These leaves of plants and shrubs with nonwoody stems can be found in abundance, either potted, cut, or dried. Keep the most commonly used herbs on hand for cooking, such as basil, bay leaves, dried dill weed, oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme.
How to Purchase
Choose fragrant herbs that have a bright color and fresh-looking leaves that are free of brown spots. Fresh herbs are highly perishable so buy only what you will need. Many are available year-round at the supermarket or, better yet, grow them in your garden or in a pot on the windowsill. When buying dried herbs, select small containers so you can use them up within a year.
For short-term storage, cut a 1/2 inch from the stems. Stand the herbs upright in a small jar with some water. Cover the leaves loosely with a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Change the water every 2 days. Discard wilted leaves as they appear. Do not refrigerate basil because it may blacken.
If too many days have passed since you purchased your fresh herbs and they look a little droopy, revitalize them by soaking the sprigs in a bowl of ice water for a few minutes. When done, thoroughly drain the water from the bowl, wrap the herbs in paper towels, and place them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. They should stay fresh for up to a few hours.
If your recipe specifies using fresh herb, but it's not practical to buy a bunch when only a teaspoon is needed, substitute dried instead. To do so, use about one-third of the amount the recipe calls for. When you're substituting ground herbs for dried leaf herbs, use about half the amount.
When using fresh herbs, finely snip the leaves beforehand. Before using dried herbs, crush them with a mortar and pestle to release their aromatic oils and provide the maximum flavor to your finished dish. If you don't own a mortar and pestle, use a small bowl and the back of a spoon instead.
Or if you prefer, rub the herbs between your thumb and two fingers.
Spices come from the seeds, bark, roots, fruit, or stems of a variety of plants and trees. They are used to enhance both sweet and savory dishes. Some cooks prefer their spices whole rather than crushed or ground for a more intense flavor. Stock some of the most popular, such as chili powder, ground cinnamon, ground cloves, cream of tartar, cumin, garlic powder, ground and fresh ginger, dry mustard, nutmeg, onion powder, paprika, black and cayenne pepper, and salt. Spice blends, such as Mexican seasoning, Italian seasoning, and five-spice powder, are also available.
You can judge the freshness of the spice by the color and aroma. When fresh, most spices have a bright, rich color and a strong aroma. Always purchase in small quantities to ensure that you are using fresh spices. Replace old spices once a year.
How to Store
Keep your spices tightly covered and store them in a cool, dry place. Whole spices stay fresh for up to 2 years while ground spices have a 6-month shelf life. Store red spices, such as paprika and red pepper, in the refrigerator. They will hold their color and keep their flavor longer.