To spice up your food without compromising taste, learn when to add spices and when to use seasonings.
Many home cooks use the terms “spice” and “seasoning” interchangeably. These terms, however, refer to two different things when it comes to enhancing the flavor of a dish.
So, to help you take your cooking to new heights, let’s spend some time sifting through the difference between them.
A spice is an aromatic substance derived from the root, bark, seed, leaves, or fruit of a plant, and it’s meant to enhance the flavor of food. A seasoning is any blend of salts, sugars, and spices used for the same purpose, and it consists of multiple ingredients.
Another distinction to make is that spices are dry, whereas seasonings can be both dry or wet (i.e., one can use a dry rub or a wet rub for steak, each yielding an outcome with a distinct flavor and texture).
When to use each:
- Use spices when you want to add a clean, specific sensation to your dishes, such as the heat from black pepper in Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe or the earthy sweetness of cinnamon in Cinnamon Pie;
- Use seasonings when you want to add a rich, complex flavor to your dishes, such as Italian seasoning to pasta sauce or Cajun dry rub for chicken wings.
What is a Spice?
The United States Forest Service defines a “spice” as a substance derived from a plant that is meant to add flavor to food. The distinction between spices and herbs is somewhat vaguely defined, though herbs tend to come from non-woody plants.
Spices derived from seeds include black and white pepper, cumin, dill, mustard, nutmeg, and vanilla. Spices derived from other parts of a plant include dried basil, oregano, ginger, mint, saffron, turmeric, and wasabi.
For the curious: Wasabi, also known as “Japanese horseradish,” comes from the spicy stem of the Wasabia Japonica plant. That plant belongs to the so-called Brassicaceae family, which also includes mustard plants—explaining the similarities in taste between wasabi and mustard.
Spices should be added to salad dressings and cold sauces 1-2 hours before serving. The dressing or sauce should then be covered tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerated, allowing the aromas and flavors to meld together.
When preparing soups, stews, gravies, and sauces, add dried spices mid-cooking, letting them simmer in the liquid over low to medium heat. Fresh herbs, including freshly-cracked pepper, should be added 2-3 minutes before the end of the cooking process so to retain their flavor.
What is a Seasoning?
A “seasoning” is any blend of salts, sugars, spices, and herbs used to enhance a dish’s flavor.
Seasonings can be dry or wet, and they can also include oil, honey, citrus juice, and vinegar. Salt is particularly important as it was used to preserve meat in the era before refrigeration.
Rubs for meat, whether dry or wet, should be applied to the meat at least an hour before cooking. During that time, the meat must be covered and kept in the fridge, as raw meat should never be left to sit out at room temperature.
Seasonings should be added to soups, stews, and sauces before or during cooking. Many choose to do so halfway in—after they’ve reduced the heat to medium or low—so that the aromas and flavors have the chance to incorporate over a gentle cooking temperature.
A Brief History of Spices
According to the McCormick Science Institute, early humans discovered that spices enhanced the flavor of meat about the time they started roasting it over an open fire.
They would wrap their meat in leaves before throwing it over the fire to cook. Thus, they discovered how spices worked.
Spices have been a feature of both the culinary culture and medicine of every ancient civilization.
The Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, the Indians, the Chinese, the ancient Native Americans, the Greeks, and the Romans all employed spices to enhance the flavor of their food.
The spice trade played an important part in world history. Ancient Roman mariners plied the seas between Egypt and India, bringing back spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and pepper for the tables of wealthy patricians.
During medieval times, the spice trade was controlled by Muslim merchants, who served as middlemen between India and China and Christian Europe.
The voyages of discovery by such explorers as Vasco da Gama and Columbus were attempts to find a route around Muslim lands, cutting out the middlemen. Famously, Columbus did not find a route to the East but instead discovered a new world and hence a new source of spices.
In ancient and medieval times, the spice trade created commerce in what amounted to a luxury good. Only the rich could afford spices, which took months to bring onboard ships or overland by caravan.
However, with a worldwide supply chain in which a spice can go from field to supermarket within days, everyone can now enhance their meals, where before only princes and the fabulously wealthy could.
Growing Your Own Spices
Supermarkets are filled with all sorts of spices. You can also go to a specialty spice store of the kind that exists in every large city to acquire just about any spice grown around the world.
However, spices you can get at the store are not fresh—and thus do not impart the rich, saturated flavor as they otherwise would have had the cook grown them themselves. Armed with that knowledge, it gets easy to understand why many choose to grow their own spices.
HGTV has some helpful hints for creating an outdoor herb garden.
Generally, you should pick a location near your kitchen that gets about six hours of sun a day, with loose soil (add compost as needed) and use bedding plants instead of seeds.
Plant the bedding plants about 18 inches apart to ensure room for growth. Make sure your herb garden gets an inch of water per week. Be sure to label your plants.
When you harvest your herbs and spices, do so early in the morning and take just enough for the day’s meals. The idea is to keep the plants alive and use them as a renewable resource for spices.
Some people like to grow their spices indoors. A planter that fits in the windowsill so that it catches the incoming light should do quite nicely.
Some will also use a home hydroponic garden, such as Aerogarden, to grow their spices. A home hydroponic garden allows for precise control of nutrients and light to create large, robust plants.
Some of the best herbs and spices that can be homegrown include basil, sage, rosemary, thyme, chives, oregano, and cilantro.
Peppers in Space
Space.com reports that the crew of the International Space Station recently grew chili peppers and then harvested them to make homemade tacos.
The experiment proved that the peppers, along with other food plants, could be grown in microgravity. Future astronauts on long-duration space voyages and settlers of the moon and Mars will be able to grow their own food, including herbs and spices.
Making Your Dishes Rich in Flavor
How you season a dish depends a lot on the dish and your approach to cooking. Some grill masters will only use salt and pepper to flavor a steak, the idea being that the meat itself suffices for good taste. Others will use garlic powder and onion powder to give the steak some extra bite. Melted better after the steak is done adds fat to the dish, which also enhances its flavor.
Herbs and spices are essential for soups and sauces. Every recipe has instructions on what to use and when to add it to the soup or sauce.
A good Italian-American pasta sauce, for example, will use a lot of Italian spices such as basil and oregano. Homemade BBQ sauce often includes brown sugar to provide an extra element of sweetness.
One trick for roast poultry involves using garlic cloves inserted in slits cut into the skin. You can also add onions and garlic stuffed into the bird’s cavity. Other spices can be rubbed all over the chicken, duck, or turkey to provide a flavorful crust once it is done roasting.
A marinade consists of seasonings in which meat is soaked before cooking. A good wet rub would consist of oil, vinegar, and spices (some cheat and just use a bottle of Italian salad dressing.)
A dry rub consists of just spices and herbs without the liquid. The exact contents vary with the cuisine and the rub’s purpose, and every cook has their favorites.
An article in Instructables has a detailed examination of the use of spices and herbs in cooking, including some of the more temperamental qualities of certain spices.
Remember, humans have been seasoning their food since Neolithic times. How one uses spices and seasonings is limited only by the imagination.