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Cooking With Herbs and Spices
More Flavor, Better Health

by Marie Spano, MS, RD

To make fresh herbs last up to one week, trim the stems and place the herbs in a jar or vase with water in it, then loosely cover the leaves with a plastic bag and store the jar in the refrigerator. Change the water daily.

Fresh herbs that will not be used within a few days can also be rinsed, dried, chopped (or left whole), and frozen in plastic bags for later use. Fresh herbs can also be dried for later use. A simple drying method is to hang small bunches of fresh herbs in a dry, well-ventilated area out of direct sunlight. Use cotton string or small rubber bands to hold the bunches together. Herbs should dry in 10–14 days using this method; they are done when a leaf rubbed between your fingers crumbles easily. The dried herbs should be stored in tightly closed glass jars in a cool, dark place.

Another way of drying fresh herbs is in the microwave oven. Place two layers of paper towel on the bottom of the microwave, add a layer of herbs, and cover with two more layers of paper towel. Run the microwave on high for two minutes, then check the herbs for dryness. If they are still moist, move the herbs around, run the microwave for another 30–60 seconds, and check again. Repeat until the herbs are dry.

Some stores now sell chopped fresh herbs in convenient, squeezable tubes. (Gourmet Garden is the main brand that is sold widely.) These should be located in the same section of your grocery store as conventional fresh herbs. Squeezable herbs contain some ingredients besides herbs, so read the label to make sure a product is acceptable to you. Squeezable herbs last for three months in the refrigerator or six months in the freezer.

Dried herbs are widely available in grocery stores. The shelf life of dried herbs depends on the herb and how it is stored, but generally, if a small amount of dried herb crumbled in the palm of your hand has very little odor, it will have very little taste and should be replaced.

Spices retain their flavor for longer than dried herbs, and whole spices have a longer shelf life than ground spices. To test the potency of a ground spice, shake the jar, let the contents settle, then give it a sniff. Spices with no aroma should be replaced; if there is some aroma but it’s not as strong as you think it should be, try using a little more of the spice than the recipe calls for.

The flavor of whole spice seeds is intensified if they are toasted first in a dry skillet over medium heat. Toast just until you can smell the seeds, being careful not to burn them. Use toasted seeds whole, or grind them in a spice mill or coffee grinder.

Fresh ginger, garlic, and hot peppers
Ginger, garlic, and hot peppers are versatile ingredients that can easily be used fresh on a regular basis. While often referred to as gingerroot, ginger is, in fact, the rhizome of its plant. Fresh ginger adds a spicy, slightly hot taste to a variety of dishes. It is widely used in Asian cuisines, and it is a popular flavoring for stir-fries. Fresh ginger should be off-white or buff-colored, have a smooth skin, and feel heavy and firm to the touch. To cook, first peel off the thin outer skin, then slice, mince, or grate the ginger as called for by the recipe. To store fresh ginger, place it in a plastic bag with a paper towel (to absorb any moisture) and refrigerate.

Garlic is neither an herb nor a spice, but it is used much like one for flavoring foods. Fresh garlic can enliven almost any dish. It has a sharp, sometimes overpowering flavor when used raw, but a more delicate flavor when cooked. A head of garlic should feel firm and exhibit no sprouting; if not used right away, it should be stored in a cool, dark, dry place. Cloves of garlic must be peeled before most uses; they are easier to peel if they are first crushed slightly with the side of a knife. Garlic can be minced with a knife or crushed in a garlic press or with a mortar and pestle for use in recipes. Whole cloves or even entire heads of garlic can be roasted in the oven, either unpeeled and coated lightly with oil or peeled and in the juices of meat or poultry being cooked (with vegetables, if desired). The garlic can then simply be served whole or puréed and mixed into a sauce for the meat. To add a light garlic flavor to sautéed spinach or other vegetables, spear a lightly crushed, peeled clove of garlic with a fork and rub it in the heated oil to be used for sautéing.

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