Food seasoning is a very personal matter. I like strong seasonings, but others find anything more than the slightest flavoring too strong, especially garlic or hot peppers. Decades of research confirm how greatly the sense of taste varies. In a recent study, some people were unable to detect a flavor constituent extracted from broccoli and related vegetables, while others found it terribly bitter This difference was demonstrated to be inherited.
Although initial sensitivity to various flavors is genetic, your taste perception will change as you continue to experiment with new foods and recipes. If youíre used to a high sugar and salt diet, it may take a while to readjust to natural foods, from a matter of weeks to a couple of months.
Seasonings can make the difference between a pedestrian dish and a wonderful one. Often, youíll want to use flavorings to complement the main ingredients and bring out their flavors, adding just enough seasonings so you barely detect them. You donít want to drowning out the main ingredientsí flavors.
On the other hand, there are times when the seasonings predominate. You should clearly taste the curry in curries and chili in chilies. Seasonings predominate in lemon rice, saffron rice, pesto (intensely garlicky) and vanilla ice cream.
What are herbs and spices? Definitions vary: to a botanist, an herb is any non-woody plant. In herbal medicine, itís a biologically active plant. To cooks, an herb may be any plant seasoning, although some people define herbs as leafy plant seasonings, distinct from spices, which include seeds, pods, roots, and barks. Others distinguish spices from herbs by their greater pungency. Choose your own definition.
The first step to learning how to use herbs is to have them on hand. Keep fresh garlic and ginger in your kitchen where they can get some ventilation. Store parsley, dill, and cilantro in the refrigerator, along with any other fresh wild (or commercial) culinary herbs in season that you can identify with certainty, plus any culinary herbs from a garden.
You can dry most fresh leafy herbs for future use in a food dehydrator, or by leaving them in a paper bag in a warm, dry, well-ventilated room for a couple of weeks. Note: Basil loses much of its flavor when you dry it, so I freeze it on a cookie sheet to keep it from freezing into a solid lump, then pack the frozen herb in a food storage container, and remove some at the last minute as needed.
Purchase as many of the other culinary herbs as possible. Store them in tightly closed airtight jars with easily visible labels. I write the herb names on masking tape with magic markers. These labels are easy to remove when the jar is empty.
You canít have too many herbs and spices. They last for years, and the worst that can happen as they age is that they become weaker, which you can mitigate by using larger quantities.
Refer to the Herb and Spice Chart for the traditional uses of herbs, plus my own suggestions. Prepare your own herb and spice mixes, such as curry and chili powders, and experiment with original combinations.
Keep the herbs handy. I arrange mine alphabetically inside kitchen cabinets (light eventually degrades dried herbs), arranged them, with leafy herbs (i.e., marjoram, rosemary, and thyme) on one set of shelves, barks, seeds and pods (i.e., cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise) on another, and combinations in a third cabinet. If your herb cabinet is deep, keep rows of smaller jars in front of the larger ones.
In India cooks place open jars of the herbs they tend to use together in covered tins. Use any scheme that increases accessibility. Being able to see the selection and smell your herbs makes it easier to choose the right ones.
When you purchase dried herbs, beware of rip-offs. Avoid supermarket herbs unless you have an appetite for irradiated food. Most commercial herbs are irradiated to "preserve" themóa great way for the nuclear industry to profit from nuclear wastes! Because of government ties to the food industry, theyíre not required to inform you on the labels. These herbs arenít radioactive, but the treatment alters their chemical composition, creating potentially-dangerous, new, unknown chemical byproducts.
Herb stores or health food stores that supply certified organic herbs in bulk (instead of pre-packaged herbs) offer the best buys. Make sure the herbsí colors correspond to that of the fresh herbs. If you dry green leaves, they usually remain green. Brown dried leaves were decaying and browning before they were dried (garbage in, garbage out). If youíre buying dried leaves, make sure that half of what youíre buying isnít dried twigs or other plant debris.
You may also purchase a great variety of wonderful extracts, which are flavors dissolved in a natural medium, vanilla extract being the most familiar. They're fun and easy to use. Avoid extracts with unhealthful artificial flavors in favor of the natural ones. One company I've found with a great selection of unadulterated extracts is Bickford Flavors, 1-800-283-8322.