Choose fragrant, fresh-looking herbs with no wilted, yellowing leaves or brown spots. Store loosely wrapped in a damp paper towel and then in plastic, in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. Most fresh herbs will last only a few days. Basil and mint do best standing upright in a jar of water in the fridge, loosely covered with a paper towel and then plastic.
Chop fresh herbs and crush the seeds just before using. Add herbs to cooked dishes during the last 30 minutes of cooking time or they will lose their pungency. Add herbs to uncooked dishes at least 1 hour before serving so that their flavours have time to marry with other ingredients.
Spices are sold dried; you can grind them yourself for the freshest taste or buy them ready-ground, in which case replenish your stocks regularly.
Herbs and spices
Allspice tastes like a mix of ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper.
Anise has a strong licorice flavour that works well in cakes and biscuits.
Basil has a warm, aniseed flavour. It is a major ingredient in pesto and also boosts the flavour of tomato based dishes.
Bay leaf, with its woodsy flavour, is a staple in meat dishes and stews. Add the dry leaf at the start of cooking; remove just before serving.
Black peppercorns are sharp and aromatic. Grind black pepper as needed.
Caraway seeds impart an aromatic, aniseed flavour to breads and cakes and cheese, vegetable and meat dishes. The seeds have a nutty texture.
Cardamom is a relative of ginger. One of the main ingredients in curry powder, it is used in cakes, ice-cream and mulled wine. Lightly crush whole pods to flavour slow-cooked dishes, as well as milk to be used in sauces.
Cayenne, ground from dried red chillies and their seeds, adds a hot, peppery taste to sauces and stews. It is widely used in Mexican dishes.
Celery seeds may be tiny but they pack a punch, adding a strong celery flavour to sauces, dips and soups.
Chervil tastes of aniseed and parsley. It enhances chicken, egg, prawn, potato and salad dishes.
Chilli powder varies in its degree of heat depending on what type of chilli it is made from. Taste a tiny bit before using to gauge how much to use.
Chives add a sweet onion flavour to dips, salads and sauces. They’re easy to grow yourself in a pot or they can be bought fresh, frozen or freeze-dried.
Cinnamon in stick form can be used to flavour milk for sauce and custard recipes.
Ground cinnamon is a popular flavouring in desserts and baking. It is also used in Moroccan and Greek cuisines. It is mixed with sugar to make cinnamon toast.
Cloves have a very intense, musky taste that mellows during cooking. They can be used to stud hams before baking and to spike apples for cider punch or for pies. Use ground cloves in biscuits, cakes and sauces.
Coriander is a herb (fresh green leaves) and a spice (seeds). In either form, it has a pungent taste that is popular in Mexican cooking, recipes from the American southwest and Asian cuisines. Seeds are lemony; they are included in most curry powders and spice mixes.