If you do any cooking at all, you are going to want to have some herbs and spices on hand. Even Colonel Sanders had his special blend of herbs and spices, and look what that did for him! These little gems are pretty important to almost every dish you can make, but it can be confusing for beginning cooks or those with limited space to know which to have on hand. The herbs and spices you want to keep in your kitchen depends on the kinds of foods you like to cook. If you’re like me, and cook a bit of everything, then you may think you’ll need to keep a lot of things around you, but since so many herbs are multi-taskers, I think you’ll find that you don’t need a lot of little jars to make a big impact.
Another question is: fresh or dried? Again, this depends on your cooking style. I mostly opt for dried, just because there is a longer shelf life. However, for some foods, I will pick up fresh herbs, especially if it’s the first time I’ve made a recipe and it specifically calls for fresh. Just remember that dried herbs are more potent than fresh. If you’re going to substitute, a good rule of thumb is to sub 1 teaspoon of dried for every tablespoon of fresh the recipe calls for. And sometimes – like when making a cheeseball or a salad – you’ll just want to use fresh no matter what. Also, dried herbs do lose their potency over time! If it’s six months old, throw it out and replace it.
Before we talk specifics, there are a few staples that you’re going to want to keep around no matter what. With these, you can season just about anything successfully. The staples are: salt, pepper, thyme, and parsley. These four things go with everything. Now, keep in mind that better quality is going to get you better results, and there are fun subcategories to explore (such as kosher or seasoned salt, and a range of peppercorns), but in general, I would keep both kosher and iodized (or table) salt on hand, and both whole peppercorns (in a grinder) and the stuff that comes in a can. The thyme and parsley I keep on hand in their dry forms, and I will occasionally bring in fresh of each, depending on what I’m making (potato skins are another thing that need fresh).
OK, so now you’ve got your four staples, but you’re interested in expanding out and trying new things. Here’s a list of meats (or flavors), and some of the herbs and spices that complement them. This is not an exhaustive list, but it will get you going. Also, just assume that each list also includes thyme and parsley, because, as I said, they go with everything:
- Beef: marjoram (not margarine, even though they sound alike), chives, rosemary, ground mustard, ginger
- Mutton: mint, dill, rosemary
- Pork: rosemary, pineapple sage, savory
- Poultry: tarragon, sage, paprika, ground mustard, lovage*
- Fish: fennel, dill, savory, lemon balm, ginger
- Non-fish seafood (like lobster): dill, tarragon, basil, lemon balm, lovage
- Eggs: chervil, basil, chives, tarragon
- Salad: savory, marjoram, basil, ginger
*It may be hard to find lovage, as it is not a commonly used herb, at least in the USA.
When seasoning, remember that more is not always better. Don’t pile all your herbs on at once – add one at a time, and see how you like it. You may find that you like a dish better when it contains only one or two herbs or spices as opposed to four or five. The purpose of herbs is not to overwhelm the taste of the main ingredient, but rather to provide a subtle change in flavor.