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By: Rebecca Reis, The Villages Grown | Jun 15, 2024

Herbs vs. Spices – What’s the Difference?

Adding freshly chopped herbs or toasted spices to a meal, always livens up a dish.  Herbs and spices are two fundamental players in any culinary toolbox, adding flavor and aromas.  While often used interchangeably, herbs and spices possess distinct characteristics, origins and roles in cooking.  Understanding these differences provides an appreciation of their unique attributes and increases culinary craftmanship.  

There is a common purpose or mission for herbs and spices, which is to elevate a dish to a new level.  Their paths diverge regarding botanical classification, their flavor profiles and culinary applications.   

Herbs are typically originated from the leafy green parts of plants.  Herbs encompass a wide variety of species which include basil, parsley, dill, cilantro, rosemary, sage, and thyme to name a few.  These aromatic botanicals thrive in more temperate climates and are grown for their culinary, medicinal and aromatic properties.  Each has their own nutritional value, and are prized for their fresh, verdant flavors.  

Spices on the other hand emerge from various plant components beyond the leaf.   Some may derive from a seed such as cumin, coriander, and mustard; bark like cinnamon; roots including ginger and turmeric; fruits such as pepper corns; or flower buds like clove.  Spices are from diverse regions globally, reflecting rich cuisines.  Spices offer intense, complex flavors and add complexity to culinary creations.   

Herbs offer fresh, grassy, citrusy and sometimes floral notes.  They are prized for their versatility, lending themselves to a plethora of culinary applications.  Herbs can be incorporate as fresh or dried, and can elevate salads, soups, sauces and marinades.  From garnishing to seasoning, herbs offer a delightful burst of flavor that enlivens every dish.  For example, a sweet Genovese style basil can infuse a pasta sauce or caprese salad with a sweetness, while Thai basil offers an anise flavor profile often used in Asian cuisine.  Sage, Rosemary and Thyme enhance roasted meats.   

Spices on the other hand wield their transformative powers in more concentrated doses, infusing dishes with depth, warmth, and complexity.  Ground spices are key to seasoning rubs, marinades and spice blends that enhance meat, seafood, and vegetables.  Whole spices, when toasted and ground release a blend of aromas that elevate curries, stews and braises to another level. Spices have the power to transport foodies to distant lands and enlist memories of culinary adventures.  

While individual herbs and spices possess their own unique traits, the magic unfolds when they are combined.  Culinary traditions from around the world celebrate the art of blending herbs and spices to create tantalizing flavor profiles. Whether it’s the aromatic bouquet of Herbs de Provence in French cuisine, a blend of fennel, marjoram, rosemary, tarragon and thyme or garam masala in Indian fare, a blend of cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, coriander, nutmeg, bay leaf, mace and black pepper, these harmonious blends showcase the synergy of herbs and spices.  

Not only do herbs provide enhanced flavor but they also provide essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals.  Research suggests that vitamins found in chives, like Vitamin K and folate offer health benefit including improved bone health and provide support for conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.  One cup of fresh dill offers 8% of the daily value of Vitamin C, 5% of the daily value of Manganese, and 3% of the daily value of folate and iron.  Parsley is rich in antioxidants and vitamins A, K and C and help support steady blood sugar levels, cardiovascular health, and skeletal health.  

Spices also offer nutritional benefits.  Turmeric for example provides curry with its beautiful yellow color, but it also contains compounds with medicinal properties including curcumin which is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.  Ginger is another spice that offers nausea relief and has anti-inflammatory properties.  Lastly, according to the NIH cinnamon offers antioxidant, antidiabetic, anti-inflammatory, lipid-lowering and cardiovascular-disease   lowering compounds.  Further, cinnamon has also been reported to have activities against neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.   

While herbs and spices may share a goal of enriching a culinary experience, their unique characteristics, origins, roles and health benefits set them apart.  From the verdant freshness of herbs to the exotic allure of spices, each imparts its own unique stamp on dishes as well as your health.  So next time you embark on a culinary adventure, remember to savor the essence of herbs and spices.  

To improve upon your culinary prowess and learn more about using spices and herbs check out The Villages Show Kitchen classes available at Sawgrass Grove.  Learning about the health benefits of herbs is available monthly through Shop with a Nutritionist at The Villages Grown at Sawgrass Grove, and to learn more about how The Villages Grown grows its 11 culinary herbs check out its weekly tours by visiting The Villages Entertainment box office or website.