Comparing Herbs and Spices (5 Differences, 3 Similarities)

Differences and Similarities Between Herbs and Spices
Differences and Similarities Between Herbs and Spices

People seem to confuse spices and herbs quite often, but they are two distinctly different plant products! Although some people use them interchangeably, you can actually easily tell herbs and spices apart by keeping a few things in mind. Knowing these can be especially helpful when you are looking for a specific flavor to add to the dish you’re cooking.

In general, herbs and spices come from different parts of a plant. Herbs are fresh or dried leafy parts while spices are dried seeds, roots, bark, and flower parts. Also, spices have a stronger and sharper flavor, making them not only great for seasoning but also for preserving. Spices are often from tropical locations and last way longer.

Let’s try to understand such differences and how these affect their use in the kitchen. Are you growing herbs or spices at home? Well, let’ see

The 5 Differences Between a Herb and a Spice

There are only five differences between herbs and spices that only experts know. Ready for such insights?

1. Where are They Sourced From? Plant Part

Herbs and spices come from different plants. Leafy parts of plants are used to make both fresh and dried herbs. Meanwhile, most other plant parts including, but not limited to, fruits, flowers, barks, and seeds are used to produce different spices.

Herbs come from the leaves of non-woody or herbaceous plants. Great examples are the green foliage of Basil, Parsley, Rosemary, Thyme, and Oregano. Also, the word herb is used for the entire plant (and nothing wrong with that).

Spices are produced from the roots, flowers, fruits, seeds, or bark of a plant. Pepper is one of the most common spices with cinnamon bark, ginger root, and cumin seeds. Vanilla? Well, it is a spice coming from the not fully developed fruit of a specific orchid (yes orchids have fruit), as mentioned in this study.

In general, spices and herbs come from different plants except for a few exceptions. One of the exceptions is the plant called Coriandrum sativum. This plant can be used to produce a herb from its leaves (called cilantro) and a spice from the rest of it (called coriander).

2. Where Do They Come From? Climate, Place of Origin

Plants used as herbs are commonly found in the Mediterranean region where it is temperate. In comparison, plants grown for spices are native to more tropical and subtropical regions.

Herbs and spices come from different plants that (for the majority) also grow in different environments. The temperature is indeed a key factor.

Herbs are mostly native to areas with temperate climates. Think about all the Mediterranean herbs (from Italy, France), as stated by the Iowa State University. This is also a reason why cuisines from these areas use parsley, sage, and rosemary extensively.

Spices are native to the warmer areas of the planet. Think about India, South East Asia, and South America. Therefore it is understandable that these regions are known for their ‘spicy’ foods.

3. What Do They Taste Like? Overall Flavor Profile

Herbs have a notably milder flavor profile than spices and can be used in generous amounts. In comparison, spices have a very distinct, piquant, and strong flavor profile even when used in little amounts.

For example, the famous pesto is largely done with basil with the addition of nuts, oil, salt, and pepper. The best garnish for pasta, especially when you do your own.

Spices, on the other hand, have a much stronger and sometimes more pungent flavor, as you might have experienced in your kitchen. Use them in moderation, and with specific measures and ratios for best effect. If you have ever had a meal with too much pepper, you understand the art of balance when it comes to spices!

4. How are They Used? Common Applications

Herbs and spices are commonly used as flavoring agents for various food. But spices are also used for other more food-related applications such as food coloration and preservation. Whereas herbs are added to dishes for garnishing.

1. Spices for Coloring

Spices can also be used for food coloring. Think about the famous Italian “risotto alla Milanese.” The yellow color comes from saffron. Check the most renowned chef recipe here.

Risotto allo zafferano di Carlo Cracco

In the worldwide famous Spanish dish called “paella“, its bright yellow color comes from saffron and (depending on the recipe variation) from the spice called turmeric.

Have you ever tried an orange-red chicken with a fantastic taste? Well, it probably got its color and name from paprika.

2. Spices for Preservation

The abilities of spices have been known for centuries, with civilizations using cinnamon, cloves, mustard, allspice, nutmeg, and pepper to delay the rot of fruits, vegetables, and meats.

As this study from the University of Vienna states, spices are able to delay the spoilage of food, keeping your food fresh for longer.

Spices can affect both food spoilage microorganisms (food preservation) and human pathogens (food safety) due to the antimicrobial and antifungal activity of their natural constituents.

