Herbs and spices can be your ultimate flavor and health ally in the kitchen. No matter what your health goals are or if you’re a devoted meal prepper, knowing how to utilize and optimize your cooking with herbs and spices will help prevent flavor burnout and expand your culinary repertoire in the process.
How to Season Like A Chef
It’s time to step away from the salt and pepper shaker and embrace the world of flavors that comes with learning how to utilize herbs and spices in your cooking and meal prep at home.
In culinary school, I was taught to ultimately rely on salt and pepper to elevate any dish, but during my years managing kitchens and developing my own culinary style, I fell in love with the many nuances of otherworldy cuisines.
Many cultures rely more on the quality of their ingredients and diversity of cooking methods, which included a heavy emphasis on herbs and spices, and less on the traditional seasonings of salt and pepper.
Each chef has a unique way they tend to season their recipes, but most will aim to find a balance between saltiness, acidity, fat, and bitterness. We do this by utilizing herbs and spices, cooking techniques, and additional seasonings such as vinegar, oils, fermented foods, and condiments!
If something tastes too acidic, you can use something 'fatty' to counteract the acidic flavor. Similar to if something is too sweet, we may use something bitter and acidic to balance it out.
Unfortunately, if you put too much salt into a recipe, it can be fairly hard to save unless it's a sauce or dressing; in this situation, chefs will often make another batch of the recipe unseasoned and blend it into the over-seasoned one! This is why we always season with salt towards the end of the cooking process and start with tiny small amounts, tasting each time we add more to make sure we get the desired flavor.
It's also another reason to rely on seasoning with fresh or dried herbs and spices first before going straight to the salt shaker!
When it comes to upgrading your seasoning skills at home, start out by choosing about 8-10 staple herbs and spices to stock your spice cabinet with. Our list below will help you pair specific herbs and spices to various recipes, ingredients, and cooking techniques.
Using more herbs and spices in your cooking is a great way to skip the salt and pack in the flavor; perfect for anyone looking for a low-sodium diet plan.
What's the Difference Between a Herb and a Spice?
There are over 100 herbs and spices known globally for their culinary use, and even more than that known for their medicinal properties dating as far back as 60,000 years ago when society relied on herbalism and plant-medicine for first-aid, not just flavor (1).
Classifying herbs and spices can be quite challenging, and can be based on their flavor, the part of the plant where they came from, their botanical classification, and even their potential medicinal applications.
- Herbs: typically refer to fresh, green, leaves of a plant.
- Spice: come from the bark, seeds, and roots of the plant and typically are sold in the dried and powdered form. They tend to have a bolder and more powerful flavor and can be used in smaller amounts.
Funnily enough, some plants produce both a spice and an herb! For example Coriandrum sativum: the dried seed (coriander) is considered a spice while the leaf of the plant (cilantro) is used as an herb.
Including a variety of spices in your meal prep will not only help you step up your chef game in the kitchen may also provide a few health benefits as well.
Do Herbs and Spices Provide Health Benefits?
Herbs and spices do provide some nutritional benefits, adding small amounts of vitamins, minerals, and other compounds your body needs to function properly such as antioxidants and phytonutrients. For example, leafy green herbs such as cilantro and parsley contain calcium, potassium, beta carotene, and vitamin A (1, 2).
Herbs and spices have been used medicinally for centuries, and modern science has confirmed that many of them provide health benefits.
Research has shown that spices and herbs possess antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antitumorigenic, and glucose- and cholesterol-lowering activities as well as properties that impact cognition and mental health (1).
Keep in mind that eliciting medicinal effects from plants typically requires consuming a specified amount for a set period of time, not just sprinkling a pinch of turmeric or adding a ‘superfood’ powder to your occasional morning smoothie.
Herbs and spices are allies to our health and wellness, including a variety in our meal prep is another way to improve our overall diet and nutritional intake.
If you’re looking to use herbs medicinally for a specific condition seek out education from a trained herbalist, registered dietitian, certified nutrition specialist, or naturopathic doctor beforehand.
20 Functional and Flavorful Herbs and Spices
When it comes to utilizing herbs and spices in the kitchen, we’ve picked the top 20 most versatile, flavorful, and functional culinary herbs and spices perfect for your meal prep.
