To each his own

Recently I was involved in a discussion regarding the difference between herbs and spices - in my mind, spices are seeds and herbs are leaves – but what about other plant parts and even dried vegetables like onion and garlic powder? And how does one categorize saffron, zest, bark, extracts? (Using my definition, bay leaves would be herbs, but I’ve always considered them to be spices). My favorite procurement palace, The Spice House, groups them all together as “spices” but does have an “herb” category that includes all the typical leafy things as well as lavender (but not saffron or bay leaves which are listed as spices).

I decided to do what I love to do and research it. As with previous entries, the more I dug into the topic, the more questions I had.

First, the similarities. Spices and herbs are all inarguably parts of plants. Both are used widely in all styles of cuisine to add or enhance different flavor elements. In a typical grocery store, less the fresh items, all mingle together on the same shelves with salt, food coloring, gravy packs and chili seasoning.

A few differences. The shelf life of dried herbs seems to be in the neighborhood of six months maximum. A note - my reading states herbs generally should have some flexibility (not powder when crumbled), color (usually green), and an evident scent. Whole spices last much longer and can be kept for a year or two or more (ground = 6 months). Most herbs are relatively inexpensive while quality spices can sometimes almost break the bank.  Spices come in a range of beautiful colors and herbs are more often than not shades of green. 

I asked my good friend Merriam Webster to straighten it all out for me and didn’t find much help there either.

Spice- (noun) any of various aromatic vegetable products (as pepper or nutmeg) used to season or flavor foods

Herb- (noun) a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities.

And, just to further confuse the issue:  Spice- (verb) to season with spices

Not satisfied, I grabbed my always faithful Cook’s Illustrated annuals to get their take on the matter. While they did not clearly distinguishing between the two either, herbs seem to be those used primarily fresh (or in a dried form) and spices are seeds separated between savory or sweet applications. (Interestingly enough, CI included crystallized ginger with the “baking” spices). Julia Child, who focuses on French cooking, defines herbs as the following: parsley, thyme, bay leaves, tarragon, chives, chervil, basil, fennel (as in the plant, not the seeds), oregano, sage and saffron. Basically, she agrees that herbs are leaves and plant parts and spices (such as allspice) are seeds.

Cookbook after cookbook, article after article - even the McCormick website lists them ALL as spices - oh, and every expert has their own opinion - but all seemed to come to the same conclusion. There is no single, all-encompassing conclusion. Apparently there are clear cut spices and clear cut herbs and a huge gray area in between. So, I guess I’ll call my seeds spices and my leaves herbs but truly, these categories - I've concluded - are ultimately best left to the opinion of the cooker.

While researching the topic for which I found no real answer, I did stumble across this very cool herb and spice guide. Check it out: 

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