University of Vienna

However, some people do use herbs when preserving food too. It’s just that spices are used more frequently.

5. How Long Do They Last? Shelf Life

Spices are very likely to last way longer than herbs. Even in cases where both herbs and spices are in dried form, herbs generally tend to only last two years whereas spices can last for up to four years and even longer.

While herbs may be dried, they still have a higher moisture content. Water implies a quicker degradation. Many of the preservation qualities of spices help keep them usable for much longer in your kitchen.

List of 13 Commonly Used Spices

The most common spices are:

  1. Cumin
  2. Coriander
  3. Cinnamon
  4. Nutmeg
  5. Clove
  6. Ginger
  7. Vanilla
  8. Cumin
  9. Turmeric
  10. Cloves
  11. Saffron
  12. Mace
  13. Dill

List of 12 Commonly Used Herbs Mistaken as Spices

Common Herbs Confused as Spices
Common Herbs Confused as Spices

Among the most common herbs confused as spices are

  1. Basil
  2. Rosemary
  3. Lavender
  4. Thyme
  5. Sage
  6. Chives
  7. Mint
  8. Parsley
  9. Oregano
  10. Cilantro
  11. Marjoram
  12. Bay

The 3 Similarities Between a Herb and a Spice

There are four critical similarities between herbs and spices.

1. Used for Food Flavoring

First, they are both used for adding flavor to food. The interesting point is that when they are used together, they are known as ‘seasoning.’ My favorite seasoning (Italian, myself) is made with the herbs of parsley, basil, rosemary, oregano, pepper (spices), and some garlic.

On the other hand, the famous Mexican taco seasoning is made from the herbs of sage and oregano, and the spices of cumin, chili, and paprika.

Fancy some tacos? You can create a good seasoning for it at home!

How To Make Taco Seasoning

2. Dried Before Use

Second, herbs and spices can be dried to extend their useful life. This is quite a common solution when you have lots of fresh herbs harvested from your indoor garden that you do not want to waste.

Interested? Here is our guide to basil preservation.

3. Have Medical Benefits

Third, herbs and spices have medicinal and therapeutic properties. For example, many of the spices coming from seeds, such as black pepper, are known for their gastroprotective properties, as discussed in this study.

  • Cloves can help in relieving toothache pains.
  • Ginger can reduce inflammation and pain, as mentioned in this study.
  • Basil has the potential benefit of relieving stress and helps in facing respiratory, gastrointestinal, and kidney problems, as discussed in this study.
  • Lavender is known to help with relaxation, and Marigold is a well-known skin remedy.
  • Rosemary is also mentioned in the herb world for its antioxidants and digestive properties (here for more).

The list goes on and on!

Is It an Herb or a Spice? Check The Table!

Here is a list of herbs and spices that you may like to experiment with.

Leafy HerbsSpices – Plant Part
ThymeCinnamon – Bark
SageGinger – Root
OreganoCloves – Flower Bud
ParsleySaffron – Stigma
MarjoramNutmeg – Seed
BasilVanilla – Fruit
ChivesCumin – Seed
RosemaryTurmeric – Root
MintMace – Seed
BayDill – Seed
Herbs vs Spices

Note that mace is also a spice derived from the outer layer of the nutmeg seed. This edible part of the plant is well known for having a higher concentration of essential oils. This gives mace a more intense yet refined flavor than nutmeg. Also, the lower amount produced per nutmeg plant justifies its higher price.

Defining Herbs, Spices, Condiments, and Seasonings

Look, I sometimes get confused between seasonings and condiments. That’s why I dug into it, checking with some expert gardeners and reading a few chef expert opinions.

What is a Condiment?

Any herb, spice, or mix of either, is used after the meal has been prepared, it is called a condiment.

If not, you can just call it herb, spice, or seasoning. Let’s consider my favorite herb, basil, for instance. If its leaves are used in preparing a dish (pesto, for example), then it is a herb. However, if its leaves are sprinkled on the top (pizza, for instance) to add an extra flavor, then it becomes a condiment.

Condiments are also commonly a mix of several different ingredients (usually including some herbs or spices) to form a sauce, chutney, mustard, or ketchup. For example, mustard usually includes turmeric, and mint is used to make a sauce to accompany roasted lamb or peas.