Top 10 Fresh Culinary Herbs
When using herbs note that some fresh herbs have woody or branch-like stems vs others have tender stems. For herbs with woody stems like thyme and rosemary, you'll want to utilize only the green leafy part and disregard the stem. While herbs with tender stems such as cilantro and parsley can be used whole! In fact, often the stems of these tender, leafy herbs have a bit more flavor than the leaves.
|Herb||Flavor profile||Suggested food pairings|
|Parsley||mildly pitter, peppery, refreshing||Meat, Fish, Tofu, Citrus, eggs, lentils, rice, tomatoes, most vegetables, and fruits|
|Basil||mildly sweet, minty, spicy||Meat, Fish, Fruit (apricots, peaches, blueberries), tomatoes, rice, white beans, zucchini, cheeses|
|Oregano||bitter, earthy pungent, warming||Dark Meat, Stews, artichokes, legumes, bell peppers, cauliflower, fish, pizza, zucchini, tomatoes|
|Mint (spearmint, peppermint)||bright, citrusy, refreshing, cooling||Lamb, poultry, tofu, legumes, fruit, chocolate, eggplant, tomatoes, yogurt, carrots|
|Thyme||citrusy, earthy, minty, peppery||meat, fish, poultry, tofu, vegetables, fruit, baked goods, soups, stews, legumes|
|Rosemary||earthy, bitter, peppery, floral||dark meat, citrus, poultry, root vegetables, bread, baked goods, pasta, peas, pork, winter squash|
|Bay leaf||bright; bitter, minty, peppery||Meat, Fish, Pasta, Poultry, Vegetables, Stews|
|Tarragon||bitter, licorice-like, pepper, pungent||Fruit, Eggs, Fish, Poultry, Tofu, Legumes, cabbage, soups, stews, onions, eggplant, winter vegetables|
|Sage||citrusy, earthy, nutty, peppery piney||Game meats, poultry, root vegetables, legumes, pasta, stuffing, asparagus|
|Cilantro||citrusy, earthy, nutty||Meat, Fish, Tofu, avocado, bell pepper, coconut milk, cucumber, rice, yogurt, carrots, potatoes, root vegetables|
This list should also include citrus, although they are not herbs, citrus juice, and zest add a kick of finishing flavor, helping to brighten up everything. From a squeeze of lemon on grilled fish or using a little lime zest when preparing a chimichurri sauce, citrus is your go-to seasoning when trying to add acidity and brightness to any recipe.
Tips for Storing Fresh Herbs
Take it from a professional chef, the best way to store fresh herbs is to rinse and shake them to remove excess water, remove any wilted or brown leaves, then wrap them in a damp paper towel or washable tea towel, and snuggly tuck them into a plastic (or reusable) zipper-lock bag like a little herb burrito.
This method works well if you're going to be using the herbs for multiple meals throughout the week, as it will keep the herbs fresh and crips.
Alternatively, if you're using all of your herbs immediately within a day or two, you can simply the stems slightly, and place them (stem side down) into a jar with 1-2 inches of water. just enjoy to-cover the stems.
If you come upon a bounty of herbs that you know you won't be able to use immediately, you can also blend up the herbs with a tiny bit of olive oil and then put them in ice cube trays or freezer-friendly containers for later use.
Pro Tip: hardy herbs such as herbs with a woody stem (rosemary, thyme, oregano) can be frozen if needed, stored similarly in a ziplock bag.
10 Must-Have Dried Spices
Dried seasonings are essentially calorie-free. They are made from dried herbs and veggies, that have been ground into a shelf-stable spice, bringing you a wide range of concentrated flavors.
Use a variety of dried seasonings in your cooking process - flavoring your proteins and veggies in multiple ways - to keep things interesting. Or add them to prepped food to take the flavor up a notch, satisfy your cravings, and make your lunch feel a little less boring.
You probably have some of these in your spice cabinet already. These common pantry staples are widely used in recipes and enjoyed by most people, making them a fairly safe bet to try if you are new to the seasoning world.
