The differences between herbs and spices

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Although most herbs originated from the Mediterranean area, they have been easily transported and naturalized throughout the world.

They are small, simple-to-manage plants that — despite originating from a warm climate — are hardy and able to withstand much colder regions. As a result, we have easy access all year to most herbs, even if we have to bring some inside to a sunny windowsill during our very cold winters or wait until spring when they re-emerge in our garden.

Spices, on the other hand, come from hot, tropical climates and were never as readily available as herbs. Wars were fought because of spices, and trade routes to them were kept secret.

Demand was greater than the supply, and fortunes were won and lost trying to find and secure them.

Although now an everyday commodity, spices once were considered very exotic and only for the very rich, who flaunted their wealth by setting their table with expensive food flavored with these very costly spices. Humbler herbs, on the other hand, were snipped just outside the kitchen door and easily added to any dish.

Herbs and spices have flavored our food for thousands of years.

Although we tend to use the words interchangeably, the difference is that herbs are typically the foliage of a plant — basil, rosemary, mint — used either fresh or dry, while spices are mainly the dried fruits of a plant.

Spices can be the product of a variety of plant parts, including flower buds, such as cloves; bark, such as cinnamon; seeds, such as poppy; and roots, such as ginger.

Herbs and spices are best fresh, as even under the best of storage conditions dried products will lose their color, taste and aroma.

The shelf life of each herb or spice is different and will vary according to the form or plant part.

Those that have been cut or powdered have more surface area exposed to oxygen, and therefore lose their flavor more rapidly than whole herbs or spices. For whole spices and herbs from leaves or flowers, the shelf life is a year, while for seeds, barks and roots it is more than two years.

For ground spices and herbs, the shelf life is much shorter, with leaves, seeds and barks lasting just six months. Roots can last a year. Storage should be away from heat, bright light and moisture — such as steam — with a cool, dry place being best. Keep spice racks away from ovens, stove tops, dishwashers and refrigerators.

Winter probably puts us more in mind of spices — cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, paprika, cumin, cayenne — but herbs and spices come to mind as the thermometer drops and hearty dishes such as soups, stews and roasts start to burble and bake in the kitchen.

Jane McLeod is a master gardener through Routt County’s CSU Cooperative Extension Office. Call 879-0825 with questions.

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