What is a Seasoning?

Seasonings are a combination of herbs and spices. These are added before preparation to enhance the flavor during cooking.

For example, think about rosemary or thyme added to a stake or Mei Yen, which is used to season vegetables before cooking in oriental recipes.

List of 9 Ingredients Mistaken as Spices

Talking with some of my friends, I realized that avocado and garlic for them were herbs! Well, although a bit strange many get confused with some of them. So let’s check them out.

Ingredient

Why It is Not a Spice

Curry

Curry is actually a blend of spices, including cumin, chili, and turmeric powders. There is a plant called ‘Curry,’ but this is actually a herb, and while it has a spicy fragrance, it is too bitter to eat.

Salt

Salt is a mineral extracted either from the sea or mined from deposits left from ancient long-dry seas.

Flour

Flour is made from uncooked ground cereals and has no flavor on its own

Adobo

Adobo is a seasoning, a paste made from herbs and spices to marinate meat, chicken, or fish.

Chocolate

While chocolate begins with grinding the seeds of the cocoa tree, other ingredients such as cocoa butter, sugar, and milk are added to make the final chocolate product.

Mustard

While the mustard seed is a spice used in cooking, the sauce or paste known as mustard is a combination of ingredients and is therefore classified as a condiment.

Kaffir Lime Leaves

Because they are leaves, they are classified as a herb and not a spice.

Garlic

Garlic grows underground as a bulb, and therefore is a vegetable rather than a spice.

Aloe Vera

Aloe Vera is a perennial herb.

List of Common Ingredients Confused as Spices

Herb and Spice When You Want to Stay on Budget

Some herbs and spices are extremely expensive. Take, for example, saffron, mace, and vanilla pods. They are tasty, no doubt, however, they can get pricey, especially for the top quality (as this great saffron on Amazon).

How To Make Spanish Paella | Omar Allibhoy

However, I have some good news for you!

There are many other herbs and spices you can use, which are extremely effective and very budget-friendly. Here are some of the staples:

  • Rosemary, oregano, and basil: These are ideal for Mediterranean dishes and great stake. You do not want to buy them? Grow them at home!
Steak Cast Iron Skillet Butter-Basted with Garlic Rosemary (Perfectly Cooked Steak) - Gordon Ramsay
  • Black pepper: A bag of peppercorns and a grinder will set you up with a bit of heat and both a spice and condiment for months. I prefer the whole peppercorn to grind on the spot rather than the already powdery one as tastier, in my opinion.
  • Cumin, coriander, turmeric, chili powder, pepper, and garam masala: These are the way to go If you enjoy Indian dishes. These can be cheaply purchased from supermarkets or even more economically from bulk retailers. The curry mix can also be used with Middle Eastern and Spanish dishes by replacing the Garam Masala with Paprika;
mix veg recipe | mix vegetable recipe | मिक्स वेज सब्जी | mixed vegetable curry | mix veg curry
  • Cinnamon: This should always be on hand as it is great for baking projects and mixing with sugar to sprinkle on crepes, pancakes, and french toast.

Herbs: Dry or Fresh?

I am quite passionate about growing herbs indoors. I found just fantastic the idea that a small pot on your windowsill can provide you with some fresh leaves for your bruschetta or your favorite Italian dish.

However, fresh herbs require care and attention. Dry herbs sound like a very good alternative. Massive shelf life, convenience packaging, and very flavor intense. However, you might compromise on vitamins. Do you also know that dry herb does not taste like fresh, especially basil? For more, check the article below about the differences between fresh and dry herbs!

Fresh Herbs vs Dried Herbs
Fresh Herbs vs Dried Herbs

Further Questions

What are the tips for cooking with herbs? The most important hack when cooking with herbs is that woody herbs (like thyme and rosemary) generally withstand heat way better than non-woody ones such as basil and cilantro. So woody herbs can be on a frying pan with a steak for 10 minutes while basil or cilantro are often added at the very end of the dish; otherwise, they might lose flavor or wilt.

Can one plant produce both an herb and spice? Yes, a single plant can produce both herbs and spices. For example, the fresh and/or dried leaves of Chinese parsley (Coriandrum sativum) are herbs commonly referred to as cilantro. Then, the dried seeds of the same plant are commonly used as a culinary spice called coriander. Due to this, cilantro is also known as coriander leaves.

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