To a large extent which herbs and spices do not go together is down to individual taste. Learning the flavor profile of each herb and spice can help to pair your ingredients better.
By categorizing the flavor profiles of herbs and spices it is easier to understand how they may match one another, or more importantly how they may compete and overpower other flavors. You do not want to waste delicate flavors of saffron by pairing with fresh ginger, for example.
There is more to these ingredients than mere ‘spice’.
Flavor Profiles For Herbs & Spices
Many herbs and spices will not fit neatly into one category. Instead they will have multiple layers of flavor that will be changed as we cook them in different manners. Plants like fennel can produce seeds, leaves and bulbs for cooking all of which may have an anise flavor but the seeds include bitterness, the leaves sweetness and the bulb an herbaceous tone.
- Allium / Sulfur We et hit more by the aroma than the flavor with this characteristic. Not always present with herbs and spices due to the cooking process but in general you can say chives, garlic and onions. For example sliced garlic cloves will present with this aroma, but roasted it will be much sweeter.
- Bitter / Sour A bitter flavor is often used by a plant to discourage animals from eating it. This natural defense can make the raw plant unpalatable, but of course we can cook with it and combine it to create new taste profiles. The bitterness of say rosemary can be useful in lifting the flavors from other elements in a dish too.
- Cooling / Refreshing This palate cleansing effect is great in herbal teas or deserts but can also be used to lift heavier dishes like dark or fatty meats. Cutting through the rich flavor of lamb and mint sauce made with vinegar can lift the other flavors.
- Earthy / Muskiness This can sound a bit off putting but the heavy musk of some herbs and spices can be a real treat and help to give depth of flavor. Often combined with other flavor profiles like heat this can add an aspect of intensity to a meal. Think about cumin seeds toasting with sliced onions, this can make us feel very reminiscent of homecooked family meals.
- Floral Strangely floral notes go very well in savory dishes and there are ways to combine it with the fruity citrus notes to add a real zest towards the end of cooking. Fresh leaf herbs or even gentle saffron simmering can be soft notes. These can go well together with heavier flavors, but only when cooked towards the end so as not to get lost.
- Fruity / Citrusy There are many berries or herbs that carry a lighter note of fruitiness and zing. Great to add a totally different aspect to cooking and when added towards the end of cooking it can really lift a dish. Think about fresh cilantro leaves chopped over a deep, richly spiced curry. That zing will bring all the flavors together.
- Herbal / Herbaceous We often hear this term used to describe a dish and really it can be frustrating as the logical approach is that all herbs must taste herbal. But it is that pungency with your more Mediterranean herbs that we are thinking of here. Herbs like rosemary, thyme, oregano where you smell the aroma before you taste the herbaceous flavors.
- Hot / Warm These are the herbs and spices to make a tear form in our eyes. I also sometimes get that heat under my eyes to go with it and turn red! It is important to remember though that one persons warmth will be another’s hot. There is also an element of burn which in horseradish comes from the isothiocyanate (also known as mustard oil) and it can make us feel as if our sinuses have been cleared out. Not unpleasant on it’s own, but would it go well together with a lighter spice or herb with gentle floral notes? Whereas ginger has an element of heat, but it is tempered with a citrus note that means it pairs well with fruity herbs and spices like lemongrass.
- Nutty / Seedy This is a group which is very much self-explanatory and will mainly contain seeds and nuts of fruit as well as bark or dried leaves. Nutty flavors work well as the foundation of taste profiles and will marry well with heat or many of the other stronger flavors.
- Pine Herbs like rosemary are often confused with pine needles, but they do have pine notes. It is a freshness and a zing that builds a full flavor profile.
- Pungent Your strongest herbs and spies fall into this category. Often best used together as other flavors will be lost to the bully like qualities of these overpowering aromas and tastes. Spices like Star anise, Mustard, Horseradish, Ginger, Garlic.
- Salty When special dietary requirements call for a reduction in salt intake, celery seeds or lovage can make a good salty addition to your cooking. Used in stews or casseroles to enhance flavor.
- Spicy This flavor group could go with the category of heat, but it is a little different. Paprika may be considered spicy, but not hot if you go for the sweet variety. There is a burst of flavor, then it is taken on by other tastes in a dish.
- Sweet This is one of our five main flavors that humans can detect and as such it can be found in many herbs and spices, think about the anise flavor in licorice root, fennel, star anise and even gently in dill.
- Woody Herbs like rosemary could be described as woody in flavor, or cinnamon as that is literally tree bark. I don’t want to say it is the taste of wood as such, more of an aroma that leads us to detect the woodiness more readily.
Herb & Spice Flavor Profiles
Sometimes when we cook with herbs and spices we can soften the flavors or intensify them depending on how we cook them. Below is the raw flavor profiles before we add any further ingredients.
