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The Basics: Cooking 101

Fresh and dried herbs and spices can help transform your main ingredient into a dish with an added kick. You (and your guests) definitely know when a dish is lacking flavor or even when it’s too spicy, salty, sweet, etc. When you know the basics of how to prepare and cook meals paired with the right amount and types of herbs and spices, you’ll be able to make even simple dishes sizzle.

Woman cooking with spices

Spices have been mysterious to people almost since time began. They’ve been used as currency throughout history and used as the reason adventurers sought out unexplored territories.

Spices can still be mysterious if you don’t know how to properly cook with them. Herbs, which you can pick up at the grocery store (or try growing at home) fresh or dried, can be equally as puzzling for someone new to cooking.

Once you’ve learned the fundamentals about herbs, however, you can experiment and develop your own method for how to use them with a variety of foods. Read on to discover the basics of using herbs and spices to enhance your meals.

Don’t curb the herbs

Fresh basil

Chances are, if you’ve eaten pizza, basil has passed over your lips. It’s most often paired with Italian and other Mediterranean foods because it’s a great herb to use with tomato dishes and salads like the Caprese. Try this mini version of a Caprese salad.

Basil is also the key ingredient in pesto sauce. Substitute pesto sauce for red sauce and serve over pasta or pizza. Pesto is also great as a dip with crunchy bread or veggies or drizzled over grilled chicken.

Basil is an easy herb to grow on your own, either outside or indoors on your windowsill and combines well with other herbs.

Fresh rosemary

Great with lamb, fish, chicken and beef, rosemary is a powerful herb that grows as a bush with tough, spiky leaves. Rosemary is one of those herbs that can impart its sturdy flavor whether it’s fresh or dried. Try it in bread recipes like rosemary olive oil bread.

The strong scent of rosemary may smell familiar to you even if you haven’t cooked with it. The reason? It’s often used as a fragrance for perfumes and lotions.

Fresh cilantro

Cilantro looks a lot like parsley, but don’t even think about substituting one for the other. Cilantro is used most often in Mexican and Asian dishes (try this recipe for Chinese noodles in peanut sauce). It has a zesty taste and super-fragrant smell.

Another tasty tip for using cilantro is to add it to dressings or dips like guacamole to bring out the flavor in something that might otherwise be a bit simple. It’s available fresh or dried, and its seeds (coriander) are available in stores either whole or ground. They are mild-flavored and used in many curry sauces.

Tip: Start out using cilantro with the less-is-more mentality until you get a grasp of the power of its flavor. Also, add it to your dish at the end of its cooking time, right before you turn off the heat. This will help preserve its flavor since it doesn’t hold up well in high temperatures.

Dried oregano

Popular in Italian, Greek and Mexican dishes (try one of these taco recipes), oregano is more often used dried rather than fresh. It’s great in pasta sauces and soups or stews, but take care when you first start experimenting with it, as adding too much to a dish can create a bitter flavor in your food.

A little spice goes a long way

Chili powder

Whether you’re looking for a rub for meats, something special for snacks (try chili spiced pecans) or to add some kick to a stew like bean and bulgur chili, go ahead and reach for the chili powder. Take note that “chile” powder and “chili” powder are different. Chile powder is basically dried and ground chile peppers while chili powder is typically a combination of ground, dried chilies, along with other flavors like oregano, cumin, garlic and salt.

Curry powder

What you get from a small bottle of curry powder is similar to what you’d need to help you make an Indian-inspired dish. Curry powder is used in soups like curry tomato soup, stews, marinades and sometimes salads, but authentic Indian cuisine uses curry powder that is freshly ground every day. It has about 20 different herbs, spices and seeds included in it like cardamom, coriander and turmeric (which gives it the yellow color). What we get from the grocery store can be a tasty substitute for the real deal.


Well known and loved as an ingredient in cookies, teas and soda, ginger is fragrant and has a fresh taste to it. Don’t limit yourself to cookies and cakes when using ginger — it has many more uses in the kitchen.

Common in Asian and Indian foods, ginger can be found dried or fresh in the grocery store. Fresh ginger is either grated or minced from its root and used in dishes like bok choy with garlic and ginger. Try using fresh ginger in a glaze for meats and fish or dried for a special dessert like miniature gingerbread trifles.

No matter how you approach herbs and spices with your cooking, don’t be afraid to experiment. Even if you need to try a dish twice to perfect it, adding herbs and spices to your cooking will definitely get your meals noticed — in the best way possible!

For more ways to cook with herbs and spices, try these recipes:

  • Penne with pesto alla Trapanese
  • Lazy-day-lasagna
  • Honey and rosemary roast chicken
  • Chili carrots
  • Couscous with Greek yogurt curry
  • Ginger sesame broccoli rabe

More cooking tips

Cooking with tea
Easy dinners for women who don’t cook
5 Cooking shortcuts to save you time in the kitchen

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