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How to Get the Most of Spices and Herbs when Cooking

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As you have probably heard it many times before on a number of cooking shows, timing is everything when it comes to cooking. However, the same applies to spices. The timing, i.e. when you add the spices is crucial to the flavor and taste you are going to achieve. For example, when you add cayenne to the simmering spaghetti sauce at the correct moment you increase the potency of the spice. But if you don’t apply it at the ideal moment, you can actually lose from the flavor and worsen the taste of the food. Most of the time, the latter occurs when cooking with herbs which have been cooked for a longer time period which leads to diminishing the effects of the spices.

How Spices are affected by Cooking

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Most of the time people use baking spices adding them at the very beginning of the baking process. These spices include anise, cardamom, allspice, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, mint, cloves and mace. All of these spices can keep their taste and flavor for both short cooking times and long ones, regardless of what you are baking – be it a whole cake or a batch of smaller cookies. Most of them also do a good job when used in sauces which require simmering, apart from nutmeg which is most commonly used after the cooked product has already been served. Some spices tend to become bitter when cooked for a long time, like caraway. Others turn bitter when burned, such as turmeric.

How are Herbs Different

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Unlike conventional spices, herbs are more susceptible to cooking. They require a lot less cooking time, as their effects diminish when cooked for prolonged periods, thereby making them obsolete to the overall taste of the cooked food. Herbs most commonly used for cooking include: chives, chervil, basil, coriander, dill, cilantro, lemon grass, sage, tarragon, parsley and marjoram. Some of these, marjoram in particular, requires no cooking at all, but is merely sprinkled over a served soup dish.
As usual, there are always exceptions to the rules. Namely, the hardy bay leaf, unlike the rest of the herbs, can withstand longer cooking times and still be able to keep the flavor and enrich the food taste. Oregano and thyme can also be added at the beginning, provided it doesn’t last longer than an hour. Furthermore, not all herbs react the same when cooked at different cooking temperatures. So it is more of a combination of cooking time and cooking temperature.

For example, onions can keep their flavor when cooked for a longer period provided the cooking temperature is low. However, it is still recommended that you add them towards the end of the cooking. Garlic, on the other hand, reacts really badly when submitted to longer cooking.

Other herbs which work their magic best when added towards the end of the cooking process are peppercorns and hot peppers, since they increase their potency as they cook. Chili powder and Szechuan peppers have the same effect. The exception to this is the paprika, which can be added at the beginning without any risks of losing its flavor. Mustards do not react well to boiling.

Last but not least, there are herbs that best compliment the flavor without cooking at all, especially when added to salads. Green salad ingredients can absorb the flavor of the herbs easily making the overall taste much better.