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Is It an Herb? Or A Spice?

Ok….we often use these terms interchangeably, but have you ever lain awake all night, wondering what the difference is?

Essentially what makes the difference is what the source is. “Herb” generally refer to a plant’s leaves, while spices come from other parts of the plant, such as needs, bark, roots, stalk, or dried fruit.

They may also come from different geographic locations. Spices usually come from warm places, such as the Meditterrean region or southern Asia. Herbs come from all over the globe.

The third consideration is how they are generally used. Herbs are subtler than spices, which tend to be more pungent. Spices will tolerate cooking better, while herbs are usually added towards the end of cooking because they cannot tolerate cooking temperatures.

Fourth difference? Herbs are used dried or fresh, while spices are used dried.

And one last note-some spices may help preserve food as well as providing flavoring.

When using herbs or spices, you can frequently interchange a product within their category, but you cannot usually alternate herbs for spices, or vice versa.

Want to confuse things even more? Lovage is a spice (the seed), or an herb (the leaves); and to make things more interesting…Lovage root is used as a vegetable. Coriander seeds can be used dried or fresh, which makes them cross the herb/spice barrier. And, coriander seeds and cilantro (leaves) come from the same plant.

Other non-conformists? Pepper (as in salt and pepper) is not a pepper; it is actually the fruit of an Indian vine native to south America.

Bark is not a leaf, seeds, or fruit. But cinnamon is a bark. Ginger is a rhizome, garlic a bulb.

Saffron (the most valuable spice) is the dried stigma of a crocus, and cloves, which look like seeds, are dried flower buds.

But not all flowers are spices. Nasturtiums and it’s brightly colored flowers are considered to be herbs.

So this is the cooking realm; scientifically, an herb is “a seed producing plant” that dies at the end of its

growing season, and can be an annual, biennial, perennial, but does not have woody tissues that would make them a bush or tree”. Doesn’t the world get complicated sometimes?

For practical purposes…herbs are more delicate when cooked and do not tolerate cooking as well as spices; with some exemptions (such as oregano) and spices have a stronger taste and smell, which means you use less when cooking.

Common examples of herbs are Chives, Mint, Rosemary, Parsley, Oregano, and Sage


  • Cinnamon (bark)

  • Ginger (Root or Rhizome)

  • Cloves (flower bud)

  • Saffron (the reproductive female part of the saffron crocus)

  • Nutmeg (seed)

  • Vanilla (the undeveloped fruit of an orchid)

  • Cumin (seed)

Outside of the culinary world, spices are often used in rituals cosmetics, and the perfume industry. (Let’s face it. Most of us might never consider using Rosemary to attract a suiter).

Spices in foods have several purposes. They can of course be used as seasoning, and some can reduce nausea and vomiting, stimulate secretion of saliva, possibly help protect against colds and flu, and may help with food preservation

The banana tree is scientifically an herb (despite the fact that it grows up to 20 feet) because it produces a single crop of bananas and then dies off; cultivated bananas are cut down. But the waters get more muddied…. Turmeric, cardamom, and cumin, come from botanic herbs, even though we call them spices.

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