|Spice||Flavor Profile||Suggested food pairings|
|Garlic Powder||bitter, slightly sweet, spicy, pungent||poultry, fish, meat, tomatoes, vegetables|
|Cumin||earthy, nutty, warming, peppery||apples, legumes, meat, poultry, eggplant, potatoes & root vegetables, sauerkraut, squash, tomatoes|
|Paprika||Mildly sweet, smokey||sauces, marinades, seasonings, meat, poultry, root vegetables, sweet potato, fish, tofu, eggs|
|Cinnamon||earthy, fruity, slightly sweet, warming||fruits (apples, almonds, apricots, bananas), poultry, pears, baked goods,|
|Nutmeg||earthy, nutty, slightly sweet, warming||cabbage, carrots, poultry, eggs, fish, lamb, onion, root vegetables, pumpkin, spinach|
|Cardamom||citrusy, slightly sweet, bitter||fruits (apples, oranges, pears), sweet potatoes & other root vegetables, yogurt, legumes|
|Turmeric||bitter, earthy, peppery, pungent, warming||legumes, eggs, fish, poultry, meat, rice, root vegetables|
|Ginger||sour, warming||fruits, baked goods, curry, poultry, meat, fish|
|Mustard powder||sweet, tangy||beef, cabbage, poultry, fish, curry, dals|
|Chile Pepper||hot, peppery, spicy||meat, poultry, eggs, vegetables and root vegetables|
What About Pre-made Herb and Spice Blends?
Let's be real, most of us are probably going to sway more towards using blends of herbs and spices to season our food vs just a single spice or herb.
It's hard to pass up pre-made sauces and store-bought taco seasonings, as they provide us a quick way to achieve cuisine-inspired homemade meals without having to mix our own spice blends or googling "how to make hot sauce".
These are our top seasoning blends to pair with Trifecta Meal Prep, which allows you to choose and portion pre-prepared proteins, healthy carbohydrates, and vegetables to fit into your specific nutrient needs.
- Taco Seasoning
- Curry Powder
- Garam Masala
- Everything Bagel Seasoning
- BBQ Rubs
How to Store Your Dried Spices
Believe it or not, dried herbs and spices do have an expiration date, but not in the sense that eating them past a certain date will cause some kind of food-borne illness but rather that they lose their pungency over time.
I'm sure that we are all guilty of purchasing a dried herb and spice and letting it get lost in the perpetual sea that is our pantry or even worse it gets shoved in that one drawer that accumulates all of the random kitchen things we probably will never use.
The main offenders that will spoil your herbs and spices are moisture, oxygen, sunlight, heat, and time. Factors that different based on if you're purchasing whole, or pre-ground herbs and spices.
- Whole dried herbs and spices: purchasing whole herbs and spices gives you a few benefits; they will stay fresh for up 2 years and you can grind them as needed. Doing so means you'll get a much stronger flavor without having to use as much!
- Ground dried Herbs and Spices: ground spices are great in a pinch, and you usually find more pre-made spice blends like the list above already pre-ground. Ground dried herbs and spices typically stay fresh for up to 6 months, if stored correctly you can extend this to almost a year. Keep in mind because they are pre-ground, they'll naturally lose their pungency over time, meaning you'll have to use a lot more to get the desired flavor.
No matter whole or ground, store your dried herbs and spices in air-tight containers in a cool, dry place, out of direct sunlight.
4 Ways to Use More Herbs and Spices
1. Utilize more marinades
A quick and simple way to incorporate more herbs and spices into your meal prep is to marinade your proteins before roasting, grilling, or sauteing them.
You can easily toss some shredded chicken or shrimp in fresh lime juice, taco seasoning, and vinegar to prepare a more flavorful taco bowl. Or alternatively add some bbq seasoning to steak or tofu before searing it on the grill!
2. Step up your sauce game
Sauces are your best friend when it comes to stepping up your meal prep game and chef skills at home. There are a ton of herb and spice based sauces from raw pestos to thai curries! Here are a few we know you'll love to try:
3. Eat them raw
A no-brainer way to enjoy more fresh herbs is to use them as a garnish or include them in salads. Parsley, basil, mint, chives, etc.; all of these leafy-green fresh herbs can be chopped up raw and tossed with a simple salad!
Or if you're preparing a vegetable stir-fry or have roasted off some vegetable for your weekly meal prep, chop up some fresh thai basil or green onion for a refreshing garnish.
4. Explore recipes from around the world
This is my favorite way to encourage others to utilize more herbs and spices at home; pick a new recipe from around the world to try each week or treat yourself to a new cookbook!
We've got some amazing recipes for you to try include:
- Vegetarian Southwestern chili
- Shrimp tacos with street corn slaw
- Chicken chilaquiles
- Shakshuka breakfast recipe
Looking to spice up your meal prep? Trifecta can provide ready-to-eat, macro-balanced meals to stock up your fridge with spices and flavors from around the world!