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Using herbs and spices

What are herbs and spices?

Spices are the buds, bark, roots, berries and aromatic seeds that are harvested for use in flavouring cooking. Herbs are the fragrant leaves of plants. Even the tiny filaments of saffron are referred to as a spice. (Saffron is the stigma which is hand plucked from a small mauve crocus native to Kashmir - hence its expense.)

Typical examples of spices are organic cloves (buds), organic cinnamon (bark), organic turmeric (root), organic peppercorns (berries), organic vanilla (the bean from a tropical orchid vine) and organic cumin, organic coriander, organic dill and organic fennel (seeds).

Where do spices come from?

Most spices are grown in the tropical regions of the world, with some thriving in the cool misty highlands. Many of the seed spices come from more temperate areas, such as coriander seed, which is grown in Northern India, Africa and Eastern Europe.

How are spices harvested?

The majority of spices are still harvested in the way they have been for centuries, by hand! Most of the developments in the spice industry have been with respect to growing and post-harvest treatment such as grading and cleaning.

What gives spices their flavour?

Through spices, nature provides an incredible variety of colours, textures, aromas and flavours that add interest and depth to our meals. The many and varied flavours in spices are held in the volatile oils that naturally occur in spices. Some of these flavours are apparent in the fresh spice, for example in ginger. Other spices either change or only develop their true flavour on drying. One dramatic example is organic Fairtrade vanilla, a green tasteless bean that grows on a tropical climbing orchid. It is only after drying and curing that the enzyme reactions which take place actually form the vanilla flavour. In a similar manner, when peppercorns are picked green, the enzyme reaction that occurs upon drying turns them black and creates the pepper flavour we all know so well.

What is the best way to store spices?

Because the flavours in spices and culinary herbs are held in the volatile oils, it is essential that they are stored in the correct way so that the flavours do not escape. Firstly, they must be packaged in high-barrier, good quality materials. This applies to all herbs and spices whether whole or ground, however the quality of the package is most critical for ground spices as the grinding process has begun the release of flavour - that is why ground spices are often more convenient to use.

Herbs and spices packaged in thin plastic bags, cellophane packs or cardboard canisters are all allowing the volatile oils and therefore the flavour to escape.

Herbs have a milder flavour than spices. Some herbs like organic bay, organic lavender, organic marjoram and organic rosemary are better in our opinion when dry. Others are better used when fresh, such as chives, parsley and basil, and if you can grow these yourself, buy them fresh or use freeze-dried products.

Storage tips

When your organic herbs & spices arrive, you should store them in airtight containers, out of the light and away from heat. Once you have received your organic herbs & spices we recommend an optimal shelf life of 18 months.  If the age of your material exceeds this, we recommend re-purchasing your organic herbs and spices.  Steenbergs Organic's herbs & spices have been packed especially for you in attractive glass jars with a high quality metal cap to keep the flavour in, or in a traditional metal spice container.  Organic ground spices lose their flavour quicker than whole organic spices.  Organic herbs and spices will fade in bright light, especially sunlight.

If you want to display your collections in a spice rack, mount it in an area which is away from direct heat or sunlight. Delicate herbs, eg organic parsley, are particularly sensitive, and should be kept in a cupboard for the best colour retention.  Steenbergs Organic's products have been dehydrated, so your must never use a wet spoon to measure out your spices; were you to do so, the moisture will affect the quality of the spices & herbs that it touches and could cause lumps to form. If the weather is extra hot and humid, it might even cause mould. The herbs and spices you add to a meal constitute a minute proportion of the total cost, so it really is worth always using the best quality available.

How should spices be used?

Often and with enjoyment! When you have a basic understanding of the various spice flavours and how they complement different foods, you can use your own creativity and taste instincts to experiment with a whole range of combinations. There are also some simple application methods which, depending on your level of confidence and how busy you are, make the daily use of spices rewarding and satisfying.

What are the main spice flavours?

Spices can be grouped into five basic categories, being sweet, pungent, tangy, hot, and amalgamating. The way we use these and the amounts we put into cooking are governed by these characteristics. Examples of the different types of spices are:

Sweet: cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, vanilla Pungent: cloves, star anise, cardamom;

Tangy: ginger, tamarind, sumac

Hot: pepper, chile, mustard, horseradish

Amalgamating: coriander seed, fennel seed

Most herbs (such as thyme, sage, marjoram, oregano, bay leaves, mint and rosemary) are savoury. While herbs do have varying degrees of flavour intensity, this is not as dramatic as with spices.

How do I confidently use these spices?

Start by using a recipe that sets out the specific quantities of each spice, smell it as you add it and be conscious of the contribution it is making to the recipe. When you eat the meal, think of the spices you added and see if you can recognise them in the final taste. You will be surprised at how quickly your awareness of the spices used will develop. Alternatively, you can experiment by adding spices to familiar dishes. This is especially handy for the busy person who has a host of favourites and wants to create many variations on a familiar theme. When doing this, think of the flavour you would like to achieve and then use spices from one or more of the five basic categories to create your own taste sensation!

Some examples of spicing familiar dishes

Say you want to give 4 lamb chops a Moroccan flavour. Start with small amount of a pungent spice that is characteristic of Moroccan cuisine, a teaspoon of organic ground cumin seed. To this, add a little tangy spice to tantalize the taste buds, a teaspoon of ground ginger. Next we want a little heat, but not everyone likes hot food, so add ¼ teaspoon of mild organic chilli powder. Now, to make these spices all work well together and to balance the mix, add 4 teaspoons of organic ground coriander. Mix well and add a pinch of salt if desired. Rub the mix generously onto the lamb chops, squeeze over a little lemon juice to moisten the coating and allow to dry marinade in the fridge for ½ an hour. Grill, barbecue or pan fry in a little oil. Squeeze a little more lemon on just before serving with rice and lightly spiced vegetables.

So how would you spice the vegetables?

Because the flavours of vegetables are less robust than meats, avoid the pungent and hot spices, and go with sweet and tangy spices. Roast carrots with cardamom or add ½ teaspoon of organic spearmint to peas and serve with this delicious saffron rice.  To make saffron rice: put 8 organic saffron strands into a mug and pour over boiling water; leave to steep for 8 minutes.   Add one cup of rice to a pan, then strain over this the organic saffron tea.  Add the following extra organic spices to the rice: 2 organic green cardamom pods, 4 organic Fairtrade cloves, ½ teaspoon of organic whole cumin seeds and 2cm of organic cinnamon quill.  Cover the rice with water and cook until soft.



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