Nutrition 101

All About Herbs and Spices!

What is the difference between an herb and a spice?

  • Herbs are the green, leafy parts of plants, mostly grown in temperate to hot regions of the world. They are most flavorsome when used fresh.
  • Spices are derived from any part of a plant that is not a leaf: for example, cloves are flower buds, cinnamon is bark, ginger is a root, peppercorns are berries, cumin is a fruit, saffron is stigmas, cardamom is pods and seeds. Spices are usually used in small amounts, are best used dry, and can be found whole (like peppercorns) or ground. Most spices are grown in subtropical or tropical climates. Spices tend to be more varied in flavor than herbs and tend to pack a bigger punch
  • A plant can be both an herb and a spice. Aromatic seeds like dill are a spice, while dill leaves are an herb. However, coriander, garlic and fennel bulbs are all regarded as herbs rather than spices.
  • Many herb and spice blends are available, from Mexican mixes to Tuscan blends. If you are concerned about salt intake, beware that some of the blends can be high in sodium. Be sure to read the nutrition fact’s label!

How should dried herbs and spices be stored?

Store dried herbs and spices away from air, heat, and sunlight to keep them at their best.

  • Heat will speed flavor loss in dried spices, while the steam from cooking can cause ground spices, blends, and herbs to cake.
  • Keep containers tightly closed to avoid moisture.
  • Use dry measuring spoons – avoid using even a slightly wet spoon!
  • No need to refrigerate dried herbs and spices – a refrigerator contains a slight humid environment which could alter the flavor of your herbs and spices
  • Storing spices in the freezer is not recommended. Storing spices in the freezer can create condensation and cause caking of the contents when they are returned to the freezer.
  • Spring clean your spice cabinet – When you open your dried herbs and spices, look for a bright, rich color and a strong aroma. Keep in mind, many whole spices (peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, etc.) have such a protective cell structure that they don’t fully reveal their fragrance until broken or crushed.

When should I toss my dried herbs and spices out?

Spices do not really spoil and will retain some degree of flavor and aroma for a few years. Whole spices stay fresh for up to 2 years while ground spices have shorter shelf life – 6 months to a year. Keep in mind that weak-scented spices will not do the job! The best way to see if your spice is ok is to compare it with a fresh jar. Always purchase in small quantities to ensure that you are using fresh spices.

What about Fresh Herbs?

Fresh herbs are aromatic and flavorful and available all year in the produce department at McCaffrey’s Markets.

  • Basil, cilantro, mint and parsley will stay fresh for several days with their stems in water like bouquets of flowers. Trim the bottom of the stems fill a jar or a water glass with an inch or two of water and place the stem ends of the herbs into the water in the jar. Change the water every day or two.
  • Basil may get damaged by the cold and is ideally stored at room temperature. Cilantro keeps best in the refrigerator. Parsley and mint can be stored in or out of the fridge. If you are storing leafy herbs in the refrigerator, cover the tops loosely with a plastic bag with some holes punched in it. The holes in the bag will allow some moisture out, because moisture trapped in a plastic bag can cause the herbs to go bad quicker.
  • Woodier herbs such as rosemary, thyme and sage should be wrapped loosely in paper towels and placed in a zip top bag in the refrigerator’s “crisper drawer.” Avoid colder spots like the rear of the lower shelf.
  • Stored properly, fresh herbs will last from a few days to more than a week. Woody herbs tend to keep longer and hold on to more flavor compared to leafy herbs.
  • To refresh wilted herbs, revitalize them by soaking the sprigs in a bowl of ice water for a few minutes. When done, thoroughly drain the water from the bowl, wrap the herbs in paper towels, and place them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. They should stay fresh for up to a few hours.
  • Consider growing an herb garden. The floral department has fresh herbs that you can plant in a garden or leave on your windowsill. Mint, rosemary, thyme and oregano are hearty and easy to grow. Just snip off the amount you need. Check out Spotlight on Taste for more fun facts and information about herbs and spices!

According to our Experts, you can substitute dried herbs for fresh herbs. Click here to find out more!