There are important differences between herbs and spices and knowing the difference will really help you with your garden planning. Whether you aim to go self-sufficient or want to just add a bit of fresh flavor to your cooking it is key to know these important differences.
Spices are the bark, root, flower or seed of a plant whereas herbs are the leaves. The bark, root, seed, leaf or flower of a plant can be dried and spices are often crushed or used whole in a sachet, as are herbs. Both herbs and spices are historically used for medicinal and culinary purposes. This is why the two words seem to be interchangeable.
So now the question is, why does it matter whether we are cooking with herbs or spices? Well it changes how we grow and harvest the plant, as well as the effect of the intensity of the essential oils.
Key Differences & Similarities Between Herbs And Spices
There are more similarities between herbs and spices than you may at first think. Some differences are so subtle as to seem irrelevant. So let’s look at them in more detail.
- When we refer to a herb we are thinking of the leafy part of the plant. With a spice it tends to be the dried seed, bark, root, berries or even fruit.
- One plant can produce both a harvest of herbs as well as spices. This is how a herb like fennel can be both a spice and herb. Harvesting the leaves as a herb and the seeds as a spice.
- Flowers can be a sort of no-man’s land when it comes to herbs vs spices. Echinacea flowers are herbs that can be used in teas or tinctures whereas saffron is used as a spice.
- Both herbs and spices can be fresh or dried. Thinking about ratios and how to make those conversions in recipes can be all important as the drying process often intensities the flavor profile.
- Surprisingly both herbs and spices contain high levels of essential oils which will contain intrinsic health benefits.
- Both herbs and spices can be used in medicinal and culinary recipes.
- I am always surprised with the high concentration levels of essential vitamins and minerals in both herbs and spices.
- Both herbs and spices can contain antibacterial properties and healing qualities attached to that.
We can see from the above image that herbs and spices can be almost interchangeable. Many people believe that the seeds or roots contain a more intense flavor and this certainly seems true when we dry herbs.
To get the most from the flavors we need to harvest our spices at the correct times of year. Rhizomes and roots will do best once the foliage has died back and the nutrients can be focused to them. Often this is in Fall and before the first frosts.
Spices can be prepared in slightly different ways to herbs but are just as useful in different mixes. They should be forming part of your kitchen essentials and have so much to offer you in the culinary department.
Can Plants Be An Herb And A Spice
Yes that is 100% the case. If you look at the herb fennel as a great example. We harvest the fennel leaves throughout the year for fresh herbal teas, but wait until it is mature to take the seed heads. So the fennel leaves are the herb and the seeds are spices. Further to this we can use the leaves in a similar way to the stem, using it to flavor stews or hotpots. A fennel gratin recipe could use both the leaves and the bulbs.
Another great example of a plant that is both used for it’s leaves and it’s seeds would be cilantro/coriander. In America the herb is called cilantro and the seeds are referred to as coriander seeds, in the UK it is both the herb and spice that is called coriander.
Tips For Growing Spices At Home
- We love to group our spices together, so ones which enjoy full sunshine and love a good watering will grow together. Or even ones that we harvest the roots or rhizomes from. A great example of that would be ginger and turmeric. Both are from the Zingiberaceae family and love tropical conditions. So we can harvest them at the same time without disrupting growth. Perhaps we would put them in a large plot with horseradish to the rear, to be shaded in part by the taller leaves of the turmeric.
- The one thing we would avoid is planting herbs with edible leaves in the same area as spices which we cannot safely eat the leaves. This is as much about encouraging our young people to get involved with gardening and healthy eating as it is to do with toxicity.
- Always grow what you love to eat, the same is true for growing your own spices and herbs. We have had some gorgeous plants that have been harvested as gifts for others though, so there is a way around it.
- Be very aware of the intensity of flavor from freshly harvested spices and herbs alike. This is very different from the flavors you can often find in supermarkets. So a little goes a long way!
- Spend some time to research the native areas that your herbs and spices would grow, then think if are able to recreate them. If not you may get a version of the spice which is fine for foliage but not so much for full flavor. I doubt I will ever live to see my cardamom plant flower in the UK, but i love the foliage and the vibrancy of the leaves, so will content myself with this for now.
- If you intend to use your spices to make essential oils, have a think about how many plants you will realistically need to make this a worthwhile endeavor.
- My final tip is to not underestimate the strength of each of your spices. Although you should be aware that herbs and spices are ultimately super healthy, there are warnings for certain medical conditions. So if in any doubt do consult a medical professional! This is so important and even simple things like a pumpkin spiced latte may have so many allergic reactions that may need an ambulance, so just go carefully.
What Next & Further Reading
- Fenugreek Seed And Fennel Seed – Differences and Replacements
- Fennel Seeds Vs Cumin Seeds Important Differences
- Grow Your Own Curry Spices In The UK