|Herb / Spice||Flavor Profiles||Goes Well With||Does Not Go Together|
|Anise||Sweet, Spicy, Earthy, Herbaceous||Tarragon and Basil||Pungent herbs|
|Basil||Sweet, Fruity, Cool||Mint, Parsley, Tarragon, Chives||Horseradish, Cloves|
|Cardamom||Citrus, Sweet, Herbaceous, Floral||Cinnamon, Ginger, Nutmeg, cloves||Chives, Lavender|
|Cilantro||Citrus, cooling||Ginger, Chili and Hot flavors||Anise, Fennel, Dill|
|Cinnamon||Woody, Earthy, Pungent, Nutty||Nutmeg, Cloves, Cumin||Rosemary, Thyme|
|Chives||Allium, Sweet, Cooling||A wide range of dishes – warm, spicy, earthy, pungent||Overpowers floral flavors (unless using chive flowers)|
|Coriander Seed||Pungent, Earthy, Musky, Warm||Savory dishes & other pungent spices||Use in moderation or too musky for floral spices|
|Clove||Sweet, Warm, Bitter||Cinnamon Allspice, Cardamom||Sweet dishes due to the bitterness|
|Cumin||Warm, Earthy, Bitter, Sweet||Pungent spices and warm dishes||Not great in desserts|
|Dill||Sweet, Earthy, Herbaceous, Cooling, Citrus||Garlic and pungent herbs to relieve with citrus||It can get lost with too much cooking|
|Fennel||Sweet, Earthy, Licorice||Earthy Herbs In sweet or savory dishes||Can be too anise when mixed with other licorice flavors|
|Fenugreek||Sweet, Nutty, Earthy||Spicy, Earthy & Hot||In sweet dishes|
|Garlic||Allium, Sweet, Bitter, Pungent||Other pungent spices and herbs||Will overpower gentle herbs like dill|
|Ginger||Pungent, Sweet, Warm, Hot||Citrus or Hot flavors||Doesn’t go well with herbaceous or overly woody|
|Lavender||Floral, Sweet||In sweet dishes or with Mediterranean Herbs||Not great with pungent, hot or bitter spices|
|Lemongrass||Floral, Citrusy, Woody, Herbaceous||Lightens pungent and hot flavors||Competes with other citrus or floral|
|Lemon Verbena||Citrus, Woody, Herbaceous||Works with lighter flavors, warm spices||Nutty flavors seem to clash|
|Mint||Citrus, Cooling, Floral, Pungent||As a garnish to lighten dishes, sweet or savory||Doesn’t work with allium, bitter or hot spices|
|Mustard||Bitter, Allium, Pungent, Hot||Great with other pungent, bitter spices||Can be unpleasant with floral or citrus flavors|
|Nutmeg||Nutty, Warm||Other woody, nutty spices||Citrus and Cooling flavors|
|Oregano||Herbaceous, Pine, Sweet, Earthy, Woody||Other Mediterranean herbs, Alliums||Pungent herbs and spices|
|Parsley||Cooling, Refreshing, Citrus, Herbaceous||Great garnish to most dishes||Is lost if cooked with pungent spices|
|Rosemary||Pine, Herbaceous, Pungent, Earthy||Mediterranean Dishes, Alliums||Overly bitter spices can bring out a tang in rosemary that is unpleasant|
|Sage||Pungent, Earthy, Musky, Woody,||Mediterranean herbs, Bitter, Musky spices||Florals can clash with sage as can citrus|
|Sorrel||Bitter, Sour, Citrus, Herbaceous||Herbaceous, Musky, Earthy and Citrus||Other bitter or astringent herbs and pungent spices.|
|Saffron||Bitter||Warm, Salty, Spicy, Nutty||Saffron is a gentle flavor and will work with sweet or savory dishes|
|Tarragon||Bitter, Herbaceous, Earthy,||Herbaceous, Warm, Citrus||Tarragon will be lost with pungent spices and Hot spices|
|Thyme||Woody, Sweet, Pine||Other Mediterranean herbs, Citrus, Floral, Sweet, Woody||Thyme works well with spices, but not too pungent or hot|
|Turmeric||Woody, Earthy, Bitter||Hot, Warm, Pungent, Spicy and Sweet spices||Overly floral flavors seem to clash.|
It is important to remember that for some palates these combinations may work well. We derived these mismatches by polling around 4 thousand twitter cooks and gardener’s who grow for their kitchen table. You may well have a few to add, so please do comment and let us know any you really have found do not work well together.
Strong, Pungent Herbs & Spices That May Not Go Together
Our strongest flavors may overpower or alter the flavor of other more gentle herbs and spices. Equally you may wish to avoid combining too many pungent spices in one dish. Sometimes a light citrus note added as a garnish can actually bring out the big bold flavors and enhance them.
Bold, pungent herbs and spices include; ginger, star anise, garlic, horseradish, onions, chives, mustard seeds, fennel seeds, cloves, cardamom and cumin seeds. How we cook them can take away some of that edge and using them in moderation can also help overcome their bully boy reputation.
Garlic cloves roasted whole in the bulb will produce the sweetest allium flavor imaginable and when combined with Rosemary it can work well together, at this point I would not think to add it to ginger as they would not go together. But when frying garlic with sliced ginger the two compliment each other well.
Gentle, Delicate Herbs & Spices To Pair Together
This is not a straightforward answer. You may think that gentle flavors will always pair well together. A word of caution – herbs like lavender and cilantro just wouldn’t work for me as I have the soapy gene. This means that rather than picking out the zesty citrus notes of cilantro leaves I get nothing but soapiness. So when combined with lavender it would taste like a homemade spa.
Cooking lighter flavors early on in a dish will mean that the taste and aroma can be diminished. So adding them as a garnish towards the end of cooking will give that flourish a meal made need.
What Next & Further Reading
- Spices And Herbs What Are The Important Differences For anyone wishing to learn more about the subtle differences between the two categories, and how we cook with them.
- What herb goes with what food Learn how to pair herbs with certain foods for optimal family recipes!
- Herbs That Go Well With Pork & Recipe Ideas Some nice pairings used here in marinades, rubs and herb butter.
- Herbs That Go Well With Beef A few recipe ideas and inspiration for using fresh or dried herbs with beef.
Get combining herbs and spices at home. Start to smell and taste new combinations and see what works for your family. For me the pungent smell of nigella seeds and cumin frying with onions will always remind me of home cooking and something tasty for dinner.