason not to use them!
Kiersten Ahlm is an integrative nutrition coach who specializes in blood sugar balance. To find out more about her services, check out her website at www.kahlmcoaching.com.